Is love for somewhere you previously lived preventing you from enjoying fully where you now?

Published on March 27, 2012

Sometimes memories of enjoyable and rewarding attachments in the past interfere with forming similar positive attachments in the present. This post is about psychological strategies to prevent such maladaptive memories of places where we have lived in the past from interfering with the formation of positive new attachment to where you are living today.

I was reminded of this problem in a recent consultation with an expat businessman named Tom (to preserve confidentiality all names and places have been altered). When Tom first came to therapy, his difficulty adapting to life in Singapore, had caused difficulties in both his personal and professional life. However, he had progressed well in therapy, his initial symptoms had disappeared, and this was a largely a “maintenance” session. I noticed that, as he had done occasionally in past sessions, Tom mentioned how he remembered very fondly his previous posting in Boston, Massachusetts.

I asked him if it was possible that his deep affection for Boston was, to an some extent, responsible for him having had a hard time adapting to life in Singapore. He agreed and his confession struck a note in my own mind. I shared with him that I had similar deep emotional attachment to Hong Kong, where I previously lived for seven years. I also shared how I compared every place I lived since with Hong Kong and found them lacking, especially with respect to dim sum for which Hong Kong is tops!

hong_kong

I introspected a bit more and then wondered aloud to Tom if we had both literally “fallen in love” with cities the same way people fall in love with people. Tom nodded in agreement and asked me if there was a way to end such a “love affair” with a city. Thus began a most interesting conversation between us about specific steps he could take to solve his problem.

I think it was John Bradshaw, one of the pioneers of the codependence approach, who stated that therapists may occasionally find themselves only a few steps ahead of their clients in solving a particular problem. This was true for me in regard to Tom’s problem. I think my lingering affection for Hong Kong interfered with my feeling fully at home in Kuala Lumpur where I had lived for seven years or in Singapore where I reside now.

The problem of past love affairs (with people not cities) interfering with present ones or preventing the formation of new ones is a frequent one in counseling. Fortunately, considerable therapeutic wisdom on this topic has been developed. I told Tom that I had applied some of this knowledge to reduce my romantic attachment to Hong Kong. The strategies which had been developed worked for me to a significant extent. Although even today, eleven years after leaving Hong Kong, every time I see a view of the Hong Kong harbor on CNN news, I feel a little tug on my heart.

Thus it was that Tom and I began to see how he could apply these psychological techniques for ending past love affairs to his infatuation with Boston. I have outlined these strategies below. I hope if any readers of this blog have had a similar “city (or country) infatuation”, you will share them by sending in your comments. If there are any questions or comment, I will expand discussion of these strategies in future posts.

Strategies for reducing or ending unwanted memories of past attachments to places

 

Distancing yourself

The first strategy is to physically stay away from the place you want to forget about for at least a year. This helps to extinguish the memories by not refreshing them during an actual visit. This is a step I advise my clients to take to end a failed love affair i.e. to have no contact in any way with the person involved for 9 to 12 months.

Be conscious of memories

Every time you experience an emotionally strong memory of the place, then that is almost like taking an actual trip there and your memory will be reinforced not extinguished. The second approach involves ways to cope with unwanted intrusive memories of the place. For this, there are a number of strategies. One cannot prevent such memories from entering consciousness but one can control how long one dwells on them.

Try to become aware when you are remembering your past life in that favorite city and say to yourself something to make you realize first that it is in the past and to bring you back to the present. In my case as soon as I became conscious that I was having a memory of Hong Kong, I would consciously stop the memory by saying to myself “Brian, you are remembering Hong Kong again. That is in the past. Focus on what you are doing right now.”

I would not admonish myself or criticize myself for having the memory but simply accept it and move on to focusing on the present. Tom had read Ekhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” and this increased his ability to focus on the here and now, on the present moment and hence to terminate the intrusive memory of Boston.

Meditation

Practice daily meditation to increase your awareness and control over you mind. Spontaneous memories of your “city infatuation” are similar to the intrusive thought during meditation. The meditator uses passive acceptance of such thoughts. Daily meditation strengthens our ability to be aware of such thoughts and also how to use passive acceptance to return quickly to our meditation. So you might want to take up the daily practice of meditation to strengthen these abilities and improve your ability to cope with memories of your favorite place.

Be objective about Memories

Another approach to decrease the influence of a past love affair, whether it is to a city or a person is attain a more realistic and balanced belief about the relationship. For example many people in reminiscing about a past love affair think only of the good times. In their tendency to see the relationship as perfect, they deny or omit the negative aspects. This leads to having an unrealistic idealistic view of this person or city. I suggest instead to take time to consider, and even write out, the good and the bad points, the pros and the cons, the happy and the unhappy memories of the person or the place.

The tendency to see only the good side of  someone when we fall “in love” is well studied.  We see only the good points of our lover not the bad points. Pat Love in her book “ The Truth About Love” discusses how when one falls in love, there are chemical changes in the body and brain so that we are intoxicated by the “love cocktail” which blinds us to the flaws in our lover. 

From the point of view of evolutionary theory, there may be a use in such blindness in that it increases our bonding to the person, to reproduce and care for the young.  Perhaps this same love cocktail influences us to stay in a particular place and to do so happily.  It may explain the close bonding between man and the “earth” so obvious in more isolated cultures.

Sense of belonging to a home

Another approach that may help is to understand more clearly why you fell in love with the overseas location.  Many expats had felt rootless even in their country of origin.  In fact it was this rootlessness which caused them to emigrate in the first place..  In my own case, I had emigrated as a three year old child from Scotland to Canada where I never really felt at home.  It is intriguing that one of the things I found most attractive about Hong Kong was the remnants of the old British lifestyle e.g. high tea. 

Did this satisfy memories from my infancy in Scotland?  It is interesting to note that Tom’s family had also emigrated so Tom may have felt rootless in his home country before taking the post in Boston. The overseas posting may have offered higher pay or increased status.  All of these perks may have set us up to “fall in love” with our overseas posting.  Realizing the sources or reasons for our infatuation will help us to evaluate things more objectively.

Fate Myth

Realize that your “place infatuation” and inability to bond to a new place  may involve, what I call the “fate myth”  This is the romanticized belief that only one person or one place can fulfill your needs, that god or fate intended us to be with a particular person or to live in a particular place. 

Explore your new environment

Give yourself permission to explore your new city and open yourself up to its own charms.  Much more could be said here about specifically how to do this but that will have to remain for a future post.


Category(s):Other

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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