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.

Kinds of Love: A Primer


With the arrival of a grandbaby, loving feelings lead to loving thoughts. Clearly, romance is not the only kind of ardent affection. Some might even argue it is not the best kind. Consider a few others, little buddy:

  • “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” Hearing this is the emotional equivalent of finishing fourth in a three-person race.
  • Love of a newbie, like you. Complete, selfless, consuming — as airborne and obsessed as romantic love, but without the lust.
  • Love of your parents. Not interchangeable with the immediately preceding type. For a while they will be everything. Later? Be sure to remember them!
  • Love of a friend. One of life’s greatest satisfactions according to Aristotle and psychological research.
  • Unrequited love. So heartsick a condition you will not believe you will recover. You will, Will.
  • Love of a pet. Don’t forget you must clean up the poop!
  • Love of money. The “root of all evil.” Not the money itself, but the love of it. Read about King Midas so you recognize him by other names when you enter the world of work.
  • Chocolate! It doesn’t measure up to romance, but chocolate is more reliable!
  • Music or art, as in “I love this song.”
  • Materialistic love, as in “I love my toy.” Later it will be, ”my car.” No difference.
  • Love of learning. You are already learning lots, kiddo.
  • Love of self. A necessary thing. At its extreme, however, known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
  • God.

Now consider how these differ, little man. Some involve feelings for an abstraction (a deity) while others focus on the concrete: a person or a material object. A beloved can be literally “to die for.” You might give your life to save someone you adore, but probably not a piece of chocolate, a Taylor Swift song, or a Bruckner symphony. Especially a Bruckner symphony. People have died for their faith and their homeland. You will learn about Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War hero, who said, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Love comes with worry about the beloved’s well-being. Affection also involves the fear your fondness won’t be returned. Or will be returned like a package unopened. To love is to unshield yourself. No wonder we “fall” in love. Be sure to wear bubble wrap to cushion the impact, kid. Even that won’t work, I’m afraid.

Your parents will let you down, Will. Not that they intend to, but mistakes happen. Forgiveness is a big part of intimacy. Even inanimate objects wear out, discolor, and break. Affection survives because of the repairman in each of us.


Love that is perpetually awestruck is not love. You might one day get on your knees to ask for a woman’s hand, but her permanent place (and your own) isn’t on a pedestal. Nor should it be underneath one, as Woody Allen admitted in describing why his first marriage failed.

Love can motivate art or music. Loss, too, can drive creation, as in songs of heartbreak. Joseph Suk wrote his Asrael Symphony after the death of his father-in-law Antonin Dvorak, and his wife Ottilie, Dvorak’s daughter. In Jewish mysticism, Islam, and Sikhism, the word Azrael is associated with the angel of death.

The opposite of love is indifference, not hate. Hate is closer to love than we think, as revealed by jealousy and rage over rejection. Love tends to generate possessiveness — the attempt to control — a kind of suffocation. Thus, the cry, “I can’t breathe.” Don’t suffocate anyone, my boy.

The absence of love is deforming — emotionally deforming — especially for children. Not your problem, you much-loved young man. Do, however, learn about Harry Harlow’s research on the differences between monkeys who were suckled by inanimate, surrogate “mothers” made of wire vs. those covered in fabric. Without the softness provided by the manikin’s cloth exterior, the babies developed behavioral problems.

Will 3

There is pain in distance from the thing you care for. Most of us long for sensuality, which you can find even in the aroma and taste of the chocolate I mentioned. Sensuality, however, won’t come from your goldfish: nobody dives into the bowl in the hope of a hug. Gods too, like goldfish, are out of reach. Can an abstraction alone fully satisfy a human made of bone, flesh, and a beating heart? Let me know when you have an answer.

Love of a human or a pet, sometimes even a country or a deity, brings obligation. Such demands will restrict you. You can’t fly to a Parisian holiday if your child is sick, should you be so lucky to have one of your own. As Francis Bacon wrote, “A man who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” His freedom of action is encumbered by the “hostages.” Yours might be, too.

One present you give people you love is your presence: your time and focus. Much is said about “quality time,” but quantity is desperately important. Frank Bruni hit the target in The Myth of Quality Time:

“Couples move in together not just because it’s economically prudent. They understand, consciously or instinctively, that sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the ‘I love you’ that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purist.”

Your parents can’t schedule your first word, Will. Or your first step or first heartbreak. Life plays out unpredictably. I hope we are all lucky enough to see a good part of yours.

Children — your own — will need more than your presence, of course. A conscientious and stable parent tries not to burden his offspring with his own problems. By the way, your mom and dad are raising you so that you become independent enough to flee them. Hard to believe, isn’t it, when they hold you so close you feel you are in heaven? They do, too.

Many things are done for someone you love, as you will recognize by keeping an eye on your folks. I’m talking about generosity, care, and protection, not to mention self-sacrifice. Selfishness and infidelity are among those actions you don’t perform if your attachment is genuine.

Be careful what you say, my boy. That is, once your learn to talk. We reveal personal things to someone we love unsaid to others. A hard truth is another kind of utterance limited to only a few. At least, if you do it for their sake and not your own. Aristotle expected a real friend to try to keep his buddy from going off the rails. Then again, some statements are also held back for fear of injuring the person to whom you are close.

Even in love, however, not everything is disclosed. If your future partner hears your every thought, she will run screaming into the night.

Love means defending a confidant even in his absence. You do not conspire against him or sit by in silence while others do. The only exception to this rule I can think of is Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” who slayed Julius Caesar.

What you do for someone you love is often unseen. What you do when you betray someone is usually unseen, as well. Camouflage identifies dishonorable intentions. Unless, that is, the secrecy leads to a birthday surprise.

You know none of this, buddy. You will not take a course in “Love” at college. A young person can only scrutinize, listen, stumble and try again. So, little guy, in matters of the human heart, you have much to learn. Love is a subject more difficult than calculus and more important.

Your mom and dad will be there to teach you, to touch you, to watch over you and listen to you. They will pick you up when you trip and encourage you to try again. Perhaps there is sort of instruction to be found in them and their actions, a model. Pay attention to their example and you will receive a tuition by intuition and observation.

The university, after all, can only teach so much. Matters of the heart are learned face-to-face.

I’ve seen you checking out the faces nearest you. Those faces are crazy about you, William. In that domain, kiddo, you are already a lucky boy.

The first image is called De Kuss by Bernardien Sternheim. It was made available by Marcel Oosterwijk, Amsterdam, via Wikimedia Commons. The other two photos are a bit closer to home.