“The past should be left in the past.” I’m sure many of us have heard this at some point in our marriage. And, I’m sure many of us have said this ourselves at some point.
But the question is: is it ever possible to talk about the past and the hurts from our past? And if it is, when is it okay to talk about it and when is it not okay and how do you know the difference?
We have had this discussion many times with couples in our marriage class. And it is from our own experience that we give some very simple advise on the subject. Because for years when our own marriage was suffering, I was always the one who said the past should be left in the past. I never wanted to talk about the past because I felt it would stir things up and cause a huge argument. And it was because I had already asked for forgiveness for what I did and I didn’t like having my past held against me.
But along the way I learned a very valuable lesson. It was after the fourth and final time our marriage had reached its breaking point. We were in a state of limbo. We were still living as husband and wife, but our marriage was in trouble and it looked hopeless as I tried to convince Janet to not give up. She said she wanted out of our marriage and so we were planning to break up in a way that would not hurt our children. And as it turned out, our trying to plan for the right timing actually bought us time to fix what was wrong.
We went on to spend a year and a half in that limbo state. There were times it looked like we would stay together and there were times we lost all hope. I even moved out twice during that time, to only move back in a day later. It was a crazy and extremely difficult time. But the blessing of that time was, we began talking in a way we had never talked before. We weren’t arguing and fighting anymore. Instead, we became very open and honest with each other. And we kept finding ourselves talking about the past. Only, this time when we really talked about the past it was like we were unraveling a mystery, the mystery of what had went wrong with our marriage.
We now thank God for that year and a half we spent talking like that. We know it was His grace working in our lives that helped us recover from our past hurts and rebuild a solid foundation for our marriage. And so it is from that experience I know there is a place where couples need to talk about their past and any unresolved hurts from the past.
So, when is it okay to talk about past hurts?
I have two simple rules I give to couples on this issue.
1) You have to walk in forgiveness at all times.
- Forgiveness is a choice. You choose to forgive what you already know about the past and you choose to forgive ahead of time anything you learn about the past once you start talking about it.
- Forgiveness is also a gift. You have to be willing to freely give forgiveness without expecting your spouse to somehow earn your forgiveness.
- Forgiveness opens the door. If you want a really deep intimate relationship with your spouse, you will find that talking about your past hurts can bring healing and closeness in a way you have never had before, but you have to walk in forgiveness to get there.
- Ask for forgiveness. In the places where you are the one that has hurt your spouse, don’t demand that they forgive. Humble yourself and ask for their forgiveness.
2) Are you using the past as a weapon or a tool?
Never use the past as weapon.
This is what happens so many times during conflicts when out of hurt or anger, the past gets brought into the conflict so one spouse can get the advantage over the other. Also, it is used as a weapon to hold the other spouse in permanent punishment for what they did, which also goes back to the forgiveness issue. And sometimes this weapon will show up as a dagger when it is used to give little jabs at the other person just so they never forget what they did.
You can use the past as a tool.
A tool is something that will help you build a better marriage. Anytime you are able to sit down and have an in-depth conversation about one another’s feelings you are working in a positive manner to build a strong marriage, even if those feelings are about something from the past.
Just because something from the past has been forgiven it does not mean the hurt from it has been completely healed and often when the pain is deep there is a struggle to forgive. That is why it is so important to be open to discuss the past. Our goal should be to help our spouse heal and if that means being vulnerable enough to discuss the past, then that is what we must do. We should never be so eager to move on from the past that we neglect to help our spouse through their own journey of healing.
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My wife had an affair almost two years ago, and we are still struggling in our marriage recovery. We haven’t talked about the time she spent out of the house, away from her family, but I feel as though I need to know what happened during the days she was gone. I know who she was with, but don’t know where they went or what happened between them. I feel I need to know what happened during that time. Like my view of the whole ordeal is incomplete. I read something somewhere that explained it very well: She has all the pieces of the puzzle, and can see the whole view of the incident, but I only have most of the pieces, and don’t see a whole picture. Is it wise for me to approach her and ask her about it? I don’t want dirty details, but do have some questions. I know it would be a difficult conversation, and, admittedly, she is very closed off about a lot of things, and doesn’t like to talk (about much of anything). I don’t want to attack her, I just want to fill in the blanks. Thanks for any advice.
anonymousMe I’m sorry it has taken me this long to get back to you. My wife and I have been in the middle of our first move in twenty years, so it has been a bit hectic. Now to answer your question.
I know where you are at with wanting some answers and I can only give you my own opinion based on what we have been through. First, as you said you feel like you need to know what happened during the days she was gone. I myself would caution you on that. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and in this case the details you learn could become what the devil will use to torment you. Details can give you mental pictures and continue to torment you with wanting more and more answers that won’t help bring about healing.
I do think you are entitled to some answers, but you will need to use some wisdom on what answers do you really need and why do you feel you need them. So, start by asking yourself why you want the answers you want. Having certain pieces of the puzzle may or may not be what you really need to heal and move on from this. Just make sure the answers you are wanting are going to really help in your healing process.
You may want to use the formula of the five w’s and h, “what, where, when, why, who, and how.” You have the “who.” And what you need most is the “why.” But the other four questions are where it gets tricky. To some degree “what,” is needed if you’re not sure how far the affair went. If you know it was a full blown sexual affair, then you have all of the “what” you need. “When” can help to some degree but it will most likely lead to more questions you don’t what to know the answers to. Such as the “where” and “how” questions, those are the most dangerous questions to have.
Again I would stress “why” it happened the most. Your marriage needs the answer to that question in order to heal, and grow from this experience. Learning why it happened will give you something constructive to build on. It may mean you will have to take the blame for some things that have went wrong in your marriage. But, you must not accept the blame for the affair. That is something your wife must own all by herself regardless of where or how you have hurt her.
I hope this helps and feel free to return comment or to email me privately if you need to talk some more.
Thank you for your reply, it is much appreciated. I am seeking answers to these questions partially because of the mental images I already have in my head that wont seem to go away. Along with that, her knowing and keeping these answers secret (she has not volunteered to give me the information on her own) makes me feel like she is keeping them an intentional secret because of the feeling she still has for this other man. I know he is no longer a threat (unfortunately he ended his life shortly after the whole incident came to light), but I think she still has strong feelings for him along with much guilt over his suicide. Though we are recovering and are in a much better place than we were a year ago, I think she feels justified in what she did. She still has items of his in the house that she wont get rid of, and other items related to the incident she has hidden as well. I know I was failing her and our kids as a father and husband before, and I know I contributed to the environment that likely set her up for this fall, but yes, I know she chose to commit adultery all on her own. I don’t feel we are moving forward because of these issues (the secrecy of her time away from home and the items in the house). I would like our marriage to grow into something much greater than it was, but she is of the mind that there is no such thing as a ‘better than normal’ marriage, and it shows due to her lack of participation. I feel she thinks we are on opposite teams, and she, being very competitive, will not “lose” if she can avoid it. The whole situation makes me sad.
My wife and I are having some serious problems. Don’t know what to do anymore. I love her and I love my family but life is becoming harder and harder every day. I really need some help.
Carlos I’m sorry to hear you and your wife are having trouble. I will email you so we can see what we need to do to either help you or get you the help you need.
I genuinely forgive my wife. Unfortunately I think it needs two to tango with marriage. We are still going through the divorce with hope of restoration maybe. But when my wife already introduces me to her male party in front of our kids on Halloween as I dropped our kids to her apartment is inappropriate and disgusting. Jesus is holding me down of me not letting me lose control. I just pray for my wife to run to Jesus that’s all and for me to get a lot of custody of my kids. I am not bitter but trying to be a better person on to the Lord… Amen
Please continue to pray for this marriage maybe. To work if GOD allows it
Thank you Tito