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Is your relationship haunted by your past?

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

I’m talking about your past together. The time one of you got caught kissing your partner’s best friend at a Christmas party. The period when one of you was so tied up with work that you weren’t there at all for your partner when they were really sick. The time one of you got drunk at a family gathering.

We all carry this baggage around with us. The longer we’re married, the more of this baggage there is. It doesn’t have to be horrible stuff. Just stuff that has stayed with you, that you can’t forget, can’t let go of. Can you forgive it? Whether you can or not, it’s stuck to you like poop on a shoe.

And the past always accumulates. Every day ends up in a pile of yesterdays.

And in the same way, every argument has the moment, usually very early on, when someone brings in the past—“Well, we wouldn’t have been in this situation if you hadn’t brought that dog home in the first place!”

Which almost always leads to an argument about the past—“I brought the dog home?? You wanted that stupid dog just as much as I did!!!”

“I never wanted that dog, and you know it. You’re always doing things without asking me about it.”

“Oh, come on!! I don’t do things like that at all!!

Sound vaguely familiar?

So the point of this post is a simple suggestion. And I’ll be brutally frank. A lot of people aren’t smart enough to follow this suggestion. It feels too radical. Too unnatural. And maybe it is. But it’s genius, and it’ll transform your relationship if you’re smart enough to agree to follow through on it.

The suggestion is, briefly:

Never talk about the past.

Let me unpack that a bit. Yes, of course, you can talk about what a nice time you had at Jack and Sally’s party! What I’m referring to are those discussions where Pam says Sam did something and Sam says he didn’t, and the next thing you know Pam and Sam are off and running in a bitter fight. What I’m saying really is that if you find you disagree about the past, just drop it. Immediately. Agree to disagree. But do not spend another second trying to argue the other person into agreeing with your version of the past.

That’s Step 1: If you can’t agree about the past, drop it immediately.

I know! It’s immensely unsatisfying!! You want from the very deepest fiber of your being to convince your partner that you really, really, truly were there for them when they were doing that grad school program. And if you could just hammer hammer hammer away at it long enough, your partner would at some point stop in mid rage, eyes popping wide open, and say, “Wait a minute!!! You’re totally right!!!!! I just remembered all the times when you... How could I have forgotten???” And they collapse in your arms with gushing tears of repentance.

Except that scene has never happened in the history of the world. In real life, people just go from arguing about reality to arguing plus hating each other.

Who needs that?

But still! You’d like...something. And that’s the next step. Going from the past to the future.

Step 2: Make an agreement about how you’ll do things differently from now on.

Any argument about the past can be turned into an agreement about how you’ll deal with things going forward. Let’s say you still can’t forgive me for my throwing away some t-shirt from your high school days that you treasured. We can argue about whether I threw it away or whether you lost it. Whether I threw it away accidentally or deliberately. Whether I was evil to throw it away or you were an idiot to want to hold on to it.

Or we can agree not to ever throw anything of the other’s away without checking with them first.

The past can’t be changed, but the future can be protected.

Let’s say you kissed my best friend at a Christmas party. And you said it didn’t happen—not on the lips anyway—and anyway it was just friendly. We could—as one couple I know did—argue about what constitutes a kiss on the lips to the point where the wife ended up chasing the guy around the house with a butcher knife.

“If there’s even a quarter-inch of lip on lip, it’s a kiss on the lips, you fucking bastard!!!!”

“What if there was just an eighth of an inch of lip on lip?” the idiot replied.

How much better to agree that, “Hey, we’re not French, so don’t go around kissing women who aren’t me, okay? No lips, no cheek, no nothing.” For example.

I’m not saying that’s what they should agree to. I’m just saying that I could offer that as a solution going forward, and let’s see what you’d say. Then we’d agree on something. And then we’d know where we stood.

The point isn’t what the solution is. The point is moving from “If only...” to “Next time...” That switch in orientation—from past to future—is almost the definition of mental health.

As for how to come to an agreement, well, hopefully, that’ll be a lot easier than talking about the past. If not, that’s where our new book Why Couples Fight comes in. It’s designed to give any couple everything they need to figure out how to move from battling unproductively to get their needs met to being able to do so smoothly and effectively.

As for determining what really happened in the past? No book could help with that. But right here I’ve already shown you how to deal with disagreements over what actually happened.

But what about things from the past you can’t let go of? How do you heal wounds from the past?

That’s a very different story. A story for next time.


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