Recent Engagement Brings Up Emotional Memory from the Past

Reader’s Question

I’m a 39-year-old female who divorced after 12 years of marriage two years ago. It took me awhile to realize that I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship with my ex-husband, and only woke up after his lover called me to tell me that he had been cheating on me for several years. Despite the heartache, I was relieved to get out of this relationship. I have been dating a man for about a year whom I love and who has treated me with the utmost respect and care. He asked me to marry him and I said yes with plans to marry in another year. However, ever since the engagement, I have been having some trepidation over this decision. Every time he mentions a future together, I begin to experience negative feelings. The thought of marriage makes me feel irritable, anxious, and depressed. Lately, when he is near me, I become emotionally numb. I keep asking myself “is he really the one?” and “what if this doesn’t work out?” I don’t want to lose him, but I am not happy since I’m consumed with anxiety and worry. Am I getting cold feet or is this something else?

Your input is greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s most likely the “something else”. Getting “cold feet” in these situations is actually our apprehension regarding the future…the normal future that is! When we first ride a roller coaster at an amusement park we have “cold feet” and anticipate many of the negative outcomes such as nausea, being frightened, or being afraid of heights. Cold feet is common in a first marriage and works in the same manner — being apprehensive about 24/7 with the partner, in-laws, etc.

You have cold feet, and that’s normal for such a dramatic change in the relationship. However, you also have “emotional memory” and that’s the problem. Emotional Memories contain details of events and the emotions we experienced at the time. As you approach a new marriage, your only marriage memory references are those of your abusive relationship. It’s why we always think of our marriages when we attend a wedding — the brain automatically looks for our personal memories on a subject/situation. If you think about it (which causes the problem, by the way), those worries, depression symptoms and sense of emotional numbness are exactly how you felt during the last years of your first marriage. It’s like having an appointment with a dentist and all we can think of is our last root canal.

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Sadly, these emotional memories are very strong and can seriously influence your mood. Even worse, they have nothing to do with your current boyfriend and he will be totally unable to understand your situation. If he has no negative emotional memories to deal with, he’s anticipating a wonderful marriage to the love of his life…and you’re feeling emotionally numb!

I’d recommend reading my article on Emotional Memory. You’re being haunted by past marriage memories. The brain pulls those memories automatically. If you think of wonderful times you’ve had with your new boyfriend — it brings up wonderful feelings. That’s just the way the brain’s memory system works. Counseling may also help you sort out many of these feelings and apprehensions.

In a way, you’re anticipating the future by remembering your past. That doesn’t work well when our past has abuse, disrespect, infidelity, and low self-esteem in it. Rather, anticipate your future by fantasizing how wonderful it will be…thus changing your mood to a positive place.

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