Is it possible that the unfaithful partner from high school is impacting my ability to trust my spouse decades later? Do my relationships with my parents impact my choice of partner? Is my avoidance of intimacy related to that distant or critical ex-significant other? Or can the relationship which abruptly ended years ago contribute to my fear of my spouse abandoning me today?
The short answer is yes. When we experience painful relationships in the past and are unable to find internal peace or resolution, it is possible that the imprint will influence our relationships years later – and often in unconscious ways. This is especially true for anyone who has experienced relational trauma.
The projection of the past into the present
There are many ways to conceptualize this psychological and social phenomenon which involves the projection of the past into the present. It is as if the unresolved pain of the past is asking to be resolved by presenting in our current relationships where we can see it again. Unfortunately this also lends itself, in many cases, to the reenactment of unhealthy relationships patterns. Most of us have listened as a frustrated friend exclaimed “why do I keep dating the same type of men/women?” An unresolved past does have the power to repeat itself.
Do you react appropriately to emotionally reactive incidents?
Because projection often happens at an unconscious level, it will require self-awareness and a willingness to examine self to discover the answers to the posed questions above. A good starting place is to review your most emotionally reactive experiences in your relationship. Consider whether or not your reaction was appropriate in the context of the event. Ask a non-biased friend if they judge the size of your reaction to be balanced to the size of the incident. Get curious when you notice strong emotional reactions in relationship to your partner. Am I responding to the current situation or is it possible that I am responding to a situation from the past? Am I really responding to my partner or am I speaking to someone else from my past?
New healthy relationships can offer emotional repair
The past does have the power, if we allow it, to ruin our current marriages or prevent our relationships from continuing to evolve and grow. And, at the same time, our current relationships have the opportunity to provide us with corrective emotional experiences which contain the power to heal the unresolved parts of self. Consider the case of a woman who develops a sense of self-rejection after dating someone who constantly criticizes her body. This woman is likely to project these feelings of rejection into a later partner, expecting them to also reject her body. But if she is proven wrong by a partner who accepts and celebrates her figure, just as it is, she might experience an emotional repair.
There are many ways of coming to terms with the relational pain of the past which will ultimately allow us to be more present with our partner today. If you think that unresolved pain from your past might be negatively impacting your marriage, consider seeking help from a trained professional.