Nostalgia in Relationship

Memory deceives with how it flattens experience. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than when we reminisce on a past relationship. When you were with your partner you were sometimes angry, often irritated, and while there were surely moments of ecstasy and fulfilment, there was, of course, a reason (or many) why you left them (or they left you). But, looking back, you can only remember the good times; the way she used to smile at you when you made an awful dad-joke, or how she would occasionally run up from behind and hug you, or how, when you were feeling really down, she would gently place her hand on your arm and tell you that it would all be okay. What was once ordinary becomes charming.

Nostalgia is just as much an expression of past truths as a result of present disillusionment. After all, it is not for nothing that we grab onto these moments, not when we are elated but when we are despondent, desperately trying to return to a point in our lives where we felt (or like to think we felt) truly happy.

Consider, for a moment, a parody of nostalgia for our exes. During industrial revolution Britain, when railway tracks and telegraph lines were being laid across the land, and people were thrust into enormous and anonymous cities, the artistic community was set on capturing a period in time where they felt things were better: the Middle Ages. They produced paintings capturing idyllic, frictionless communities and meaningful relationships in a time before industrialisation ruptured social bonds and despoiled landscapes.

But, of course, it was a ruse. The Middle Ages was a time of misery and cruelty, of famines and plagues. The artists were exhibiting what the psychologist Carl Jung termed ‘compensation’. The Romantics found the present so wretched that they invented a counter-balance in the form of an idyllic and blissful past.

The Dancing Couple, Jan Steen, 1663.

But this type of imagination about the Middle Ages was not about knowledge (that is, how things actually were) but rather, a form of insight (how the artists saw the past). The nostalgic attitude to the past disregarded why things ever changed, just as we – when we look back on a recently ended relationship  – overlook why we are no longer with that person. We become caught up in the emotional turbulence of the heart and lose our intellectual footing.

Industrialisation was a movement away from the many intolerable aspects of peasant existence. There was certainly reasons why it happened. Likewise, a breakup is a movement away from many other intolerable experiences of cancelled dates, misunderstood thoughts, and unreciprocated feelings.

Memory is an unreliable friend. We edit out and simplify memories, or completely forget others in unconscious attempts to create a ‘happy place’ in our mind that we can retreat to and escape our current misery. What we require is a type of brutal honesty that we might now be able to give ourselves. We may need someone else to remind us that there were reasons, good ones at that, for why things ended.

But, intellectualising the problem in this way will only get us so far. Healing does not come from realising how bad things might have been, and collating the reasons why you should have broken up. Rather, healing, or at least, the remedy for the current pain, comes from understanding that the feeling of nostalgia is not about the past but rather, about the present. It is about you, here, now, and that while you left something behind that has left a hole in your heart, the cure lies in finding something new to provide fulfilment, rather than seeking an idealised past that never existed.

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