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When You Can’t Stop Thinking About Your Past Relationships

Woman lost in thought

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” ~Jon Kabat- Zinn

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of people about that one love, the one who got away, the one who it didn’t work out with, the one with whom the timing was bad.

I’ve had these conversations with people from all age groups, including people in their seventies. I’ve had my own journey with all of the above as I traveled toward finding a life partner.

It seems whether you stay together or not you’ll likely be in each other’s minds for quite some time in the form of thoughts, memories, or dreams. If you’re lucky they’ll be sweet, but sometimes they’re sad, hurt, confused, or angry dreams.

Some people really struggle with this. They want their ex-lovers out of their heads forever, relegated to a dark and distant part of their minds.

It’s as though they want them stored away in a box in their mind that they never have to open again. And I get it. Who wouldn’t want to be able to mentally exorcise a person who is associated with a painful and confusing time of your life?

Some people are frightened or confused by the thoughts, memories, and dreams that occur, as they think remembering on old relationship means they’ve made a mistake in their current partner choice or that they haven’t moved on.

In my case, I had daily thoughts about a couple of old relationships for about eighteen years. Yes, you read correctly, eighteen years. The thoughts would often take the form of self-recrimination or sense-making.

“Why did that happen? Why did I do that? Why did I put up with that for so long? Why did I go back to him?”

Essentially, these thoughts seemed to be focused on the question “What was wrong with me?” Others would be about an ex and all his decisions and choices—essentially asking “What was wrong with him?”

Some thoughts would be re-doing the past—how I could have handled it, what I should have done, what could I have done better.

Sometimes they would just be memories, triggered by going to certain places or someone asking, “Have you ever been here, done that,” etc. Sometimes my mind would wonder what it would be like if it the relationship had worked out.

I’ve generally been accepting of thoughts, memories, or dreams of past relationships popping into my head. I’ve never seen it as a sign of not being ready to be with someone else, and rarely have I tried to get rid of the memories. Mostly I think it’s because I accepted that this is what minds do when something major happens.

Getting vulnerable, intimate, and allowing yourself to form an attachment to someone is a major event for your mind. When it doesn’t work out, your mind interprets it as threatening.

Your mind recognizes the hurt feelings associated with a breakup as a threat and then starts a plan to protect you from ever experiencing such a hurt again. So it throws it thoughts, memories, and dreams at you from time to time—in part to help you process the relationship but also to remind you to be careful to not get in the same situation again, in order to protect you from hurt.

Also, minds tend to believe that by thinking and worrying they can make sense or find a solution to the breakup, the “what went wrong” of it all. Again, the mind is always looking for the facts to protect you in the future. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s just seems annoying and repetitive.

What can you do to handle thoughts and dreams about past relationships?

1. Accept that it is normal and natural to have thoughts, memories, and dreams about your exes.

Don’t read too much into it. Just see it as what minds do.

2. Avoid acting on thoughts, dreams, and impulses associated with exes.

Don’t call, message, or make a decision to get back together based on random thoughts or dreams. This is probably not a sign; it’s just your mind doing what minds do.

3. If you feel strong emotion with the thoughts, memories, or dreams, write it down.

Writing it down allows us to take one step back and defuses the emotion somewhat. Then engage yourself in something fun or interesting. Get busy.

4. Know that eventually you will think less and less about it.

In the acute stage of a breakup you almost can’t stop thinking about the relationship, but over time the thoughts become less prominent and less painful. Trust that this will continue to happen over time. This will happen more quickly if you don’t engage regularly with your ex. Let the distance help you disengage.

5. Avoid punishing yourself with self-critical thoughts.

Like “how could I not see that, I’m stupid,” etc. Remind yourself that it is normal to want to be loved.

6. Reflect on the positives the relationship gave you.

All relationships teach you something. Remind yourself it was not a waste of time; it was just time, it was just part of your story.

One of my significant relationships ended with a great deal of hurt because of cheating and lies, but I don’t regret it. I learned a lot in that experience—life lessons that I keep with me even today.

For example, I learned that I could survive betrayal and the emptiness that comes with the loss of love—that the pain lessens in time. I learned that when the cost is too great, you must let go of love, even if a part of you may not want to. And I learned that in addition to love and attraction, you need to have have shared values.

Still, knowing that I’ve learned from all my relationships doesn’t make it any easier to stop thinking about them.

For example, I spent quite a bit of time wondering why someone said, in breaking up with me, that he needed to spend more time with his dog. (Yes, that really did happen.) That memory came with a special combination of disbelief and hurt for some time. These days I think that story is kind of funny in a “was that the best you could come up with?” kind of a way.

These thoughts, amongst others, are now faded memories that I take with me in life, the good and the bad. I see them each as just another chapter in my story. They are part of me, but they don’t define me.

Some relationships endings are particularly painful. If you are significantly troubled by an old relationship—if you have difficulty disengaging from an ex-partner or have been affected by serious relationship trauma such as domestic violence—it’s a good idea to see a psychologist or relationship counselor to help you work through the letting go and moving forward.

No matter how hard your breakup, one day it will be just another chapter in your story too.

Profile photo of Nadene van der Linden

About Nadene van der Linden

Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Perth, Australia. Nadene has two books coming in 2017 Tales from the Parenting Trenches: A Clinical Psychologist vs. Motherhood and Live Life to the Full: Your Guide to Feeling Better Sooner. Follow Nadene on instagram @nadenev.thepsychologist or facebook: Nadenev.thepsychologist and visit her at lindenclinicalpsychology.com.au.

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  • Great list, Nadene! 😉 #keepgrowing #keepcreating

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks Ewan! Glad you found it helpful

  • Manish

    what if you afraid to do it again….or have some kind of phobia..!!
    this is true or that was ture ?

    anyway very nice article

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thank you Manish. It’s hard to be vulnerable again after a big hurt but it’s also the only way to find love again. I think you can grow what I call “wolf teeth” after a bad relationship experience and it makes it easier to detach from a charm offensives which cheaters and liars are often very skilled at using. This helps you Only give your heart to someone who is authentic. I hope that helps

  • Tara

    This is the best article Iv read about past relationships. Thank you so much! It couldn’t have come at a better time in my life too 🙂

  • Manish

    thank you

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thank you Tara for your beautiful feedback . I’m glad you find it helpful. Best wishes

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome

  • Caitlyn

    Thank you for this great article. It’s good to know that it’s normal to think about past relationships and that it gets better over time.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    It certainly is normal. I’m glad you found the article helpful. Thanks for your feedback

  • Jen Riley

    Interesting article, and good advice on how to work on those thoughts. But having the dwelling thoughts on a relationship that ended 20 years ago because you are stuck in a loveless relationship because that person is chronically injured and it would be inhuman to kick them out? Does not help all that much. I wish I was more saintly, but I’m not. *sigh*.

  • Carol Imber

    I was just going over an old relationship and wondering why…and along came your article. Perfect timing! Thanks so much for making me feel normal.

  • Álvaro

    Thank you, Nadene.

  • Praveen Jain

    wt if the culprit was myself.. and i now want to rectify those mistakes.. but she has lost trust on me.. n i m unable to digest the same.. and all the time thinking about her.. n ruining my life

  • Sarah Blakelock

    Excellent post! Thank you 🙂

  • alison

    Brilliant and perfect timing. I’m struggling to let go of a relationship which started well and which i clung too even when it was obvious he wasn’t emotionally available. I have been going over and over it all and chastising myself for not letting go earlier. Time to just let it go and move on. Thank you Nadene

  • Nadene van der Linden

    We are all human Jen and frustration and resentment are also normal feelings. It sounds like a very tough situation and you have given a lot given the circumstances. Best wishes, Nadene

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome Alvaro. Thank you for taking the time to comment

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks Sarah. I appreciate you taking the time to comment

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome Alison. Letting go is a process. Just keep working at it. Thanks so much for your lovely feedback

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks Carol! I’m glad it helped you make sense of things

  • Nadene van der Linden

    This is a tricky one. Sometimes we can’t repair what we have done, so it is a matter of self-forgiveness and moving forward. Thanks for commenting Praveen

  • SandiYellow

    Four & a half years out from the sudden, stunning end of a 25-year relationship; this is some of the best advice I’ve read (and I’ve read A LOT).

  • daxa

    This article help but I feel like I’m battling so much in my head right now!! I have high guard after an abusive ex and I have now been single for nearly 8 years, it really takes a lot for me to like someone one as I over analyse things and them. I have been seeing the odd person over these years but nothing serious or official. I’m now starting to feel embarrassed and that time is running out now that I’m 30 and just this isn’t what I imaged for myself. The guys Iv dated I would find fault or just didn’t have that passionate vibe or feeling from them as if they was to nice. (I knew they was probably the Mr right) but they was just too nice. I would always be honest with them though and tell them the truth and not lead them on. But now with the guys recently Iv been dating if they start to ignore me then I mentally can’t cope! I find its one of the hardest thing Is to be rejected now days. This all come about recently about a few months back I actually fell for this guy and I knew he was was a lot younger then me. But I felt a connection with him so intense and so strong couldn’t explain it. Then a few weeks ago he found out he is off to live in another country permanently with his job but before this he told me everything I wanted to hear and I then started to bring down my barriers as he said he loved me and I started to believe him and dreamed up this image in my head that we would work. He even spoke about me going with him. Was a wirl wind. But then he changed within matter of days and he turned out to be a complete player and I found loads of stuff out about him and he became so childish and started blanking me and then messaging just to see if I was still intrested, which made me upset and confused as he started playing with my feelings and I have now felt so depressed and low can’t snap out of it! I haven’t know him that long for god sake but seems to of re-opened the sorrow of my last relationship and same issues and mistakes and can’t stop wallowing and missing him, But I shouldn’t miss him, I feel an idiot. I just Wish I could erase him from my brain 🙁

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thank you so much SandiYellow for your feedback. Sudden ends are tough and the mind can go in overdrive as there was no warning.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    It sounds like you have been through a lot. Beware the passionate whirlwind types. If you can give the more ordinary guys a go you might find you build a romantic connection over time that is stable and lasting. Sometimes we need a bit of counselling from an experienced therapist to break old patterns especially if they repeatedly hurt us and make room for something new. Best wishes

  • daxa

    Thank you, yeah I haves alot of issues that I need to discuss now I’m an turning older as things don’t seem to make sense really until you become an adult, different stages of your life all of a sudden remind your your dealing with baggage a lot from childhood and what you’ve seen. I have an appointment with a counselling service in a few weeks, so I just talk all these things out. I know what I need to do deep inside I just don’t practice it (I annoy myself) Just feel like I don’t trust and love myself anymore. I think these articles really do help people like me see that they are not alone.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    I’m glad Daxa and good luck. You are worth it

  • Praveen Jain

    Thank you Nadene

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome

  • Eleanor Rigby

    This was perfect timing. My ex broke up with me almost five years ago and I still have recurring memories of him. I thought I was the only one who still had thoughts about him years later. Thanks for the post! I feel so much better about this.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome Eleanor and thank you for leaving this comment! I’m glad you found it helpful. It’s very normal that’s for sure

  • Lew

    Is it worth trying to start all over again after all the drama subsides? Or it’d be better to accept the situation and just move on even though I never experienced such connection before?

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Hi Lew, It can be difficult to let go if the connection is generally very good. If your ex agrees to couples therapy to understand why it happened then it may be worth trying again. You would also need to assess whether you can trust them again. Best wishes

  • Lisa waite

    Thanku so much for this article! I have struggled, and still am after a relationship finishedabout 3 years ago. I actually came close to a breakdown. Im stronger now, but still struggle with my mind replaying different scenarios on a daily basis….your article helped me to not feel odd, or weird…it happens to other people too! Thanku.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks Lisa for your feedback. I’m so
    glad it helped you feel at ease. Most of us are more normal than our minds lead us to believe. You will keep getting stronger and stronger over time. I highly recommend mindfulness practice to avoid spending too much time thinking about old memories. Best wishes

  • 😉

  • Kara

    So glad to have read this article. I thought I was the only one and have spent years berating myself for these intermittent dreams and passing thoughts. So thank you for enlightening me! A weight has been lifted.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Hi Kara, thank you for your comment.I am glad the article gave you a new perspective and helped you feel better. Best wishes

  • Your ex will have an impact on you because of the story that is attached with them. Along with the story are some emotions that may be painful sometimes. In our effort to eradicate this pain, we usually resort to impulsive action. It is important to recognize the emotion, accept it and eventually transcend it.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks for your comment. I agree stepping back and avoiding impulsive reactions is important if you are trying to disengage from an ex.

  • Anuradha Dhiman

    Worth reading… It somehow helped me to cope up with my broken heart… Thanks for this.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    You are welcome. I’m happy it helped you find some peace. Best wishes

  • Mugiwara

    I keep repenting about a lost relationship, mainly because it was my mistake to not express it to her because of the fear of losing whatever relationship i had and never getting that feeling that she feels the same way about me. Now she is in another country and we barely talk.

    I know that i have to move on, but the idea of completely letting her go away from my life and killing the hope that she might come back later is very frightening to me.

  • Renee L.

    You have no clue how transformative this is. I’ve been trying to make sense of these thoughts and have worked myself into serious ruminating sessions on why the thoughts appear, what they mean, and how they should inform my life. It has made me so anxious. However, this changed everything! Thank you so so much. I no longer feel like I’m losing my mind or being haunted by a past relationship.

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Thanks Renee for letting me know how helpful you found my article. It is very much appreciated

  • Nadene van der Linden

    Yes Mugiwara, I think you know what you need to do. Many of us do best with companionship but that can only be with someone who is available to us. Best wishes

  • Angelina Damian

    Wow, while reading your article, I felt like I am the one writing this article as the story goes the same with mine, but not with the 18 years though. hehehehe. Great one and very inspiring! The distance really helped me disengage, and it’s really very true not to connect when your emotions feels like wanting to message him. Gosh! this happens to me a lot, I did messaged him but now I am successful not to connect with him anymore. Coz the more I do, the more I get hurt. Thank you again for the reminder. God bless!

  • Nadene van der Linden

    you are welcome. I’m glad you found it helpful

  • john

    would you recommend contacting your past, not with the intention to rekindle a fragile broken relationship, that’s a waste of time, and not fore the infamous ‘closure’ but rather to clean the slate and say goodbye especially if no goodbyes were ever exchanged with various partners/acquaintances? one can only ignore the thoughts for so long before they become overwhelming, speaking of myself. Great article 🙂