How to move on: do you need to let go first? By Mary Lamia, Ph.D.

Maybe you’ve considered pursuing a new relationship. However, how can you move on if you’re still obsessing about your last relationship or distressed over what will never be? Thus, you may assume you’re just not ready for someone new because you haven’t let go of the previous relationship.

Is it necessary to grieve a past relationship before moving on? When a relationship is over you may think you have to go through a process involving steps or stages that have to do with loss. But that’s simply not the case. You have an abundance of emotional memories about all of your past relationships that later can be activated, regardless of whether or not you have moved on. For example, imagine driving past a park where you had walked with an ex-partner. This will trigger pleasant or unpleasant emotions attached to that experience or that person. Similarly, hearing a song that is associated with an old love interest will activate your emotional memories regarding your past relationship.

You can’t erase your emotional memories so maybe you can not expect yourself to completely “get over” the last relationship in order to move on. Besides, moving on is not about burying the past. Instead you have to figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are triggered, especially immediately following a break-up. Often such memories can keep a person stuck and make them hesitant to move on.

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How to move on: 3 factors that may be preventing you from letting go

What kinds of emotional memories might keep you trapped in your old relationship and possibly get in the way of finding new love? There are a few big ones.

Shame. If you have been rejected, or perceive your ended relationship as a failure, shame is most likely the emotion you will experience. Along with memories of the relationship, you may be reminded of your shame. Shame makes you want to hide, and the coping responses to shame help you to do so in a variety of ways. For example, you might withdraw and hide what you feel from others. You might hide what you feel from yourself with the avoidance that is found in alcohol, drugs, or highly stimulating activities. Feeling inadequate, you might attack and blame yourself. Another way to hide your shame is to be angry and resentful toward an ex-partner or even toward others who seem happy in their own relationships.

How to move on from shame that holds you back. Keep in mind that shame is a wonderful teacher. This emotion enables you to be introspective and learn from a failed relationship; that is, if you are not so invested in hiding what you feel, especially from yourself.

Regrets. You may wonder why you stayed in the relationship so long or you may be guilty about leaving. Worse yet, you may be angry about all the things you tolerated that were wrong in the relationship, wishing you could turn back the clock and do something differently. Your regrets may lead you to believe that you stayed in the relationship because you have low self-esteem. However, this is not always the case. Many people keep trying, instead of leaving, because they are caring and empathic people who tend to make excuses for their partner.

How to move on from your regrets. Regret can serve a very useful purpose because it allows us to look back and learn from a failed relationship. What did you gain from the decision you made as opposed to making some other decision? If you constantly excused the behavior of an ex-partner, imagine putting a shield around your empathy. At the same time, try feeling some compassion for yourself.

The “ghost” of the good things. A relationship may turn sour, but certainly some things were good about it. Hanging on to the reminders of what was good can keep you attached to the relationship. What’s not working in a relationship may seem obvious to you when you want to get out of it. However, once you have disengaged you are safe to remember all the good things you’ll miss. The ghost of the good things can haunt you.

How to move on from the “ghost” of the good things. Emotional memories may inform you of the wonderful moments you shared with an ex-partner. Nevertheless, those memories are not necessarily telling you to go back or hold on to the relationship. They’re just emotional memories. Be thankful for the good experiences, while recognizing that your ex-partner did not seem to be a good match for you overall.

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Letting go has to do with the process of moving forward and learning from your past relationship experience. When you lose a connection, it is through connecting with someone else that recovery and further learning takes place. This does not necessarily mean that the new relationship is valued any more or less than the previous one, since only time can determine if a new relationship is the right partnership for you. Waiting between relationships is not required for your psychological well-being. Furthermore, a relationship that you may consider to be just a “rebound” can turn out to be a significant one. People need connection, and there is no doubt that moving on can help you understand what you needed to leave behind.

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About Mary Lamia Ph.D

Mary Lamia Ph.D is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalysist, who works with adults, adolescents and preteens in her private practice in Kentfield, California. She is also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berekeley, California. Dr. Lamia's opinion has been sought in hundreds of television, radio, and print media interviews and discussions, and for nearly a decade she hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations. She has also written several books and contributes articles to PsychologyToday.

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