“Oh, that’s water under the bridge.” This is a statement some make who think you cannot change what has happened in the past. Is moving forward as simple as that? Hardly, but it is the approach some take when they don’t know what to do. “Can we move past the past?” I am asked this question often in my work with couples. It’s complex. No easy answer here. In the end, it is really up to the people involved. Can couples move past the past? The short answer is “yes”. I see it happen often. It requires a mutual effort. Not an easy task. Nonetheless, you must work at it together. Most couples I know want to move past the past. It’s not an issue of “want to”, but “can do”. As you might imagine, I see a myriad of marital problems in couples counseling. Some marriages have complex problems. Therefore, some couples navigate their past more easily more easily than others. Here’s three likely outcomes of dealing with the past.
  1. Couples remain hopelessly mired in the past together.
  2. Couples move past the past together.
  3. One person chooses to move past the past alone.
I wish I could say it is easy to move past the past. As you know, it’s not. But I can say it is worth it if you do. I see some couples end up with stronger relationships because they are forced to work harder and stop taking each other for granted. As painful as it may be working through the past, they are not defined by it. Instead, they collaborate on a new script for their marriage, something that is honest and caring. If you are in a relationship that feels stuck by problems in your past let me offer 10 steps you can take to move past your past.
Step 1: Have the courage to face your past.
You cannot erase your past or bury it somewhere. It is a factual part of your history. If you try to suppress the past it will leak out in some other form. Feelings of hurt, betrayal, or resentment can manifest in unrelated areas. Painful events in your history must be confronted if you want to move forward. It requires courage by both of you to do this. Your outlook on your marriage can improve as you work on this together.
Step 2: Own your part of the past.
Ownership is a critical component in resolving issues in the past. You must accept personal responsibility for your actions without blaming others. Not only this, but you need to articulate how your action(s) specifically hurt your spouse.
Step 3: Seek to understand the extent of harm from the perspective of your mate.
Here is where the relationship has the greatest potential of surviving the past. When the person whose actions inflicted harm treats the wound carefully. It’s not as simple as putting a bandaid over it. You have to ask questions of a physician. “Can you tell me where it hurts the most? To what degree is your pain?” The answers may be hard for you to hear, but you cannot follow the rest of the steps without this important information. Empathy for your spouse is critical at this juncture.
Step 4: Repair the wound to the best of your ability.
A simple “I’m sorry” statement is not enough. A confession includes being able to state an awareness of the extent of harm your actions caused. Healing is contingent upon your ability to address the problem from the perspective of your mate. In other words, your spouse needs to feel a sense of true remorse. Here is my 5 step plan to repair harm.
  1. Admit you are at fault.
  2. Accept responsibility for your actions without blaming others.
  3. Acknowledge how your actions specifically hurt your spouse.
  4. Ask for forgiveness.
  5. Agree that you will work on changing the behavior that caused harm.
Step 5: Allow time to heal the pain.
Wounds properly treated heal over time. During this period, the relationship may not feel as close as it did before. This is normal. Safety returns as emotions heal. Closeness will return as you establish security. Don’t try to rush this process or become impatient. If so, you can expect a setback in recovery.
Step 6: Resist the impulse to relive the past in order to punish the offender.
Toxic couples form unhealthy patterns of recovery that keep them in triage. One I see often is when the wounded spouse repeatedly relives the event(s) in order to punish the offender. This interplay of power is used as a means of control to prevent future harm. Unfortunately, the dominating pattern does not heal the marriage, but hurts it further.
Step 7: Learn from your mistakes to become better people.
Offenses in marriage can serve as a wake-up call to the couple. I see this a lot. As couples peel back the layers they often come to realize that they were taking their marriage for granted. Culpability on some level is mutual. Neglect leads to drift, which left unchecked exposes the marriage to potential risks. You get the picture. If you decide to learn from your mistakes you can become better people. Two people committed to working on themselves have the potential to change their marriage too. Do you know your mistakes? Are you committed to change them?
Step 8: Develop healthier relationship patterns.
The couples I know who move past the past, develop healthier relationship patterns. They don’t avoid problems, they confront them. These couples are more aware of their feelings and honest with each other. Furthermore, they prioritize their marriage by giving it the time and attention it needs to grow. So yes, they do regular dates, find time to get away, etc… Most importantly, they learn to communicate better, listen to one another, and accommodate in order to meet each other’s needs.
Step 9: Show respect when triggered by the past.
Some events are traumatic. Memories are triggered, often unexpectedly. It can be confusing, especially if you feel like you are recovering. Triggers are normal. Don’t react negatively when they occur. Show respect toward each other. Repeat step 4. It will likely subside and you will be back on track.
Step 10: Reframe how you view the past.
Reframing the past comes much later as the relationship heals, trust is rebuilt, and intimacy is restored. It is the ability to look at a painful event with fresh eyes. “The worst time in our life marked the beginning of our journey to discover the best time.” This sounds much better than, “It’s water under the bridge.”
Now it’s your turn
Are you having difficulty moving past your past? Review the 10 steps. What step(s) do you want to work on?