Q: My ex-girlfriend and I broke up about a year ago, and I’ve been dating a new woman for the past few months. We’re happy, and my previous relationship is in the past. But I recently found out that my ex is dating someone new, and for some reason, it bothers me. Before, I didn’t typically think of her often, but recently, the thought of her with a new guy has me looking back on our relationship. Does this mean that I’m not over her? Am I psychologically cheating on my current girlfriend?
A: It’s wonderful that you’ve found happiness in your new relationship — congratulations! I hear you that your old relationship is in the past.
And yet, humans are complex. Recent findings in neuroscience indicate that each person is uniquely shaped and influenced by their entire history of interactions. In other words, we will always hold our own stories within us. This history is integrated through our complex brain systems.
So something as intimate and powerful — and filled with energy and mystery — as a committed relationship doesn’t dissolve or erase from those neural networks, even with the intentional ending of the relationship and the passage of time.
Here is a little experiment for you. Soften your face and body into deeper relaxation for a moment. Close your eyes, focus your attention inside your body — in your heart — and let your mind float back in time. Now, enter the memory scene of your first kiss — and on some level, you will re-experience it. If you’re like a lot of people, you may have some vivid recollections. If you had a special bond with the person, or have other fond memories, you may even be aware of positive emotional sensations. Does this mean you’d desire a relationship with this person in the present? Clearly, that’s not what’s going on. Also, if it was not a positive experience, your responses may bring up negative feelings.
Your first kiss was likely a moment of intense sensation. This means there was a lot of energy firing in your neural networks. Our memories of high emotional intensity will often give us vivid recollections.
These networks open up again when they’re triggered, or when something in the present moment stimulates or activates the energies that they hold.
Your awareness of your ex’s new relationship is likely having a triggering effect. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to go back to her, or even that you miss the relationship. It means that you have a beating heart and a living and integrated nervous system. It also means you formed a bond with her — an attachment that is still held in your brain and body, because you shared moments of passion, pleasure, and intense emotional engagement.
Whether your relationship was sustainable or not isn’t the issue. Your brainstem, where you formed that bond, isn’t going to check in with your cortex — your rational mind — to see if feelings about your ex make any sense. That part of your brain will just fire in the presence of a stimulus — in this case, your thoughts of the ex with someone else.
Here’s what you can do about it. You can realize you’re just having a normal response, and allow this experience to increase your self-awareness by mindfully noticing what’s happening.
I usually find that when the body/nervous system gets triggered like this, there is often some unprocessed emotional material. I once had a client who couldn’t shake thoughts about his ex when he started a new relationship. For him, the trigger was his own new partner. But it was causing him stress, and interfering with his desire to move on from the past and bond with a new person. I hope that, like him, you’ll consider your dilemma to also be an opportunity to get some growth mileage out of that old relationship.
He worked through this by taking some time to reflect on the following questions: Why were you in the old relationship? What was good about that time in your life and particularly this partner? What are you proud of from that time in your life? And why did it end? What was not so good about it? What would you like to do differently in this next season, with this new person?
It’s always wise to examine each phase of our lives, reflecting with gratitude and appreciation for the good, as well as considering the difficulties and the lessons we’ve learned. And then afterward, ground yourself with gratitude in the here and now. Enjoy your new love, with the benefit of new self-awareness and wisdom gained!