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Keeping the Past from Wrecking the Present

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

May 07
old car past present

We’ve known each other more than half my lifetime.  We’ve tackled most of our life challenges together but we still have that awkward silence over hard stuff from the past. You know this awkward silence – the one that makes you feel like you’re looking at an alien in your living room instead of your husband and the one that makes you want to dissolve into a crack in the floor. Why does this stuff feel so hard sometimes?

The longer we’re married, the “tough stuff” looks different. We’re not yet to the parenting-teenagers stage which from what I can tell just about makes you want to die sometimes.

Parenting little people is hard too but the problems are small and usually have manageable, quick solutions. (If I hear this Dora magic wand sing like a spook in the middle of the night one more time, I’m going to lose my religion. So I will donate it to the next loving family at 10AM on a Tuesday while the children are at school, blissfully unaware.)

Both working from home is my favorite gift but it comes with its own set of challenges… 2 flexible schedules and 2 flexible incomes that require over-vigilant time/money/sanity management. Again, it tests our patience sometimes, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.

Most of the tough stuff that turns us into a mouth-breathing subspecies is the tough stuff between us. Past issues that never really got resolved, past hurts that never really felt heard, past wounds that never really felt forgiven. It’s why I imagine lots of people shut down (me) or explode (him) or quit and run away altogether (almost both of us).

Someone once advised us: put the past in the rearview mirror and never look back. With all due respect. How does one drive safely without looking in the rearview mirror?! While that trite expression is a lovely idea, it’s hard to keep the past in the past because it doesn’t like to stay there.

Jack and I stay in a great place when we’re living our life in the moment, practicing grace and forgiveness and keeping perspective. It’s when the past creeps into the present that we start spiraling into a place we never want to be.  We’re still learning.  Here’s what I’ve found helps.

Deal with the past, don’t ignore it

I have a hard time discerning the fine line between “deal with it now” and “let the little things go.” When something is said, done, or happens that pokes at an old wound, do you address it, or let it slide?

If it feels like a jab, that’s a cue to me that he still hasn’t really forgiven me. (Forgiving does NOT mean forgetting… but it does mean agreeing to never use it as a weapon.) In this instance I have to address the jab, from the perspective that it seems as if we haven’t really resolved this issue.

I remember at one point hollering, I CANNOT APOLOGIZE FOR THIS ANYMORE. I asked for forgiveness, you agreed to forgive me, but this does not feel like forgiveness. Please do not punish me for this anymore.

If he says something that hurts, but the intent was simply to reference the situation for illustration purposes, I have to let it go. It happened, I can’t change it, and it’s still painful for both of us, but we can both learn from it and move forward.

Real-life truth:

When I as the wife approach something that needs to be addressed, my husband tends to perceive this as “nagging.” I think on a primitive caveman level he thinks I believe something is wrong with him, or that I disrespect or disapprove of him, and it shuts him down instantly. I have learned that a good verbal cue or two can help me let him know something is important to me before his man brain quits the game.

Can I share something with you that’s hard for me to talk about? 

I need to talk with you about something tough. Can you let me know when might be a good time?

Taking a “let’s fix it together” approach instead of throwing truth-bomb grenades typically winds up with a much better result.   I feel heard, even if we don’t agree.

This also works when you’re resolving hurts with other people, not just your spouse. Nothing spices up a family holiday gathering like the past creeping into the present. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

When we can both take our “need to win” and human egos out of the equation, we can navigate that painful moment a little more gracefully.

Choose not to bring the past into the present

If there are people, situations, activities, or conversations that actively invite a painful past into the present, make the choice to stay away from them.   This for us means respecting each other enough not to put the other person in a yucky place again. We avoid sticky situations to honor each other.

If there’s something creeping into your present, ask respectfully if you can work together to eliminate it. (I have a really hard time when we see _____. It sends me to a yucky place when you talk about _____. I would be so grateful if we could not go to _____ activity/location. Etc.)

Again, there’s a fine line between working together to avoid sticky situations, and ignoring a problem.   Ignoring the problem looks like choosing never to talk these things through. In this case the actual issue never gets addressed and it’s easy to start harboring hurts and resentment.

If you are the one harboring hurt, and using it as a weapon, you will find freedom and healing by making the choice to work towards true forgiveness. It will set you both free.

We still hold our breath driving past certain places, or when certain topics are brought up unknowingly in conversations with other people. (Mostly things that are funny in context, but touchy between us. Losing a child and putting a marriage back together have given me a whole new perspective on choosing words and stories wisely, particularly in group settings.) We just squeeze each other’s hands under the table and breathe through the moment. The more we keep the dialogue open, and treat each other like human beings, the less uncomfortable those situations become.

Keep trying

Hard conversations make me feel like my skin is on fire, but they make all the difference. They’re messy and painful and I totally get why my old self avoided them at all costs.

If your past is holding you captive, and you need help unpacking some of it before you can even think about working through it with your spouse, seek out a wise and trusted counselor. Your emotional healing is worth the investment of time, money, and hard work.

No matter how hard you work to keep it in the past, the past likes to claw its way back into the present. It doesn’t have to completely derail us.  Navigate it intently and with grace – there’s always something to learn.

HP,

J

Reading list

When the Past Won’t Let You Go by H. Norman Wright

If you’re in the trenches, keep going.  If you know someone else who is too, please send this to them!  And then be sure to subscribe to our community for real-life ideas for a phenomenal marriage. 

About the Author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.

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