How to heal from previous relationships

What role did the four riders, relationship phases, floods and eternal problems play in your previous relationships?

This is such a common question and concern for people I see in my practice as well as people attending the Gottman Singles Workshop. People who are single and want to heal from previous relationships should think about this so that they can learn and grow and look at their patterns as well as the patterns of previous partners. If you are interested in this topic, please join us in Seattle for the one-on-one workshop on this topic and many more to help you learn successful partnerships. Below is a starting point to start thinking. This is just a starter kit to start your journey knowing that there is so much more to consider on your path to healing.

Four riders
What role did the Four Horsemen play in your previous relationship? It will be important to think about which of these four behaviors: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stone walls led to the downfall of your partnership. If you don’t know much about the concept of riders, please read more here.

For me, I have been overly defensive in my most important past relationship. I felt that I always had to be right and perfect. If my partner asked me to do something differently, I would come up with a reason to defend myself instead of just saying, “Ok, that makes sense” or “Yes, I could work on it for sure. “I know that being able to take on responsibility would have gone a long way in improving this relationship.

Of course, if you are recovering from a past abusive relationship, I would not ask you to consider your role in the abuse, but rather to see how degrading and harmful the other person’s scorn was. Then maybe you can see how the antidote to contempt (a culture of appreciation) is what you deserve in a healthy future relationship.

Phases of relationships
There are three distinct and natural phases that occur in a life of love. Dr. John Gottman describes that there are choice points in the course of a relationship where love either goes deeper or worsens.

Also known as the honeymoon phase, Limerence is the feeling of overwhelming infatuation that occurs the first time you date someone you have a spark with. We often call this feeling “having chemistry with someone,” which literally makes sense: tons of love chemicals flow through your body during this phase of love.

This is a nice phase. You can also miss out on red flags at this stage because you are more trusting and more likely to focus on your positive traits while avoiding negative trait awareness or red flags.

After the Limerence comes the trust phase. This is the state that occurs when you know your partner is acting and thinking about ways to maximize your interests rather than just his own interests. In other words, trust means knowing that “my partner has my back and is there for me”.

We build trust by being there for one another and fixing bad communications. At this stage, couples try to figure out, “Does this person have my back? Do you care about me? “

This is where the fighting comes most, as people try to decipher whether or not they can trust their partner to have their backs.

Commitment means believing (and acting on the belief) that this relationship with that person is a lifelong journey, for better or for worse. That said, if it gets difficult, both partners will work to improve it.

At this stage, you should avoid comparing your partner unfavorably with others. It’s about appreciating your partner’s positive traits and cultivating your gratitude for them.

As you ponder these phases, please think about the following questions: At what stage was your last or most important relationship concluded? What contributed to why it ended at this point? Which red flags could have been overlooked in the limerence phase of this relationship?

Another important thing to do is to check to see if any previous romantic partnerships have had any problems with what we call “flood”.

Flooding is a feeling of mental and physical overload. When your partner’s words or actions seem so intense that you feel completely defenseless against further attacks. Our bodies are fine-tuned to hold off an attack and they’re not very good at distinguishing subtleties. We know that your body releases the stress hormones when your heart rate is above 100 BPM and you are not exercising. In this case, it will be almost impossible to think creatively or access your sense of humor. At this point you are in fight, escape or freeze mode and are physiologically overwhelmed. Floods leave people so overwhelmed that they reject incoming information.

The first step in dealing with flooding is to take a break and temporarily end the discussion. The break should last at least 20 minutes to calm down. Many people find that the best approach to calming yourself is to focus on calming the body through deep breathing or meditative techniques.

Please consider the following questions to ponder this issue. What are you feeling flooded with? What are your body signs when you feel flooded? (Example: narrowing of eyesight, tightening of the chest, clenched fists) What role has flooding played in your previous intimate relationships? How could you cope with this problem in the future?

Perpetual problems
One last thing to think about here. All couples have persistent problems that they fight over. Even the relationship masters have lingering, eternal problems, but what sets them apart from relationship disasters is that they manage to find ways to dialogue about their problems instead of letting them become tight and painful.

Perpetual problems focus on either fundamental differences in your personality or lifestyle needs, while perpetual stuck problems have left untreated and calcified, creating tension and disputes. The problems are based on differences in the way people view money, discipline children, cleanliness, etc.

These are the issues a couple will keep coming back to. In everyone’s position there is a core need or dream. The relationship masters can talk about it and honor each other’s dreams. Read more about these topics here. Be ready to consider: what have been your constant problems? Was one of them stuck? Think about your needs in this topic and what you might need in future relationships on this topic.

There are more things to think about in order to heal from a previous relationship, but I hope you found a starting point and learned some lessons from it. “What love makes last” by Dr. John Gottman is another very helpful resource when you are in a place of healing and want something more in a future relationship. I highly recommend this book. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or find more resources at I wish you all a lot of fun healing.