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


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.

Why Do We Collect Things?


A nineteenth-century man tried to collect every book ever written. No joke.

He came closer than you might think. His name was Sir Thomas Phillipps and I’ll tell you about his quest in a bit.

Possible reasons behind his mission are interesting. Evolutionary psychology suggests early humans — “hunter-gatherers” — “collected” food and eventually those substances required to make and use fire. This increased their chance of survival and the opportunity to create the next generation. Primitive weapons* to fight off animal or human attacks also improved the odds of passing on one’s genes, whether those implements were found or fashioned.

Tools became less crude as some men learned more sophisticated uses of fire, beyond its ability to keep the small community warm at night. It would have been important to safeguard any useful object from loss, theft, or breakage. Those who invented or possessed these items might even have benefited by a boost to status, making them more desirable mates.

Yes, today is very different, but perhaps some of us are still left with the “collecting bug” inherited from distant ancestors.

Our long-deceased relatives were doubtless uncomfortable or anxious without storing food or weapons, nervous about a bare cupboard or the next attack. Thus, perhaps they passed on an unconscious desire to “collect oneself” — to deal with the anxiety over life’s uncertainties by hunting for things to be saved for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Life comes with no guarantees of its length or quality. You and I, therefore, develop ways of dealing with our fears about its impermanence and unpredictability. Often this is the job of instinct, the unconscious, and maybe a genetic predisposition developed long ago — not a careful review of a menu of possible maneuvers to quell our disquiet.

Stashing stockpiles of money might be thought of as a kind of substitute for early human activities aimed at ensuring future survival and relieving worry. Belief in an afterlife serves the purpose, too, whether the result of faith or the psychological need I’ve just described. Creating a book or painting for the ages has a transcendent quality, as well, to the extent that it looks past our lives to something more lasting. So does producing children.

For some, however, the act of collecting objects of no survival benefit appears to be only a pleasant and innocent distraction from routine. Unless, that is, you read a book by the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger.

The author, a psychiatrist, aptly titled his tome, Collecting: An Unruly Passion.

The type of collecting he is talking about is akin to a child’s use of a security blanket — holding a “transitional object” to sooth oneself.

In the course of writing the book, Muensterberger investigated some major collectors. Take the previously mentioned bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) who set himself the goal of obtaining “one copy of every book in the world.”

Phillipps fell short, but did amass about 40,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts (as many as 40 or 50 per week), requiring over 100 years to disperse after his death.

Of course, this obsession took lots of money.

Left a fortune by his father, he managed to reduce himself to a debtor in order to keep buying. Sir Thomas even cut a portion of his mother’s living stipend to pursue additional purchases. Phillipps’ craze drove his wife and daughters crazy, and put some of his creditors out of business, as well.

When his wife died he sought a wealthy replacement — any wealthy replacement — the better to fund his book hunts. He asked an acquaintance, “Do you know of any Lady with 50,000£ (British currency) who wants a husband? I am for sale at that price.”

Sir Thomas went off the rails, but are there advantages to a less consuming hobby of acquisition?



Collectors functioned to safeguard precious objects, especially before the widespread existence of museums and public libraries, ensuring the survival of masterpieces of the visual and literary arts. Moreover, those collectors who enjoy a work of art or a beautiful book for its own sake (not just its rarity), take pleasure in admiring it. For the collector of recorded music, there is the delight obtained in listening.

One can achieve a pleasant sense of “living in the moment” while pursuing the desired objects — quite “alive” and focused. Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate the fun of a “treasure hunt,” even if rare baseball cards might not be your idea of treasure. Since men are more often hunters due to the historical differentiation of sex roles, they seem more likely than women to take part.

What’s more, collectors learn a good deal while enjoying their hobby: about the time and manner of creation of objects (like stamps or coins) or the history surrounding them. In other words, a collector can satisfy his curiosity and become better educated.

For some of these individuals, the material articles (properly arranged) display a kind of personal style or taste — a distinctiveness achieved for most of the rest of humanity by the cut of their hair or the decoration of their residence, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Then there are investors who only resemble collectors. Unlike Sir Thomas Phillipps, they sell or trade their acquisitions for profit.

Of course, there can be a downside to collecting without limits, as Phillipps’ mother, wife, kids, and creditors could report, if only they were around to do so.

The potentially addictive quality of acquisition should be apparent, with the desired object being like a drug, providing a temporary elation which subsides rather quickly after the “loot” is obtained. The chronic restlessness of a Phillipps-like personality needs to speed back to the hunt.

The covetousness of this sort of person — for whom too much is never enough — cannot be calmed for long. The objects are not valued as works of art to be enjoyed (even if you call the beer can in the hobbyist’s beer can trove a thing of beauty); rather, they are pursued in order to “have them.”

Psychologically, Muensterberger might say, the “thing” functions like a cell phone carried by an anxious person for the purpose of providing reassurance or control in case of an acute anxiety attack; or like an amulet or rabbit’s foot thought to guarantee magical protection from injury.

Often, he believes, the collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind. For Muensterberger, the pathological collector finds relationships too unreliable, unpredictable, and precarious.

In stark contrast, material items are more controllable and permanent. They will never let him down, move away, reject him, or die. In an uncertain world, the collector achieves a sense of mastery by his success in accumulating objects, even if the domain of his mastery may be trivial (as in match books or bottle caps).

I’m reminded of an old acquaintance, a fellow phonograph record collector who focused on a limited number of classical instrumental artists. But unlike the other hobbyists I have known, this man continued to buy LPs (long-playing records) in spite of staggering family medical bills, his wife’s distress over the expense of his avocation, and their mounting debt.

She rationalized this by saying, “Well, I suppose it is better than if he had a mistress or was alcoholic.” The spouse did not know, however, that her husband craftily arranged new purchases to be mailed to the homes of some of his friends, and paid in cash or untraceable money orders to prevent his wife from finding out. Later the discs were smuggled into their abode when his mate was away.

Those of you who are fans of Harrison Ford might remember the beautiful German archeologist pursuing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The wooden cup of Christ falls into a crevasse during an earthquake, triggering the damsel’s attempt to retrieve it. Indiana Jones warns her that she is about to lose her life by reaching for the cup, frustrating his ability to hold on to her.

Sometimes, I suppose, the saying, “I can’t live without it,” is true. And live she did not. The gorgeous blond stretched for the Holy Grail until she slipped from the hero’s grasp.

The next time you find yourself at a garage sale, an estate sale, or an antique shop, stop for a moment. Where did these things come from? The same thought might occur to you as you visit the vanishing world of used book and CD stores, or their virtual replacements on Amazon and eBay. There are only two answers:

  1. People bought them and the same people have decided they want to sell them. Some might be collectors whose interests have changed, others simply in the business of making a living or clearing space.
  2. The children or heirs of the collectors are doing their best to get rid of the burden of “stuff” left to them.

With regard to the second answer, unless we are talking about fine art, those objects probably aren’t the inheritance the kids were hoping for.

*If you are old enough, you might remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Parents of my folk’s generation encouraged their children to say this in response to name calling.

The top image is a photo of vinyl phonograph records by Burn the Asylum.

The second image is the Vanitas painting by Franciscus Gysbrechts (1672-1676). Such paintings were particularly common among artists doing “still life” in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were symbolic, in that the items depicted generally were reminders of the brevity of life. Musical instruments, for example, signaled that the sound was made and quickly left “not a trace behind.” The globe was also a reminder of the human condition and the skull of one’s mortality. Watches, smoke, hour glasses, and the like served the same symbolic purpose, suggesting the passage of time. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.