Why Bringing Up the Past in Relationships is Unhealthy

bringing up the past

By Jackie Pilossoph, Creator and Editor-in-chief, Divorced Girl Smiling site, podcast and app, Love Essentially columnist and author

I hear so often from men and women having marital issues, as well as couples going through a divorce, that one or both partners keeps bringing up the past. What does bringing up the past mean? It can mean a few different things:

 

1. What each person did when they were single (before they even knew each other). For example, “I can’t believe you were such a womanizer and slept with all those women!” or “You had a one night stand when you were 21?!”

2. What each did in the early years of dating and/or marriage. For example, “You know that you never changed one diaper when our children were babies?” or “I can’t believe you were so mean to me the night of So and So’s wedding.”

3. What they have done recently–as the marriage started to fall apart. For example, “You have gone out to dinner with your girlfriends every Thursday for the past month. How do you think that makes me feel?” or “You should have been at my mom’s 70th birthday party. I can’t believe you would miss it.”

Here is an email I received from a reader whose spouse keeps bringing up the past:

I have been with my husband since the age of 18 and we have been married for almost 30 years and have three kids. The first 20 years were pretty wonderful. Unfortunately, that all changed about 5 years ago. Sometime early in our marriage, information slipped out during a drinking evening about my sexual past before I met him.

 

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He became very upset. He seemed to let it go and I thought that he had dealt with it and that we had moved on.  But five years ago, after watching a movie which mirrored our situation, he lost it and went out walking in the rain for hours.  He came back and broke down emotionally and said that I had broken him and our marriage.  He told me he had no respect for me and that I had deceived him into marrying me thinking I was a certain kind of person, when I was actually a lying manipulative slut.

We have gone for counseling, but that has not worked.  I don’t know whether to stay or get divorced.  We have no sex life or any physical touching and he watches porn on a regular basis, despite the fact he knows it hurts me.  But, in every other way, he is supportive of me.  He supports my career, he is a partner at home in chores and we are comfortable financially.  We also have a lot in common and have a lot of fun together.   

 

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Three words come to my mind after reading this: This. Poor. Woman.

 

I’m not a therapist, but I don’t think it takes one to figure out what’s going on here. This guy, who was very very happily married was hiding his own issue with sex and sex addiction. When he heard what his wife did many many years ago, he became enraged because he has secret shame that he wants to do the same thing now!

He is constantly looking at porn because of his own sexual addiction (or whatever is going on with him) and displacing his pain and shame onto his wife (who has done nothing wrong!) He’s mad at himself. He hates himself for looking at porn but wants to blame her. He is desperately trying not to face the fact that he has a sex addiction and the easiest way to do that is to bring up the past and blame her for being young and irresponsible–before they were married!!

In my opinion, this man needs to talk to a therapist, realize what he is doing, and get help for his sex issues. This woman did nothing wrong!!  When a couple begins dating exclusively—when they have the conversation that they are not going to see other people anymore, that is when things really start to count. So the past does not matter!

 

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If the couple is truly committed, then they should accept each other for who they are, which means they shouldn’t concern themselves with what happened to each of them in the past, before they knew each other (or even before they became exclusive, for that matter)

For example, if one of them slept with 100 people, they can choose to disclose that, (which I would recommend-I don’t think anyone should go into a marriage without being an open book) but if he has been tested for STD’s and is now committed to being monogamous, does it really matter? I really don’t think it does.

 

If you started dating exclusively on April 8th, then anything that happened pre-April 8 shouldn’t matter. There are exceptions. But I’d say for the most part, why does it really matter? It sounds like this woman was a little bit sexually promiscuous. As long as she stopped the behavior when the two were exclusive, and as long as she didn’t hurt anyone, and as long as she was sexually responsible—getting tested for STD’s, etc. then why does her past matter? Furthermore, this man and woman were married for almost 30 years! Doesn’t three decades of a great marriage override what she did in the past?

 

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The bottom line is, whether it’s something your partner did before you met, during the marriage or in divorce, bringing up the past is completely unproductive and a huge waste of time. In fact, it’s detrimental to having a good marriage and/or having an amicable divorce.

All bringing up the past does is create resentment and hostility. Bringing up the past causes anger, frustration and bad feelings, in general. I mean, how is bringing up the past beneficial? Can you do something about what happened in the past? No!

All this said, if you and your spouse find yourselves bringing up the past, here are a few tips on what you can do:

1. Realize that bringing up the past isn’t productive, catch yourself and stop.

2. Apologize. If your spouse says, “You never helped when the kids were babies,” take a minute to say, “I’m really sorry for that. I can’t change the past, but I want you to know that I validate what you are saying. I should have helped and for that, I truly apologize.”

3. Use the past information to change for the better for now and in the future. Maybe if you never helped when your kids were babies, offer to start helping more now–with household chores, driving the kids, etc. Or, offer to be a good husband/wife in divorce by helping with the kids as much as you can.

 

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In closing, what people who bring up the past don’t realize is, there is nothing you can do to change what happened. In other words, how is bringing up the past serving you? It doesn’t. So, what will serve you? Focusing on today and tomorrow and beyond. What can make your marriage better? What can help you have a better divorce? If you stop looking back and start looking ahead, you will watch your life become so much more productive and better. Try it!

 

Like this post? Check out “9 Signs of a Healthy Romantic Relationship”

 

Buy novels by Jackie Pilossoph

 

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Jackie Pilossoph

Editor-in-chief: Jackie Pilossoph

Divorced Girl Smiling is here to empower, connect and inspire you. Jackie Pilossoph is the creator and Editor-In-Chief of Divorced Girl Smiling, the site, the podcast and the app. A former television journalist and newspaper features reporter, Pilossoph is also the author of four novels and the writer of her weekly relationship column, Love Essentially. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism and lives in Chicago with her two teenagers. The author of the novels, Divorced Girl Smiling and Free Gift With Purchase, Pilossoph also writes the weekly dating and relationships advice column, “Love Essentially”, published in the Chicago Tribune Pioneer Press and the Chicago Tribune online. Additionally, she is a Huffington Post contributor. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism from Boston University.

15 Responses to “Why Bringing Up the Past in Relationships is Unhealthy”

  1. Miserable but feeling guilty

    I am the one who wrote the letter above to you. I am finally ready to leave my marriage, but I am feeling a lot of guilt and I don’t know how to cope with it. I have been my husband’s whole world for a very long time and he has absolutely no one else in his life. He is a homebody and does not have any friends. He also is not close to his family. I feel horrible about leaving him all alone with no support system, but we are both unhappy in our marriage and the only thing that has been keeping it going has been a very unhealthy lifestyle of drinking together to create false intimacy. I have been using the alcohol to keep myself content and now that I have stopped, my true feelings have emerged stronger than ever and I want to pull away and be alone. How do I deal with the reality that my husband will have no one if I leave?

    Reply
    • Jackie Pilossoph

      First of all, great job on recognizing the drinking and stopping!! I hope you are in a program that will offer you the support to stick to it. As far as your husband, talk to him. Tell him how you feel. You can’t be responsible for yourself and for him, right? He needs to find his way. You should consider counseling together–even if you are splitting up.

      Reply
      • Miserable but feeling guilty

        Thanks for your response, Jackie. Unfortunately, my husband has never really believed in counseling and this was solidified when he felt they were blaming him – the hurt one – and trying to change him instead of me.

        I am going back to counseling on my own to help deal with the guilt and the drinking, though. Thanks again! I feel like I am moving towards a better life, albeit very slowly.

        Reply
  2. Max

    Thank you for being so honest with your story. I am in a similar situation however i am the guy who feels very much like your husband. My wife and i have been married for 3 years with two kids. I found about her sexual past and feelings of incredible jealousy and hurt came. I know what your husband is going through and yes he needs to get over it but at the same time there is a place for you to help and support. I remember feeling depressed and less of a man for being with my wife as horrible as it sounds. Please talk to him and reassure him that in some way or another he was special. He is hurt more than anything. Hope this helps

    Reply
  3. Wayne

    I learned the truth about my wife’s promiscuous past twenty-five years after we married. She slept around and was very open about sleeping with anyone regardless as to whether she even liked the guy. I cannot get the visions out if my head. She lied for 25 years and tricked me into marrying a sl**. I feel I have no choice but to leave her.

    Reply
  4. Alan Dawson

    You don’t understand the first thing about men, Jackie. Like most women advice columnists, you never take so much as one second to understand the male psyche and arbitrarily assume that we should think like women.

    Right or wrong, most all men want a woman who they feel is (and wasn’t) accessible to other men. To have a woman that stripped naked and gave out the best physical part of herself to man after man after man is hurtful, demoralizing and most importantly, emasculating. (See Wayne’s comment above). Just because you don’t want to accept this and want to have your cake and eat it too, doesn’t change this fact.

    This girl knew that. It is why she clearly concealed that info from her husband. She was lying to him to reel him in. She manipulated him by passing herself off as one kind of woman (the kind he would want), when she was clearly another kind of woman.

    No Jackie, women can’t just flippantly say, “Those 20-30 other men are now in my past… now I am ready to settle down with you, where you will cherish me and love me unconditionally and we’ll live happily ever after!” There’s not a man out there (except for swingers and men with low grade Asperger’s) that can just mindlessly think that a promiscuous past is no big deal.

    I challenge you to Google, some variation of, “I don’t care about my wife’s past… it makes her the woman she is today!” You won’t have hardly any hits. Then Google something like, “I can’t get over my wife’s past” and see how many thousands of hits come up.

    Reply
    • Jackie Pilossoph

      While I respect your opinion, I think you don’t understand the first thing about yourself, which is that that you are very angry with women, in general. My 4 year boyfriend doesn’t have Asperger’s (which is really a dig for people who are on the spectrum) and he isn’t a swinger, and we always say “What happened before we started dating stays in the past.” Now, neither of us were particularly promiscuous, but like everyone else on the planet, we did some stupid things, dated the wrong people, made relationship mistakes, and did things we regret. That said, we are dating each other as who we are NOW, not who we were when we were in our twenties, thirties or even our 40’s. The point is, we all grow (hopefully) and we learn from the past and we try to be the best people we can be TODAY. We don’t judge each other for what we did in the past. And lastly, I don’t think I am like “most women advice columnists.” I speak from my heart with honesty, love and a deep passion for helping people.

      Reply
    • Donald

      I too was lied to and now find myself married to a former slut. Sex to her is no big deal, although it is incredibly important emotionally for me. I found out after 20 years of marriage. We will probably divorce.

      Reply
  5. William

    The past is only the past when it comes to past sexual relationships. Take for instance your credit score, which takes into account your PAST payment history. A resume which takes into account your PAST job performance. A criminal background check which is your PAST behavior. People are the sum of their past. Why are political candidates vetted? Their Past indicates who they are today.
    It seems the past is past when it comes to sexual history is to justify behavior.

    Reply
  6. James Anderson

    I stumbled on this thread. Again, you need to look at all the responses. They are from men who are all saying the exact thing that Alan said. There’s not one man stating (what you want to believe), which is that it is okay for a woman to be as promiscuous as she wants and then still have the God-given entitlement and right to pick any high-status, high-quality man she chooses.

    Most modern women have this complete entitlement mentality about sex, dating and relationships, which leads them to eventual ruin. It is constantly buttressed by their fellow women who use their positions as relationship “experts”, therapists and advice columnists. They NEVER challenge them on their behavior or look at the man’s point of view. They just use their platforms to say, “You go, girl!”

    Be honest. If you had two equal men to pick from and one had only a few partners and the other was pushing a high double digit body count with a lot of one night stands, which one would you pick? The same goes for men.

    I hate to be the bearer of harsh news, but just like women, men have the exact same right to pick a high quality woman to settle down with. Women who get naked and randomly give themselves completely to several men, are not high quality women and most of the time, will not make a good spouse. The true high quality “knights in shining armor” are going to bypass those types and pick the women who did not randomly give themselves out.

    Why, because women who don’t screw around show that they possess greater maturity level and moral integrity. Feminists try to use the modern phrases like “sex positive”, but it really is just a euphemism for age-old phrase, “skank”. In reality, they are not experimental, adventurous or liberated, they are immature, insecure and immoral.

    Read this thread and what the overwhelming majority of other men online say. Simply circling today’s date on a calendar and then condescendingly shrugging your shoulders and saying, “it’s in my past, so get over it”, does not make it all go away.

    Also, none of these common viewpoints are fueled by some deep rooted anger at women. It’s fueled by a desire to pick a good life partner that you can be proud of.

    Reply
  7. Chris

    I recently discovered my wife’s past after 30 years of marriage. Her encounters (not all were intercourse) were in high school. We met when we were 18 at my first military duty station. She was very forward with me our first night and we had sex. She claimed her love for me days later and swore she was a virgin, though my gut told me otherwise. I still married her and have had a great life together. I recently discovered she was easy with two others before me and had sex, both were first dates…not easy to stomach; I didn’t feel so special anymore. She lied for almost 16 weeks admitting to them then denying the events…and yes the compulsion to ask details was overwhelming; location, sizes, position, duration, all the stupid things you later regret asking. She would say she liked it and released, then say it never happened; it was maddening. She would say she liked the way they kissed, then later recant…I would call her out on being able to even recall what they looked liked much less remembering how they kissed 30 years ago. Her statements were hurtful and baffled me. I later discovered she was bullied, manipulated, and raped/assaulted by a boyfriend several times when she was 16. This led to her activities later in school, all due to low self-esteem, being a pleaser, etc… Now I hear the details of her rape and assaults during counseling sessions and its very disturbing, but I still feel the jealousy of the other situations. I catch myself still asking questions not realizing those events are intimately tied to her rapes and it takes her back to her worst moments, though my mind is so fixated on asking questions that I don’t realize what my actions are doing to her. My point is not every situation is what it initially seems; not every woman that’s lied about their past was promiscuous and some may have underlying reasons for keeping secrets. My wife admitted to the encounters long before admitting to the rapes. There was a lot of shame, self-hate, disgust and extreme regret for what had occurred. I’m not defending the women with dozens of experiences, but the past is the past and our own insecurities become like quicksand. I feel for the men who find out about their wives later in marriage, the hurt and rage can consume you. Counseling helps, but as men we have to pull our wives to their feet and love them. Don’t demean them…they told you about their past because, in most cases, they trusted you to be understanding and compassionate. Believe me, they more than likely hate themselves for what they did and need your support. Most want to have a new start and have chosen you to be their provider/protector. Please find it in yourself to forgive things that were in their past and help them thrive in your marriage. Be a loving and understanding husband, not an emotional abusive prosecutor. It hard to overlook her past, but her past made her what she is…even the bad. Ignore the jealousy BS, tell her you love her and man the fuck up.

    Reply
    • Hopeful for change

      How did you decide to love your wife and stay married to her regardless of all the anger you felt from knowing about her past? How did you learn to deal with it?

      We have been married for one year, important things (like partners, etc) were disclosed before marriage and then more details once we married and it just seems he cannot accept it.

      How did you overcome your rage and do you have any advice as to what I can do to alleviate his pain and anger? I feel horrible for causing him so much shame.

      Reply
      • Chris

        I love my wife regardless of her past. It hurts to know she was with someone before me and I do still get upset at times…some days are better than others. There is a lot more to my situation than I addressed during my initial post. My wife suffers from Complex-PTSD, which made her say extremely hurtful things that no husband should ever hear; most men would have probably bailed from the beginning, but I knew it wasn’t like her to say those things. She would say she was in love with someone she dated back in high school and has loved them during our 30 years of marriage, but loved me more; wishing she’d given her virginity to him; that he was her first and one true love, etc… All of that was nonsense because they only dated twice. Almost every hateful thing was said during the beginning of our shit-storm about four months ago. My badgering definitely created more harm than good and attributed to her taking cheap shots at me. I wanted details, but got detailed lies and weird confessions. Like I mentioned before, all due to her PTSD. Some things were said out of spite due to my endless questions that caused her considerable torment, though I didn’t realize I was hurting her at the time…I just wanted answers and nothing she said matched comments she made previously, so the questioning became worse and more intense.
        Most of what’s happening between you both is due to his insecurity. His mental movie about what you did in your past is playing in his mind and is killing him and creating distress for you. Sit down with him and discuss it openly…you need to be completely honest with him. Assure him you will be open and honest. More than likely your version of things will be so much less than what’s playing in his mind. If he has a history, remind him how it effects you…putting the pressure on him will help him realize what’s he’s doing to you, but be sincere about how it hurts you. The absolute best course of action is to reassure him you love him. Tell him he’s the stud you’ve always dreamed of; he’s outshines all others in every aspect…he’s your best kiss, your guardian/protector, and after meeting him all others were dog shit. Say it and mean it. Tell him you have so much regret and you wished he was your first and only. Tell him the sex was terrible; you’re disgusted looking back that you allowed them to touch you. You need to pander to him. I know this all sounds weird, but he needs your reassurance. Retroactive jealousy can be consuming. He’s probably ashamed of acting out and may even feel he’s looks weak in your eyes for being so jealous. Even if events happened before the two of you met, he’s watching that move in his mind and it’s playing as if it happened yesterday and its killing him inside. I had my wife provide an affirmation of her love to me, and it helped…I have it one my phone and even printed/framed it. When you talk, be honest and sincere, but you’ll need to stand your ground…don’t allow him to play word games and trip you up on the details. Don’t involve others; family nor friends. Have a safe word if things get out of hand and stick to it. We say ‘jinks’…its aggravating to hear it when things are heated, but it helps to ensure things cool down for awhile.

        Reply
  8. Dez

    Ah yes, you portray yourself as something you’re not and dupe someone into making a commitment to something that costs them time and financially…..in some aspects of life you can be jailed for this because it’s called fraud!
    30 years, 20 years, 2 days, or 20 minutes. No man is going to take pride in knowing that this special person isn’t so special….infact she’ll let anyone inside of her. I mean, of course some guy has to love that he bought the cow when others were getting the milk for free.
    What child wouldn’t be proud to come down the beey vagina that had random cocks crammed into it? Who wouldn’t love knowing that their mother couldn’t keep her legs shut and was so hungry for penis that she couldn’t control herself. What man wouldn’t be proud to have children with a woman who would lay down and do the act of procreation with anyone?
    Yeah, the past is the past, until you’re with someone and they have to take it on. Is the past the past when someone has bad credit? Debt? Criminal?
    Why do you think there’s checks for credit, work history, and background? To gauge who you are.
    Only women pull this “past is the past” because they suddenly want to get married and have all the trappings that good women deserve.
    Here’s the thing, if I go to a resturant and I get my meal and everyone there has taken a bite, I get stuck with a half eaten plate, and you ask only for me to pay for it, I’m walking out. Get one of those guys to pay for it.
    Same here, you want the marriage? You want the kids? Go ask one of those randos you let bang you to do it.
    Oh wait, he’s not going to care because you’re just a piece of ass. Which what ever man wants, to be married to another man’s slut. So much pride knowing another man could say that about your wife and a child could have that said about their parent.
    So go ask that guy. Again, he doesn’t care,you didn’t care when you did it, why should any of us care now? Past is the past and makes you who you are right?
    Then that’s what you are. Stop trying to be a wife, you’re not one, you’re the easy girl. Go be easy, you liked it that much already.

    Reply
  9. Astonished

    Wow. I’m stunned by the level of anger in most of these responses. I can sympathize a man’s viewpoint if both he and his soon to be wife promised each other to remain chaste until marriage or if his soon to be wife stated she was a virgin, married, and only then revealed she was not. Otherwise, how can a man say after 20-30 years of marriage that the newly discovered past of his wife has ruined their marriage? Sounds to me like there were a lot of strings attached to his love — or even if there ever was love. It sounds more like these men married a possession. Maybe they’d be happier living in Saudi Arabia?

    Reply

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