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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Overcoming Nostalgia for a Past Relationship

After considerable agony, we’ve left a relationship. We’re on our own now – and, when we can bear to be honest, it’s a little harder than we expected. We aren’t going on many dates; the central heating broke down last week; the shopping is proving a hurdle.

In idle moments, we find ourselves daydreaming, returning fondly to certain occasions in the concluded relationship. There was that wintry weekend by the sea: they looked adorable walking on the beach in their thick scarf. We fed the seagulls and drank cheap white wine from paper cups on the seafront and felt connected and happy. Then there was a moment on honeymoon, when we discovered the little Vietnamese restaurant hidden away in a side street in Paris and became friends with the owner and her husband. Or we recall how, at a large party, we both realised we didn’t particularly like the other guests – it was a special, conspiratorial moment: the two of us, shoulder to shoulder, talking over just what was wrong with everyone else. We’re newly conscious of the charm of so many things that seemed ordinary at the time – coming out of the supermarket, putting everything away in the fridge and the cupboards; making soup and toasted cheese and watching television on the sofa. 

With these thoughts in our minds, we feel weepy and tender – and at points distinctly tempted to call the ex up again. They would, we suspect, allow us back, or at least give us a hearing. 

What can we make of our feelings? It might be that we have realised a genuine mistake. But it’s even more likely that we are in the grip of a characteristic mental habit of the newly single, facing the vertigo of independence: nostalgia.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain underwent industrial and scientific revolutions that transformed old settled ways of life, ripping apart communities, throwing people together in large and anonymous cities – and dislocating the loyalties and certainties once offered by religion. In a search for ways to soften the confusion, artists and thinkers began to imagine what a better world might look like – and in certain circles, the search turned towards the past and more specifically, to the perceived wisdom, coherence and contentment of the Middle Ages. While railway lines were being laid down across the land, and telegraph cables under the seas, members of the artistic class celebrated the simple, innocent communities that they proposed had existed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Art works depicted handsome uneducated but happy labourers, cheerful villagers celebrating harvests and kindly lords and ladies ministering to the deserving poor. There seemed to be no violence, alienation, fear or cruelty. No one minded not having much heating or subsisting on a meagre diet of oats and the odd piece of lard. It had, it was alleged, been very much easier back then, in the thatched cottages and pious stone churches.

When it was all so much better… Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1901

At the heart of the nostalgic attitude is a disregard for why things ever changed – and might have needed to do so. For the nostalgic, the past never required alteration or development; history moved on for no sane reason. The complexities of the present moment are in this sense deemed wholly accidental. They are not the tricky byproducts of a legitimate search for growth and progress away from what must have been at some level, despite the odd delightful occasion (perhaps at harvest time or on a midsummer morning), an intolerable previous arrangement. The nostalgic can’t accept that the present, whatever its faults, came about because of inescapable difficulties with the past. They insist that we had already once been perfectly happy, then mysteriously changed everything for the worse because we forgot we had been so.

Relationships can find us reasoning no less selectively. Here too it can feel as if we must once have been content and then grew ungrateful through error and inattention. Yet in locating profound satisfaction in the past, we are crediting our earlier selves with too little acumen. The truth about what a relationship is like is best ascertained not when we are feeling low six months or a few years after its conclusion, but from what we must have known when we were in its midst; when we were most familiar with all the facts upon which we made our slow and deliberate decisions. 

The specific grounds for our dissatisfactions tend to evaporate. We edit out the rows, the botched trips, the sexual frustrations, the stubborn standoffs… The mind is a squeamish organ. It doesn’t like to entertain bad news unless there is a highly present danger to be attended to. But knowing our amnesiac tendencies, we can be certain that profound unpleasantness must have existed, for there would otherwise have been no explanation for our decision to rip our situation apart. We would never have needed to act if things had ever remotely been as gratifying as we are now nostalgically assuming they were. The portrait we are painting of the relationship is emerging not from knowledge, but from loneliness and apprehension. 

Furthermore, our sense of ourselves as people who could be satisfied with what was on offer is as untrue to our own nature as is the fantasy of a modern urban dweller who dreams they might find enduring happiness in a medieval wooden hut. The solution to the problem of satisfying our needs is not to hallucinate that they don’t exist. It is to square up to them and use every ingenuity we’re capable of to devise workable solutions for them.

We should trust not what we feel now, in our weepy disconsolate state, but what we must have known then. A simple rule of thumb emerges: we must invariably trust the decisions we took when we had the maximal information to hand upon which we made them – not when we have emotional incentives to change our minds and mould ourselves into a caricature of an easily-gratified creature. There were persuasive reasons, even if – in our sadness – we now can’t remember a single one. Returning to the past wouldn’t make us content, it would merely – at great cost to all involved – remind us of why change was in the end so necessary.

We need to accept that good things did exist, but that they were no proper solution to certain of our well-founded emergent needs. It means accepting that we are as complicated and as difficult to satisfy as we are – and that the way forward is to accept our characters rather than posit a simplicity we could never live up to. We should have the courage of, and be ready to pay the full price for, our true complex natures.

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