Can You Redo Old Relationships?


The palm reader told me nothing good could come out of my past—which was weird, because I’d just started dating A., a boyfriend from a past life. But she was a tired-looking chain-smoker telling fortunes out of her apartment in the Castro and I was feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.

It seemed so right. Fate isn’t something I really believe in, but…OK, sometimes I sort of do. Mostly when things are suddenly and inexplicably going well. And this was one of those times. A. and I had reconnected so easily—despite being on opposite coasts, despite not having spoken in years, despite things having ended very, very badly before.

We’d first dated in college. I never considered it serious, although he was explicit at the time about wanting more. Later and for a while we kept up a long-distance friendship—long letters, late-night phone calls, flirtatious holiday visits. And then there was a trip to San Francisco, a drunken confrontation—yes, it ended very, very badly.

The romance of our youth was fueled by The Magnetic Fields, innumerable bottles of cheap wine, and a melancholy longing for some indefinable thing that seemed ever beyond our grasp.

But here we were so many years later, trying to be adults. We lived in big cities, had real jobs. (A poet, A. had somehow conned his way into a job in finance; I was sober, teaching, and feeling better than I had in years.) This time, we thought, we could get it right.

And hey, instant relationship! We didn’t have to waste time with trivial things like getting to know each other or falling in love.

Let me say here that I don’t fall in love easily—and I’m not an easy person to love. Depression and anxiety-prone, I crave human connection yet tend to keep people at a distance. I also manage to be exasperatingly insecure while maintaining impossibly high standards—for myself and everyone else.

In my drinking days I compulsively threw myself at any halfway decent guy in sight somewhere between my fourth and eighth beer, at which point I was saying who-knows-what and trying not to fall of my bar stool: hot. But more often than not I was fixated on someone for just the amount of time he didn’t seem available—if and when he was, my interest lagged.

At 31, after years of intermittent dating, more than a few one-night stands, and a handful of failed relationships, I was newly determined to fall in love–with someone who loved me back.

A. knew all my flaws (and all the terrible things I’d done in my drunken twenties), and he loved me anyway. It seemed practically miraculous. And it was incredibly romantic. The longing in the distance between us fueled the feeling of meant to be.

But as soon as he left Brooklyn for my adopted home of San Francisco and we moved in together, I started feeling claustrophobic. His need for me, as in the past, grew stifling. Living together brought arguments, tension and emotional distance, less and less sex, couples’ counseling. After a year I finally accepted that it was not, in fact, meant to be. Half in shock, I found a sublet and moved out.

And after two months of fruitlessly searching for an affordable place to live in San Francisco, I decided to return to my east coast hometown. If you really want to revisit the past, move back to your hometown—and then start dating the Reformed Bad Boy High School Ex—the guy who took you to your high school prom.

At least my High School Ex and I shared a slightly less dramatic history. We’d dated somewhat casually senior year—like A., I knew he’d wanted more, but he was better at playing it cool, more careful about professions of love—then and now. Our burgeoning relationship didn’t bear the pressure of long distance or shared poetic notions about fate. It felt like we were taking the time to get to know each other again. And although I hadn’t been in love with him before, now it felt entirely possible.

Until, at some point and for no clear reason, it didn’t. I must have burned through the adrenaline that propelled me through breakup and coastal relocation, and my chronic depression had reemerged. I didn’t know if I was actually too depressed to feel anything or the relationship had just run its course, but whatever the reason, my heart was no longer in it. Once again I broke things off.

So what kept pulling me back to the boys of my youth? Was I attempting to travel back in time, rewrite history? I DID do things differently the second time around: I committed. When things got hard, I didn’t check out with alcohol or seek male attention elsewhere. I wasn’t cruel or thoughtless in the myriad of ways I’d been when I was younger. In some ways these relationships were very different from their earlier iterations.

But ultimately it felt like we played out a new variation of the old pattern. In the end, I couldn’t love them back—not fully, not in the way I wanted to, no matter how badly I wanted to.

I still wish I could have. That last relationship ended two years ago, and I haven’t been seriously involved with anyone since.

Maybe the palm reader was right. Maybe I’m terminally nostalgic. Maybe I will always long for something indefinable and just beyond my grasp. There’s this voice in my head that insists I’ll never fall in love, questions whether I ever really have. Are you even capable? it asks. That voice tends to be overly dramatic, though; I try not to listen.

One of these days I’ll meet someone new, and when I do, we’ll start from the beginning. I think I’m ready to let the past be the past.

Have you ever tried to find a future in the romance of your past?

This article originally appeared on xoJane.