Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Blindness of Love

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I witnessed something remarkable every day of my early life. At the time I wasn’t even aware of anything special. Indeed, the miracle only registered after the death of my parents in 2000 and 2001.

My father was “in love” with my mother for the entire time they knew each other. Over 60 years. Every day.

What do I mean by “in love?”

Being in love is like the Christmas morning race down the stairs of young children bursting to burst open their gifts. A smile starting from your heart and warming you down to your toes. The electric thrill of hitting the game winning home run. The embrace  of a departed, estranged old friend who takes the initiative to start over. The first time you taste ice cream. Waking reluctantly from the happiest dream you ever had — and then realizing you are living the dream.

Being in love is not the same thing as loving another. Rather, I’m thinking of a never-ending honeymoon love experience. You construct a mental representation of your darling better than she is: smarter, more beautiful, flawless; high-minded even in the absence of philosophical gifts and principled ideas about morality. You crave her scent, her touch, her gaze. Any wrong she does is reinterpreted, made good, scrubbed clean, or forgotten. You cannot bear to be away from her. Her voice is a balm. She seems to have created another world, one unknown until you met her — brighter, deeper, better, kinder because she is yours.

Your friends do not always understand this, even if they have themselves been in love. In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the title character falls for a faithless woman of dubious history and little intellect, the kind of individual who Woody Allen might say belongs “underneath a pedestal,” not the one Swann erects for her. A friend of Swann remarks:

“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even very interesting  — because they say she (Odette) is an idiot,” she added with the wisdom of people who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

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The friends may, indeed, evaluate the beloved more accurately than you do. No matter, you cannot talk anybody out of love once “infected.” I do not mean to diminish the experience by borrowing Proust’s characterization, but only to say the condition does resemble a disease in at least the respects described. The incubation period can be short or long, depending on whether the sweetheart never loves you back or falls out of love first and finds another. And, no matter one’s awareness that such things happen, your pain is not less for the knowledge. Proust again:

At that time, he (Swann) was satisfying a sensual curiosity by experiencing the pleasures of people who live for love. He had believed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows: how a small thing Odette’s charm was for him now compared with the astounding terror that extended out from it like a murky halo, the immense anguish of not knowing at every moment what she had been doing, of not possessing her everywhere and always!

We are prone to believing we can imprison and safeguard our heart at the beginning of relationships, our brain keeping the key, until the heart bursts free and puts the brain in the box. Ironic to be taken hostage by a part of yourself even more than by another.

There are, believe it or not, downsides to being in love your whole life. I observed those clearly growing up. My dad could not imagine mom as a less than perfect mother, although she was not up to the job. Even the efforts of my brothers and me to enlighten him found him incredulous. When she inevitably came to dislike his friends or the couples they shared in common, he accepted her right and wisdom in the necessity of ending those relationships. The increasing number of barbs she tossed at him were also dismissed.

My siblings and I did benefit, however, from my father’s delusion. We witnessed a man smitten and devoted. True, he worked outside the home too much for her happiness and ours, still keeping the terror of another “Great Depression” at bay by so doing, but when he was present there was not a second of doubt about dad’s affection and fidelity. Read his Love Letters if you don’t believe me. The idea of a lifelong marriage — of being true to the one you loved — was firmly impressed on the three boys who saw my parents up close.

On balance, the bliss dad received from being in love was greater than any injury he suffered. Even as time transformed my mother into someone less kind and, of course, less physically beautiful, he unconsciously hung the memory of their early days over the reality of her present state. The image sustained him. He was (and considered himself) a lucky man.

We can do worse.

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

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A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt