Bringing up the past properly

Q. I've read that you are never supposed to bring up the past in a relationship, especially in an argument. But sometimes it just feels like I have to bring it up with my husband. When is it OK to bring up the past?
A. Speaking in general, which is always risky, you should avoid bringing up the past in the middle of current conflicts. Words such as "This is just like when you ..." or "Do you remember what you said in 1977 about ..." do nothing to resolve a conflict or bring couples closer together. As a wife, you also have an almost unfair advantage over your husband in this area.
Again, speaking in general, most wives can recall the details of every argument that has ever occurred, including what was said, what was meant, what you were wearing and where you were standing. Most husbands have trouble remembering what they had for lunch yesterday.
At the same time, I think there are a few exceptions where it is acceptable to bring up the past, and is even necessary in a healthy relationship.
I think it is most necessary when something from the past still hurts so much that you can't function well in the relationship in the present; and when things that happened in the past keep happening and are still going on. Let's take a look at these two exceptions and what to do about them.
Past still hurts
If something from the past still hurts, you need to address it, just not in an argument. During a calm time, you can say something like, "Can you help me with something I keep having trouble with?" Most spouses will respond well to that request.
A useful example would be how something hurtful was said and it gets under your skin and stays there.
It may be eating you up, but your husband is unaware of the lasting effects. So, once you have his attention, you lay out, in nonaccusatory, gentle words, what is still hurting you.
Perhaps a more complete apology is necessary, or even a first apology. Sometimes we simply need to have someone understand just how much something hurt us.
Other times, simply speaking it out loud allows it to fade off our emotional radar.
Once you have had this talk and cleaned up the mess from the past, you can both agree that this is now in the past and has no power over either of you or the relationship.
Past is in present
This one is a little bit more difficult to handle and resolve.
When something that caused pain in the past continues in the present, you have to ask some difficult questions:
Does your husband simply not get it?
Does he not care or is he just plain selfish?
Is this a personality trait or relationship pattern that is just too stubborn to change on your own?
Sometimes when the pain is not happening to you personally, it can be difficult to see the consequences of certain actions. In this case it can be helpful to calmly walk your husband through the specifics of how certain behaviors cause pain.
Once the light comes on for him, you can both agree, commit and even covenant that these events are now things of the past, and you will both do whatever it takes to make sure they do not happen again.
A good example in this case would be how it feels when one person considers the feelings of her own parents over the feelings of her husband.
Many times I have found that the wife does not realize the pain caused until it is calmly laid out in detail.
If these suggestions do not work for you and your relationship, then it's time to sit down with a counselor who can get in the middle of it and help lead the way through these conflicts.
XJeff Herring is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to him c/o Tallahassee Democrat, P.O. Box 990, Tallahassee, Fla. 32302-0990 or e-mail him at

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