Looking back might be the best thing you ever do together
People say “don’t live in the past.”
But I’ve been married for twenty years and I don’t think my relationship would have survived that long unless I didn’t “live in the past” a large part of that time.
As a matter of fact, time spent thinking about the past can not only strengthen a good relationship, it can save a relationship on the brink of falling apart.
And here’s why: the past is the reason for everything in our lives. Absolutely everything. And to deny its power is foolish.
For example, there may be no truer words than those written by author William Faulkner that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
You are the person you are today because of your past. Your partner is the way he or she is because of his or her past. And your relationship together now is the way it is because of your shared history.
And only through honoring the power of the past can a relationship be magically transformed into a more compassionate, committed union.
Understand the power of your past.
The past is a sticky substance that hangs on each of our actions and thoughts. And if we acknowledge this fact, it can help our relationships because it allows us to recognize that many of our responses in our partnerships connect back to memories and past experiences.
For example, as a child I was teased for my freckles. Even today if someone mentions them, I feel the little hairs on my neck stand up.
During my younger years, this childhood teasing was made worse by the fact that my younger sister was beautiful — so beautiful in fact that she was paid to pose as a model. I can remember going to school one day while she stayed home to be photographed, jagged lines of dried tears on my face, fully convinced at last that I was indeed the freckle-faced “ugly duckling” everyone else thought I was.
So, every once in a blue moon, when my husband seems too immersed in Netflix to notice my new haircut or comment on how great my skin looks after an expensive facial, I get angry. And if I’m honest, it’s not him. The truth is he’s constantly telling me I’m beautiful, but that needy ugly duckling refuses to be ignored. So one moment of heedlessness on his part turns into an hour-long argument where I overreact and berate him for never paying attention to me.
My emotions ignored the truth because I was seeing the present through the lens of my painful past, a past that refused to be rational.
And when we ignore how our past influences our reactions to others, our perceptions of situations become skewed in such a way that we often unfairly make our partner “the bad guy.”
But before we sentence pronounce a guilty verdict on our partner and lash out in anger, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we are really reacting the way we are? Is our response reasonable concerning our partner or is it a knee-jerk response to a past hurt or insecurity?
For example, if your partner doesn’t call two times a day from work or says he or she wants to spend a weekend away with his or her friends, are you resentful? Do you begin to think your partner is longing to be single again or that this is a sign he or she is no longer in love with you?
Stop and reflect before you let your emotions control you.
Could those feelings of anger or fear stem from an old relationship haunting you, one where the person you thought was the love of your life cheated on you? Or could those feelings perhaps be due to a childhood shattered by divorce, one precipitated by a father’s fishing trip with the boys, where your mother noticed he came back smelling more of perfume than of saltwater?
I’m not saying that our partners' actions are always to be excused, but I am saying that we should look at our past experiences to see if our feelings and action are justifiable and accurate.
Remember the facts: your partner is not your cheating ex nor your guilty father. So see him or her as he or she is, not through the painful people and memories that inhabit your past. Then make your decision on how to best interpret a situation.
Understand the power of your partner’s past.
Your partner is no different than you. He or she is a product of the past and sometimes responds based on powerful moments and emotional events that have occurred either in his or her childhood or in previous romantic relationships.
For example, my husband is frequently extremely stern with our children, sometimes saying things that he intends to be helpful in a rather harsh way. Sometimes we argue over this. I gently tell him his point can be made in a less aggressive manner, but I try to not overreact when he does these things. After all, he grew up with a father whose life revolved around the Special Forces, so the military mandate of “Do what I say, no questions asked” was the philosophy upon which my husband was raised. He’s softened over the years, but when I see those types of responses pop up, I recognize them for what they are: a result of his upbringing.
By understanding where his responses come from, I can work to change them from a perspective of compassion and not resentment or anger.
Note: The only way that both of you can improve your reactions to each other is to be honest about your past hurts and experiences. Otherwise, your partner will truly never understand why you are the way you are and why you do the things you do. Nor will you understand him. And understanding is a must have for all relationships to work.
Understand the power of your past together to make hard times easier and good times more frequent.
When we are in a long term relationship, we sometimes get lazy. We take things for granted. We don’t compliment our partners as we used to such as mentioning the way they make us feel safe and protected or showing gratitude for the little things they do to make us feel loved and valued. And yes, our partners get lazy too. Instead of saying they love our homemade lasagna, they say, “We’re having that again?”
As a result, we feel our anger fueled by each flaw or act of neglect our partners commit, and we tend to forget the past things they have done to make our lives beautiful: the way they took the crying baby all night so that we could rest, the time they booked a dreamy vacation because they saw we were overly stressed and overworked, the time they held us when we lost a loved one, a promotion, or when we felt the whole world was against us.
This is a part of the past you want to remember. And remember often.
And not only should we reflect on these memories when our partner seems less than perfect, but we should also try to recreate some of those wonderful times in our past. Doing so will remind us more vividly why these people are “the ones,” ones that are so precious in fact that we gave them our “forever.”
So, ask your parents or a good friend to watch the kids for a night. Go to a new bar and have martinis till you get that buzzy feeling in your head and that warm tingling in your body that you had the last time you two were young and uninhibited. Wake up the next morning and laugh over a huge greasy breakfast at your favorite dinner as you berate each other for overindulging. Just like you used to do.
In these moments, bringing back the past is magical. It reconnects us with our partners and helps us remember that the spark is not gone.
This is the past you want to keep alive because the magical moments that first drew you together can keep you together if you let them.
The bottom line:
Confucius gives wise words when he says to “study the past if you would define the future.” The past is often painful, but taking a closer look at its impact on ourselves and on those we love can make us more patient with ourselves and our partners, more compassionate towards the wounds that for each of us still lie open and weeping, even after a long journey through time.