Have you ever sat in the solitude of some special place and found yourself fondly remembering someone you once loved? And have you ever wondered about sharing that warm glow of memory with your partner, thinking, wistfully, "If only I could tell you..."?
Those we have truly loved remain within us, a melody we will always remember. But to even consider the possibility of bringing the depth of our heart's journey into a current intimate relationship touches an almost unquestioned taboo. An unarticulated (yet fervently held) understanding tends to counsel silence in our subsequent relationships. It reinforces our fears that anything beyond the most superficial mention of other loves has too much potential for misunderstanding, hurt and anger. So talking about past loves is usually, by mutual unspoken consent, approached obliquely, with mock humor, or not at all.
But does this taboo also discourage us from acknowledging, even to ourselves, the gifts of our past loves? And is the silence surrounding the possibility of talking about past loves so unquestioned that it keeps us from making thoughtful choices‚choices that could enhance the fullness and intimacy of our relationships? Does it encourage us to ignore our own yearning toward that intimacy and our questions about the taboo itself?
This book is the result of our exploration of these questions.
Like so many others who have come to another committed partnership or a second marriage later in life, each of us had significant prior loves. Unlike most others, however, we had chosen early in our relationship to share not only the factual stories of those past loves, but also their emotional content. Additionally, we felt it was vital to talk with each other about whatever feelings came up while telling the stories of where our hearts had traveled.
That choice was a natural outgrowth of our seventeen year friendship, prior to our romantic involvement, when revealing ourselves did not have as much impact. And it reflected an inclination to stay friends with our former partners whenever that was possible. We both knew that our previous experiences of loving and being loved were an essential part of us.
As our journey together unfolds, we continue to live with the difficulties and the rewards of personal engagement with these powerfully charged remembrances and feelings. For us, the richness of deeper understandings of each other and ourselves is well worth any transitory discomfort. By opening our hearts in this way, we have become more fully known, found an enhanced intimacy. But what, this led us to wonder, were others doing with their memories and feelings of love from the past‚and the loss associated with that love?
We didn't start out with an intention to write a book. But we began to see that just casual mention of past loves generated a certain nervous response, that shadows cloud even the possibility of couples sharing what is within their hearts. This suggested to us that many could benefit if the question was in a lighter, more open place. We felt that the best way to accomplish that would be to offer these deeply personal stories.
In this book, twenty-nine women and men reminisce about their old flames. They reveal how much they tell their partners and describe the effects of whatever they do, or do not, share. They disclose how they are affected by hearing their partner's memories. And we learn that there are many ways of engaging with this emotional complexity.
Today, most people have had at least one significant prior love when they form a later important relationship. So each person and every couple is left with a dilemma that must be resolved in a unique way.
Except for sharing their factual personal histories early in a relationship, many heed the conventional wisdom that advises against saying "too much." For each person, that is an undefined but fearsome boundary, best not even approached. So when they do share, they often restrict themselves to describing what went wrong and just bypass any question of expressing feelings of love and loss.
There are both societal and personal reasons for couples to avoid revealing much, especially love and loss. We're surrounded by a strong expectation that we should just "let go and move on," coupled with a notion that if we still have any warm feelings for a former lover, we are somehow dysfunctional.
Of more immediate concern are those personal fears about the effects of what we do. If we remember a previous lover with fondness and appreciation, will our partner be jealous, feel hurt or express anger? Will our relationship itself lose the stability it has? Will what we express be misunderstood, misused, or not taken seriously? And how much do we really want to know about our partner's past?
As you will see from what people say, all of these unknowns excite a dynamic tension within relationships. Most of us hope to express and share our most real and heartfelt self. We desire being known and understood. Yet we fear becoming more vulnerable through being too well known.
So yes, there are compelling reasons to avoid talking about memories and feelings. They are easy to see and understand. But there are also compelling, if less obvious, reasons to allow your intimate journey to have an honored space in your heart‚and your relationship. At the center of the question about sharing that journey is intimacy itself‚moving, together, into what is true, what is meaningful, what matters.
This book is about more than past loves. It does acknowledge that others were (and are) close to your heart. And it whispers to the insecure self that lives within each of us, "Someone else was lover and companion to my mate‚someone else had a profound influence on the one I love." But it is also about a profound intimacy that can develop in the complex territory of you and your partner each having shared part of your life with another.
What benefits might we lay claim to if we acknowledged, at least within ourselves, that part of who we are today is the song we know because we have loved and been loved? We are forever changed through what we have felt and experienced within an intimate relationship. That in itself is worth knowing.
In the light remaining from each previous love, we can better see our inner world, see who we are. No matter how the romance ended, it began in hopes and dreams and that mysterious spark, not all of it physical, that brings lovers together. All of this is true whether we find a new love or remain alone.
And why does it matter if we recognize this? It matters in that we are creatures who thrive on the natural flow of what sustains us, inspires us. Past loves, with their special and profound energy, are deep in our lifeblood. So, when we have a new love, we bring that, as a gift‚even if we hold our memories in silence.
Just as a tree contains the record of all its seasons within growth rings, each one encircling all the rest, each new love in your life encompasses all the previous ones. For trees, this process just occurs. But for human lovers to truly benefit from their previous growth, they must first acknowledge these "rings" and then choose how best to share them, if at all.
You might wonder how we found people to interview. Well, it wasn't easy. Although we assured each person that their story would be confidential, with all names and identifying details changed, not many people were actually willing to talk with us. A great many initially expressed interest, but for some that changed once they thought about it. Ultimately, those who agreed to speak with us responded either to newspaper ads or inquiries passed among friends. Even with the bias of self-selection, they offer an extremely wide range of viewpoints, from persons twenty-one to seventy-six. In the telling of their own stories, several people noticed substantial change in their responses to our questions. They started by being slightly removed, then found themselves much more emotionally engaged with their experience. Many were surprised at how much they had revealed‚to themselves and to us.
And who are the people we talked with? They include teachers, writers, students, homemakers, therapists, craftspeople, a nurse. Some are married, some living with a partner. Some are living separately from their lover or are between relationships.
We are immeasurably indebted to all those who talked with us, who laughed and cried while they revisited their earlier loves, who expressed fears and hopes about their intimate relationships. Their courage, honesty, and willingness to open their private lives to us, and to you, are gifts we deeply appreciate.
You will find that the chapters containing interviews are rich with personal revelations. Each begins with a preview of the stories you will find there. Occasionally we have used only parts of a person's story, or illustrative quotes. And Chapter Four provides a sketch of the territory of old flames, with nine condensed interviews.
Where the interviews are more complete, they are edited to remove repetition or unrelated discussion, to reduce our own presence, and to rearrange some material, making it more comprehensible. We wanted to include enough detail to allow you to understand the context of each person's choices. We hope that you will feel as if you are there with them, having long and soul-searching conversations‚and that through hearing the stories of others you will be inspired and empowered to look beyond the shadows. (You will notice that the interviews contain some italicized phrases or sentences. This is our way of highlighting statements we feel are particularly relevant, or that we will comment upon later.)
Throughout the book, we have included our reflections on the major issues that even the idea of sharing memories and feelings connected with prior loves brings up. And we have woven in stories of our own experience to illustrate those issues.
This book is for anyone who, from time to time, feels loss of, or love for, an old flame. It is for those who would like to find ways to integrate such feelings into their life, whether or not they choose to share them with a partner. It is for anyone who is interested in self-awareness and enhancing their relationship, who wants to make choices more in keeping with what they value.
This discussion may be particularly relevant for those who are between relationships, since it might be easier to approach these issues when you do not have a partner. And it may help people who have left relationships sensing that a deeper intimacy is not only possible, but worth the effort. It may also assist people in the helping professions in understanding some of what clients are experiencing.
Please note that the ideas in this book will have little or no value if your relationship is in serious conflict. Greater sharing of feelings about past loves is definitely not a way to "fix" or improve a deeply troubled relationship‚the risk of punitive behavior is too high.
There is no "right" way to approach the complex subject of previous romances. In the intricate process of coming to know and be known by another, every person and couple makes myriad choices, consciously or unconsciously, about what they disclose. These choices, reflecting the history and needs of each person, are of too great a consequence to be made using a single standard. What we offer is an unusual glimpse into the lives of others, one which enables you to encounter, in a more conscious way, your own feelings about past loves, questions of intimacy, and the meeting place between the two.