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June 9, 2020

The Ghosts of Lovers Past: how to Break Free, Find Peace & still Hold Love for What Was.

So many of us have had that love.

That one person, that one relationship, that we can never really seem to shake.

For me, it’s the first woman I fell in love with after my marriage. Out of respect for her privacy, I’ll call her “Lainey.”

Lainey was the sort of woman I noticed months before I ever found an excuse to talk to her. The kind of woman I would fall in love with over and over again—while we were still in a relationship, and for months, and even years, afterward.

I recall one particular instance in which she had come to my office, months after we’d parted ways, for a meeting with one of my coworkers. I didn’t realize it was her; her back was toward me. Even still, the way she carried herself, the way she floated through the room, the way her hair fell across her back—everything about how she was in the world—broke me into a million pieces.

In the year that followed our breakup, I found myself perpetually comparing new love interests to the magic we’d created together. None held a candle to her. None carried themselves as confidently, nor loved me as well.

Lainey and I met shortly after my divorce. She was an enormous part of my becoming, my healing, my unraveling. I hold that time close to my heart. I held so much fragile tenderness, and she lent me her strength. She navigated the tumultuous seas of my tremulous heart with precisely the tact and compassion I had craved in the final years of my marriage.

So really, it’s no wonder I ached for her presence, always seeking the particular flavor of love she dished up, regardless of the beautiful potential offered by my subsequent lovers. And I’ll be honest, I walked away from several promising relationships at least in part because they couldn’t compare to what I’d had with Lainey.

Quite recently, I found myself longing for her again. Longing for Lainey—a seemingly perpetual ailment of my heart and one that I have oft wondered if there exists no cure on this earth sufficient to quiet it. I wound up looking through old pictures of our numerous wilderness adventures and wondering if I was making a mistake by not being with her.

So I took to my journal, as I do when I find myself cycling once again through familiar, often highly uncomfortable terrain. I began to jot the questions burning through my head and catching fire to my heart. I scribbled furiously the longings that led me to whiskey and unrequited love songs born of heartbreak.

But this time, I began to notice something different taking place. My hand and my head led me not to the interminable purgatory of grief, but to the logical explanation of why Lainey and I had split. I found myself at the end of a sentence, punctuated by a period, in which a simple fact stood shining like a blazing beacon of truth.

This time around, we weren’t meant to be.

Was our chemistry undeniable? Yes. 

Did we each fit into the other’s soul in a way which defied any possible explanation? Absolutely.

Were we born with the same wilderness-seeking heart and the same longing for a simple life in the woods? Without a doubt.

We were perfect for each other. And also, the timing wasn’t right, and our paths met at an incongruent crossroads.

As I sat staring at the words I myself had written, I found my heart quiet and still. The truth was there, even if it wasn’t pretty. And in that moment, I felt a peace wash over me. As I steeped in this acceptance, I also recognized something else.

I recognized that when I allowed myself to accept that our paths simply hadn’t aligned this time around, I was free to continue dwelling in the space of love, admiration, and mutual attraction. In releasing the pressure for our lives to somehow be something other than what they actually are, I had created space to continue loving Lainey as I always have, without having to be in love with her. I could hold her memory and the beautiful love we’d created without needing to grasp at the idea that the only fulfillment I could receive from her was if we were to once again be together.

Isn’t it, after all, the wealth and love and depth that our partners bring to our lives that so enrich us?

And shouldn’t all that bounty remain, regardless of their physical presence?

I feel these things to be true whether we are partnered or not. As I’ve grown as a man and as a lover, I’ve realized that the greatest blessing we can give ourselves is to feel into the abundant beauty offered us through partnership, whether past or present. I’ve also realized that our greatest acceptance of those gifts comes when we release them from the bonds of perpetual, manifest presence.

That is to say, we need not behold in front of us the entire mountain meadow to remember and receive something of its beauty. And the same is equally true of our past loves and lovers.

I put down my pen and closed my notebook. I stared off into the growing twilight outside my kitchen window. I heaved a heavy sigh comprised of equal parts surrender, reminiscence, and reverence. And for the first time since Lainey and I parted ways, I was content for her to exist forever in my memory, and not at all in my future.

That is where her gifts dwell, though they continue to bless my life in a million tiny ways, and my heart was at peace.

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