Lily*, a driven, animated, and passionate 34 year-old designer, wants to be, do, and see everything that life has to offer. Whether she’s kicking with her friends, spending time with family or leading her design team, she’s 100% engaged. She’s driven when she has a goal and because she desires marriage and a family, she puts tons of energy into finding the right partner. To that end, she attends networking events, signs up for the latest apps, and frequently finds herself at parties when she’d rather be home. She dates two to three times each week and yet…
“To this day, whenever I go out with someone and I don’t feel the same connection that I had with Paul, I tell myself, ‘Oh, this might not be right’,” Lily laments shyly. “So, I cut it off and start over. He might be a nice guy, decent job, attentive and even works out, but he’s not Paul.”
In my journey to understand how successful single women who desire a life partner frequently come up short, I discovered that Lily was not alone. There seems to be an unknowable force that leads some women to seek that lost love that got away. Of course, many people have difficulty finding the right match when it comes to committing to a life partner. According to Pew Social Trends, “Among those who have never been married but say they may eventually like to wed, three-in-ten say the main reason they are not married is that they have not found someone who has what they are looking for in a spouse. “
Yet it is especially hard if what you are looking for in a partner is a mirror of a past relationship. And the operative word here is “past”. Though the relationship has ended, it sticks in your mind as
you replay events wistfully wishing for a different ending. What if….? And the longer that memory takes hold of your heart and mind, the more influential it becomes. But now, the memory only resembles the truth of that past relationship – over time you have watered it until it has grown into the perfect, rose-colored fantasy.
And while it is useful to learn from past relationships, it’s vital to be able to let go. According to relationship expert Lauren Howe of Stanford University, “After a breakup, it can be healthy for people to reflect on what they’ve learned from the past relationship and what they want to improve in the next one. A healthy behavior can become an unhealthy one, though, when people take it too far and begin to question their own basic worth.“ This can be deadly and paralyzing as you find yourself ruminating over the ending and you begin to define yourself as a hurt person who is unworthy.
It’s important to remember that the relationship ended for a reason. And while you can spend all your time speculating over the “real reason” the relationship ended, it’s beside the point; the relationship was just not in the cards. Presumably, you do not resemble the person you were way back then – you have had new experiences, have discovered more about the world and yourself, and possess different needs and desires. No new guy is going to hold up to Mr. Fantasy, because he does not exist.
So, if you really believe yourself when you say you want a life partner, someone who has your back, brings you a deeper connection to the world, and makes you your best self, answer these questions honestly:
1. What do you get from holding on?
Usually, when you hold on to something from your past, it means you are hoping to repair a hurtful, traumatic experience. Love lost is akin to a trauma that not only dashed your expectations dashed, but made it feel impossible to accept that your life didn’t work out the way you had planned. Questions arise. Maybe I could have done it differently? What if I had gone to Harvard, too? Or gotten a job in Cambridge? You may not even be aware that you think the only way to move on is through a do over (I won’t get into it here, but this is really a thing – Freud called it the “repetition compulsion”). So you seek out the same guy (who didn’t work out in the first place) so you can repair the pain and your own self-esteem.
2. What would happen if you let go?
If you can’t truly imagine letting go, it means you’re still immersed in the grieving process. People sometimes believe that grief is only associated with death, but the human condition is such that we must grieve all types of loss, including breakup loss. Chances are if you are continually looking for a repeat of the relationship you lost, you’re in the first stage of grief – denial. There’s an unconscious belief that if you find the same experience again with someone else, you’ll never have to accept the ending. You believe that if you let go of that relationship, you’ll have to truly experience the loss.
3. Who am I losing out on?
Maybe it’s someone great who suits the person you are today, not the person you were when the “good one” got away. Reality can never compete with fantasy and the truth is, no partner is perfect. But the guy who is willing to commit to you today might be someone very different – complete with a good heart, an interest in your complexity, a great sense of humor, and maybe more than a few minor flaws.
The reality is that acceptance (the final stage of grief) is freeing. Doors open and the world begins to look and feel like a more interesting place full of possibilities. If you remove your rose-colored glasses, you might be able to see the roses.
*Name and identifying information changed to ensure anonymity.
 Freud, S. (1990). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. W. W. Norton And Company, New York.