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How To Stop Bringing Up the Past in a Relationship – 8 Relationship Experts Share Their Insights

by Kristen Brown – Certified Empowerment Coach, Amanda Patterson – LMHC, Sally Leboy – MS, MFT, Lyndsey Fraser – MA, LMFT, Annie Ready Coffey – PhD, Maurita Hodge – PhD, Angela Clack – PhD, Cynthia Pickett – LCSW, LADC

How To Stop Bringing Up the Past in a Relationship

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

~ St. Augustine

Resentment is Like Drinking Poison St. Augustine Quote
Sally LeBoy

It’s very difficult not to bring up the past when fighting with a partner. 

Essentially the past is ammunition to bolster the righteousness of your position. 

Fighting is about winning; if you want to win you’ll throw in anything that helps your cause. Maybe you don’t need to win, but you don’t want to be wrong.

When you stop thinking about winners and losers and change your goal from winning to problem solving, it’s easier to manage yourself and think about what is useful (or not) to bring up.

Managing your emotional reactivity during a conflict is the number one goal to conflict resolution. Nobody can argue well or solve a problem when in a heightened state of arousal. That’s when the old fight or flight part of our brain kicks in. Good for survival; bad for relationships.

Here is something else about bringing up the past. 

Your memory of the past and his memory of the past will probably be different. This is very frustrating, but it’s true. Especially in emotional situations, we don’t remember things the same way. 

Nobody is lying, but your versions will differ. 

Obviously, bringing up the past is not going to shed any light on the current conflict. In fact, it will probably make it more difficult to process.

It’s healthy to fight. People who don’t share their grievances end up distant and resentful. But you need to look at your fight as a way to share and receive important information. 

When you move away from right and wrong, good and bad, winners and losers you can start to get curious about the actual issue. 

The more you know about a situation, including how your partner thinks and feels, the more likely you will be to come up with a solution or a compromise.

Sally LeBoy, MS, MFT – www.sallyleboymft.com

Lyndsey Fraser

When we have an argument with our partner it is easy for us to bring up a past incident because a similar emotion is felt. 

What I want you to do instead is NOT focus on the incident but honor the recurring feeling that is valid.

Often when we have arguments with our partner core values or experiences are evoked. 

For instance I had a couple in my office that was fighting about covering the peas after a dinner meal. Do you think the fight was really about covering the peas? 

In reality forgetting to cover the peas is minor issue. 

But if a core value is evoked the fight can begin. The core value for this couple was being valued. 

One partner had cooked a nice meal and when the other partner forgot to cover the peas the experience of not being valued was evoked. The experience of not being valued is really the core of the fight. 

For this couple it is a recurring theme that has occurred with many different past arguments. 

When you focus on the incident and not the emotion you create circular patterns that results in no resolution and more hurt feelings.

What are the core values that you are fighting about? Here are a few examples below:

• Value
• Respect
• Love
• Appreciation
• Support
• Loyalty
• Consistency

Do any of these seem to fit what you are experiencing? 

This is where you can focus the argument. When you move the fight to the value your partner will start hearing you more clearly. 

If you complain about how he or she did not cover the peas again your partner might feel like you are nagging. But if you can focus in on the core value that is being triggered you partner might hear you. 

No one intentionally wants to hurt their partner. 

When your partner hears that their behavior of not covering the peas caused you to feel undervalued you may get a different response. This in turn may result in you both being about to truly address the real concern.

Lyndsey Fraser, MA, LMFT – www.relationalconnections.com

Amanda Patterson

When you bring up the past in a fight, you are adding fuel to the fire. 

It doesn’t get you any closer to resolve the issue at hand and it certainly isn’t the best avenue to resolve old conflict. In the heat of the moment, you are going to bring up things that are bothering you that you have not fully addressed. This is the type of situation where proactive behavior makes the biggest impact.

If you are harboring old feelings about something, bring it up before you start to fight. 

Let your partner know that you have something you want to talk about and work it out when feelings are calm and you both agree to talk about it. No one likes to be blind sighted and when you bring up old stuff, it can feel like that. This old stuff is going to keep coming up until you take the time to talk about it.

If you have a habit of bringing up the past during fights, you and your partner should talk about that pattern. 

Come to an agreement that your partner can remind you that you are bringing up material that is off the table during a fight. You can have a keyword or phrase, as a gentle reminder of the pact the two of you made. This will help reorient and ground you during a fight. 

It can be the very thing that brings your emotions down. It can provide a trigger to your brain that this is off limits and even though you went there during the fight, you have the opportunity to shift.

If the past situation is something that needs forgiving, then do some work around it. 

  • Have you forgiven your partner for whatever it is you are bringing up? 
  • Is it something that requires forgiveness, or something else? 
  • Are you willing to do your work around the past and if so, what can you do today in order to let go? 

There is a reason you are holding on to it. This is your work to be done, not your partner’s. If there is something you need from your partner, then it is your responsibility in your half of the relationship to ask for it.

If you are still stuck, put into place your coping skills to deal with it, such as journaling, meditating on the topic, talking to a trusted friend or getting therapy in order to get greater healing.

Amanda Patterson, LMHC – www.amandapattersonlmhc.com

Annie Ready Coffey

“Ready? Aim. Fire!” 

  • Do your inner thoughts resemble anything close to this when you’re a second away from fighting with your partner? 
  • If so, which part of your strategy includes carrying on a relationship with a mortally wounded person? 

Okay, jokes and exaggerations aside. 

Maybe you don’t exactly get your partner “in your sights” when you begin an argument, but does some part of you secretly think about “winning” or coming out feeling superior when you fight?

Perhaps you hear yourself bringing up the past (and starting what I like to call a “Dumb Fight”) because you are actually anxious or worried about something else. 

Scan your reasons for being angry. Dig underneath the surface reason regarding why you’re angry (“No, I don’t want you to go out to dinner with Beatrice; She’s the woman who stole you away from Sheila!”) and take a close look at yourself.

Ask yourself if there is a reason you want to create a boundary or some space between you and your partner? 

Maybe something is going on for you. Your intuition could be telling you that this is not someone with whom you want to go forward. Or, perhaps, you want to create a fight so you can make up and feel closer.

  • Is there a part of you that wants to break up and you want your partner to call it quits so that you don’t have to? 
  • Are you just doing what you learned in your home growing up because your parents slung accusations at each other? 

You’ve got to know yourself.

Let’s address the problem of you bringing up your partner’s past in terms of how you can avoid damaging the foundation of your relationship. 

Most of us want to feel good when we open up and share with our partners. To paraphrase a few words from Frozone in Pixar’s movie “The Incredibles,” “Superhero babes (want to tell me about their secret identities) because they think it strengthens the relationship!” Well, talking about our secrets and fears will strengthen the relationship if these things are truly respected.

What you need to be aiming for regarding your communication is Positive Reinforcement. 

Sharing should have benefits. Sharing should not lead to possible future humiliation. You must set the stage for your partner to feel comfortable enough (not anxious, or thinking “She might ambush me at ANY time!”) to allow him or her to be able to make his or her own connections between a current topic you’re fighting about and an old incident (or tendency). 

Practice welcoming a reference he or she makes to a past event or situation by gently saying, 

“Yeah, I was remembering that thing/story you told me…” And then say no more. Become attuned. Be open to hearing more.

Of course, past stories or transgressions might be relevant for you to keep in mind. 

In case you’re worried that something will happen again or you’re concerned because there has been at least one instance of infidelity in your relationship already, remember that you probably need to get angry at yourself and not just at your partner. We all feel foolish if we coulda, shoulda seen what was coming.

If you’re no longer worried about you or your partner’s ability to be committed to one another, talk about your habit of bringing up the past with your partner. 

Ask for help from him or her. “Please, call me on my stuff.” Tell your partner that you realize you’re making him or her hold back or turn away. Admit that you hate having this effect on him or her and all you can say when you do is, “Ugh!”

When you have not faced an infidelity, but have fought with your partner for other reasons and it feels like he or she has started to pull away, hit re-set immediately. 

Aim to be curious versus accusatory. You must strive to stay freshly attuned in the moment. When he or she shares about a past relationship, maybe you’ll hear the unspoken message that your partner did not feel committed to his or her former partner. 

Perhaps his or her last partner pushed your significant other into a more serious place and your partner was not ready. When he or she shares about a former habit or experience, guard it as sacred. Know that it is a gift to open up to one another. Make it safe to share and keep it safe.

Be mindful. Slow down. 

Catch yourself thinking about bringing up something negative or accusatory – having a Dumb Fight – and then hold back. Later, if you need to, ask a therapist or a trusted friend for more communication strategies to keep you engaged and on track with your partner.

Dr. Annie Ready Coffey – www.replenishmentandchange.com

Kristen Brown

First off, I believe there is a massive difference between “fighting” and what I like to call, “transformational conversation”. 

In my estimation, the root of “fighting” is to gain control over another’s behaviors and/or words. In this dynamic, one or both parties are seeking to control some aspect of the other person through manipulation, guilting or sometimes bullying. 

I believe the root of “transformational conversation” is to find healing and facilitate forward movement that both parties are in agreement with through truth, authenticity and respect.

The word, “fighting” oftentimes brings to mind two Rams on a field repeatedly crashing into one another. Each Ram trying desperately to gain control over his territory. I liken this scene to two human egos ramming each other until one eventually backs down through submission or exhaustion and lets the other “win”. 

With either of these scenarios, there may be a temporary lull in the activity, but nothing truly has been resolved. The backing down is only temporary until once again one side attempts to gain control.

Let us remember that when the ego is in the verbal exchange, no healing can truly be sought. 

Healing can only be sought when love (respect & truth) enters the room. This is precisely why most “fights” do not ever reach resolution. Most often both parties are usually only in it to win it and not for true resolution.

Transformational conversation doesn’t mean we don’t cry or get emotionally charged at times. 

However, this does not mean that we have permission to run roughshod over our partner by demeaning them, belittling them or repeatedly throw their weaknesses in their faces. 

In order to have a productive conversation, we must understand first and foremost that we are dealing with a heart and a soul and how we approach our grievance is paramount to how the situation will play out.

Let it be known, that I 100% agree with and believe in the higher good of transformational conversations (fighting) as long as it is done respectfully. Relationships simply cannot and will not prosper unless or until both parties are willing to lay down their grievances and air out resentments. It may not always be pretty, but it should always be respectful.

Disclaimer: Generally speaking, it is not healthy for a person to repeatedly bring up past situations especially if there has been ownership and a change in behavior that supports the resolution. 

However, there are some personalities out there who like to “forget” or ignore behaviors of past, never take ownership and continually act like they have done nothing wrong. 

In these situations, it is perfectly okay to remind them of past history. 

Personalities like this are usually in denial of their behaviors and most likely will use any tactic they can to keep the focus off themselves.

By staying focused on what matters, keeping hysterics minimal and staying centered in your truth, you are doing everything possible on your side of the equation to reach a healthy compromise, agreement or total resolution.

Kristen Brown, Certified Empowerment Coach/Mentor – www.sweetempowerment.com

Maurita Hodge

There’s a specific wireless network that coined the question, Can You Hear Me Now? 

For weeks, dare I say months, this question was posed by many, many people from all walks of life. Even today, when someone does not understand us, the first thing we sarcastically shout out – CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

The question was posed, how do I stop from bringing up the past in my relationship? 

When we feel as if we are not being heard and understood or our needs are not being met, we often revert to bringing up our past hurts, blaming, hurting and torturing our mates. 

When we are unable to properly address our needs and feelings, we engage in unfair fighting tactics (i.e., bringing up the past), walking away wondering why he or she cannot hear us or understand us – Hey you! Can You Hear Me Now?

So let’s explore what it really means when we bring up our past hurts – in essence what are we saying when we shout CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? 

Ask yourself the following questions.

1. What Am I Feeling Right Now? 

When couples are engaging in conflict, there is a chance someone is not being heard, resulting in becoming frustrated and angry. To ensure you are clear about what you need and what you are feeling in the moment, you must first know your needs and identify your feelings (e.g., sadness; lonely; physical pain; fear; security; financial stability, etc.).

2. What Am I Really Saying In This Moment? 

When you are with your mate or engaged in a discussion (heated or otherwise), are you clear about your needs? (e.g., I am hurt; I am lonely; I need to spend more time with you; I need to be valued, etc.).

3. What Is the Intent of My Behavior? 

Continuously bringing up the past indicates there are unresolved issues you are still harboring. When we fail to resolve our issues and address our needs it blocks the progression of the relationship.

Now let’s talk about addressing it – Fighting Fair!!!

1. Am I clear about my needs and feelings? 

When speaking to your mate, discuss how you feel based on your own point of reference. Also, refrain from blaming him or others for how you feel (e.g., I am not happy right now because I am lonely; I feel valued when I am heard, etc.).

2. Can I civilly continue this conversation? 

If you are becoming upset to the point you are unable to clearly engage, inform your mate you need to discontinue and need to finish at a later time that does not exceed a 24 hour period (10min, 15min, 60min, etc.).

3. Has this conversation become about me or is it still about us? 

If you are no longer regarding the feelings of your mate, then discontinue the conversation. If this is not possible, then listen and respond at a later time that does not exceed a 24 hour period (10min, 15min, 60min, etc.).

4. Are you available to engage in the same behavior? 

In your conversations, allow the opportunity to hear and acknowledge your mate’s needs and feelings. Good behaviors should be reciprocal.

When Fair Fighting becomes a habit you will no longer wonder if your mate Can You Hear Me Now.

Dr. Maurita Hodge – www.movingmountainsconsultingllc.com

Cynthia Pickett

Arguing fairly is an essential skill for the health and longevity of any relationship. 

There are rules to having a healthy argument and one of them is to not bring up the past. When we do it leaves out partners feeling unsafe and in turn they will be less likely to share things with us in the future.

To makes permanent changes we have to understand why we do something, anything, or history will repeat itself. So why do we do it? There can be a couple of reasons.

  1. Our own unresolved anger issues from our own past that we are projecting onto our partner or;
  2. Unresolved issues in this relationship. Things that have been “swept under the carpet”

In both cases, as much as we don’t want to admit it, the goal is to hurt our partner because we are hurting. We are lashing out. Usually this is subconscious but since human beings we are very purposeful and do not do things unless there is a specific reason, whether we are aware of it or not.

So how do we stop?

1. Figure out which of the two reasons you are doing it

Is it your own past or unresolved issues in the current relationship? 

If it is your own past, heal it. Focus on releasing all the hurt and anger and as you do the velocity behind current arguments will decrease significantly.

2. If is it because of current unresolved issues in your relationship, talk to your partner. 

Tell him what is going on for you and work on resolving those issues together.

The last and most important thing to remember is that you are in charge of you! 

As hard as it is in the heat of the moment, if you can’t say something nice don’t open your mouth. Literally! Take away the disempowering excuses like “I didn’t mean to”. 

On some level the meaning was there or it wouldn’t have been said. It is very important for us all to censor what comes out of our mouths. As I tell teens, there is no alien out there dictating what is said, it is all our responsibility.

By taking responsibility for all of our emotions and actions, it puts us in a place of strength as we are acknowledging we are in charge of us. 

Plus it gives us the opportunity to heal any issues that are still unresolved. By behaving respectfully and healing unresolved issues and taking charge of us, we are opening the door to greater respect for others and ourselves.

Cynthia Pickett, LCSW, LADC – www.cynthiapickett.com

Angela Clack

This is often the case when old issues and conflicts in the relationship have remained unresolved for far too long. 

It also seems the “go to” fighting defense stance when the person feels hurt and wants to their partner to feel as bad as they do. So, they resort to the last jab that hurt in the past. 

It’s often an impulsive, off the cuff remark that seems to be spoken in the heat of an explosive anger outburst. 

It immediately shuts down any opportunity to talk through and resolve the current crisis because it cuts life a knife-it’s painful.

To avoid “severing ties” in your relationship, it is best to be as calm and composed as possible before addressing heated topics and discussions with your partner. 

When possible, plan ahead for the very sensitive and difficult talks by making a list of what you want to communicate and to keep you focused on the current issues. 

Timing is critical for any discussion whether in a relationship with an intimate partner, with your boss in asking a for a raise or promotion, your child’s teacher, your BFF, etc. During the half time of your partner’s football game is likely the worst time and your conversation will not be received well.

I offer the following three tips:

1. Write it down. 

Take time to reflect and carefully word what you want to say.

2. Leave the past in the past. 

When you can’t have a conversation with your partner that isn’t open and free to express yourself ask your partner to address it. Since it remains a sore topic maybe you and your partner need to discuss it more deeply to get it resolved. And LEAVE IT THERE!

3. Get your partner’s consent to have the conversation. 

Try to avoid a conversation starter like, “We need to talk!” This is typically the stereotypical, “Uh oh, what did I do.” 

Instead, try, “Hey, Hun, when is a good time for us to talk. I’m feeling really angry about what you said and I’d like to talk to you about it.” 

Now, say it in your own words, but avoid inflammatory statements that could escalate into angry jabs and past dramas.

Dr. Angela Clack – www.clackassociates.com

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