Why Do We Look Back On Past Love?

"So Anne, I know it's been a while but..."

This year, Valentine’s Day came and went with nary a card, a box of chocolates, or even the usual fighting between my preschool students for the honor of calling me their “girlfriend.”

Can you blame me for being depressed?

I began serial dating in August. And by “serial dating,” I mean that I challenged myself to go out with 30 men in three months. I nearly made it (I got a little creative with my mathematics in the end), but despite all of the first dates (20), the second dates (7), the third dates (4) and the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth dates (1 each), I still find myself single.

Being single, I’ve since learned, breeds not only depression but desperation. In my defense, I’m not yet desperate enough to call up the man responsible for my most recent eHarmony disaster, although I would like to know exactly why he left me standing on the street corner to hail my own cab. Nor do I find myself entertaining thoughts of a reunion with the Match.com man who made it all way to an eighth date with Yours Truly (okay, actually I do, but only when I’m stuck on a very long bus ride surrounded by undesirable characters of the malodorous variety; I have no intention of acting on these thoughts).

Instead I find myself reaching further back—into the vault, if you will: the vault of boyfriends past. Of course, this is a very dangerous road to go down. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows how easy it is to forget all the very reasons you ended the relationship in question and to instead to focus on the what-ifs.

What if I had slept with my first boyfriend?

What if I had been content to marry the man I dated in college, instead of moving to London?

What if I had stayed in London, instead of moving to Philadelphia? Would I be sharing that tiny flat in Hammersmith with my ex-boyfriend and his fundamentalist Christian sister-in-law?

Of course, the obvious answer to these questions is that I wouldn’t be the person I am today: 25, single and free to date whomever I damn well please. (And I’m reasonably certain I’d have never survived the flat in Hammersmith, lovely though it was at the time.)

But this knowledge was of little comfort when the storefronts were filling their windows with heart-shaped boxes and I knew I’d be lucky to get a few Sesame Street coloring book pages from my preschoolers and a bag of half-priced M&Ms from my parents.

My best friend is an international woman who works for a high-profile government organization. She recently engaged in a rather amorous liaison with a man who works for the CIA, regularly circumnavigates the globe, and speaks half a dozen languages. And yet, even she still has second thoughts about having dumped her lame high school boyfriend.

Another friend of mine, who is happily married and due to pop out her first child in April, still occasionally reminisces about the semi-famous boy bander she dated for all of six months in the ninth grade.

Why do we feel compelled to revisit the past when we ought to be focusing on the future? Why do we do this to ourselves?

According to my old boss (who hailed from Venice), the Italians have a saying that translates to, “don’t reheat old soup.” This would suggest that the tendency to look to the past when we should be looking forward is indeed universal.

I’m told the Poles have a similar expression, and I’m fairly certain that if I did enough research, I’d find that everyone has a similar expression. Because it’s true. Leftover soup never tastes as good the second time around, so there’s no point in trying.

But what about that Reese Witherspoon film, “Sweet Home Alabama?” A voice—a voice which I like to call “denial”—cries inside my head. Didn’t they break up, get together again and live happily ever after? And how do you explain Jane Austen’s “Persuasion?” (Denial strikes again.) Captain Wentworth and Anne would have never found each other again if they hadn’t allowed themselves a bit of reheated soup.

I can offer only the following explanation: I have my “go-to” memories for when I’m depressed because I like to remind myself that somebody, somewhere, loved me once. I suspect that my girlfriends second-guess their high school break-ups for the very same reason.

It’s like posting pictures of your high school sweetheart in your college dorm room. Even though you’ve broken up, gone to separate schools and stopped speaking after that incident with the hussy from Charleston, you need to be reminded that you had a date to prom, and what a good looking date he was!

In a weird way, the memories, the photographs, the old love letters and the “what ifs?” can be empowering. As long as we don’t let them go from reminder (“Yes, I was loved!) to regret (“Why couldn’t we make it work?”), then I see no problem.

So, please don’t mind me as I reheat some of this leftover soup. Don’t worry, though. I’m only going to take a sip or two.

And then I promise to stuff the rest into the very back of the fridge, where it belongs.

Read more about Kat’s dating “fieldwork” here.

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  • I think it depends on the soup. My chili is always better the second day.

    • Haha, very true when it comes to chili… so what’s the relationship equivalent of chili then?

    • “so what’s the relationship equivalent of chili then?”

      Friends with benefits. Tastes just as good when it’s reheated, is even better when you’re drunk, and you know that it’s not good for you but you don’t really care.

    • hahhahahaha yeah you right….baut some soup is sweet and bitter…. im right…

  • i think it’s perfectly normal to do this. Well, unless every single one of your past relationships ended in such utter disaster that the mere thought of reliving them makes you want to puke.

    But then, you’d probably have other issues…. 😉

  • Personally, I have always looked to past relationships to remind me of what I want in future relationships. You take the good, you leave the bad, and there you have the Facts of Life. Otherwise, you just find yourself making the same relationship mistakes over and over again!

  • Im currently reheating really bad soup. Even though I know the First Time round it was bad – Im hoping this time it leaves a better taste in my mouth.
    Hopefully Im not deluding myself too much.

  • Of course we all look back at past relationships. It’s hard not to think and wonder ‘what if?’

    One Wink’d associate dated a guy who trialed for the Olympic running team, then went on to work for NASA. She broke it off with him after a year… not because anything bad happened, simply because it wasn’t that passionate. Occasionally she’ll talk about him.

    And yet, she’s happy with her decision. I think we all tend to be happy with our decisions, because they are made for a reason. It’s easy in retrospect to forget all the bad things, all the reasons we ended a relationship in the first place.

    But the reasons were – and most likely, still are – there.

    Don’t you think?

    • Exactly! The reasons never go away… unless of course you believe that people can change 🙂

    • Against Canned Old Soup

      I do think people change, but not on our schedules; not when we want them to or hope they have. Just because we really hope the lame highschool ex has cleaned up his act, actually moved out of his parent’s house and say, gotten a job or something adult-like so we can go back and relive the teenage excitement of first love doesn’t mean he has, or will.

      The funny thing is life has a tendency to play tricks on you and even when you think you really, really want someone back, once he actually stands in front of you, starts apologizing and wants to get back together, you may realize that YOU have changed so much in the meantime you don’t even want to date him any more. Reality has a way of verifying what we think are our desires.

  • Ahhhh this is so true. I never even realized that I reminisced about my past relationships in order to remind myself that someone, somewhere, loved me once. But that’s totally why I do it. I do occasionally try (again) to figure out why those relationships didn’t work, but I think it’s really smart to focus on the positive – I was loved! And I will be again. And so will you.

  • I think its a combo of stuff. We look back to yes remind us that someone out there once found us irresistable, but I think its also the experience I shared with this one person. Moments that will never happen again and too special to forget.

  • Hey there, I just found your blog.

    What about those times when the soup is in your cabinet and you are just not feeling soup that day, steak seems more appealing, but then later you realize that soup is exactly what you needed, cause that steak left a bad taste in your mouth and wasn’t as good as you thought. I think it really depends on the situation, cause maybe you weren’t really ready for the past love when it was around, but now that you have grown and became your own, you are now. I am currently reheating old soup, we shall see if it’s like Chili. I’m agreeing with Crystal, chili is so much better the next day! 🙂

    • Ha, nice analogy. Just remember, though, that even canned soup has a shelf life, so you definitely don’t want to eat the stuff that’s been sitting there for years and years…. 😉

  • For me, I don’t miss the girlfriends as much as I miss the times in my life that I shared with them. I miss being a 17 year old with a mohawk, secretly dating my math teacher’s daughter. I miss having the stamina to keep up with my 24 year old Columbian TA during my sophomore year in college. I miss being a 23 year old grad student with an adorable Irish girlfriend whose family treated me like gold.

    These were great times in my life that I was lucky enough to experience with some really remarkable women. The girls always play a prominent role in these flashbacks, but more often than not, the more compelling memory is that younger, dumber version of myself, figuring it all out for the first time.

    After all, we’re always the main character of our own life stories, aren’t we?

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  • Personally, I think whether round two has any chance of success depends on how round one ended and how much baggage is left. I definitely think it’s bad to spend much time reheating old soup … but sometimes I like to reheat old soup to remember good times I’ve had and think about what a full life I have lived / am living… but maybe that’s just and excuse. Who know?

  • The problem with stuffing old soup way back in the fridge is that, eventually, it has to be thrown out.

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