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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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!