Why repeatedly going over the past hurts your relationship?

Delyse Ledgard, RCCRelationships

going over the past

Do you have that urge to bring up past situations, again and again with your partner?  Something happens that you thought you had discussed already or come to an agreement about, and here it is again!  Perhaps you have the belief that if you keep going over it, then your partner will somehow ‘get it’ and stop doing whatever it is you want your partner to change.  However, this tendency in relationships is very unproductive and does nothing to help make the changes you want.  Furthermore, the act of bringing up a list of times that such and such happened is guaranteed to keep you and your partner stuck.

Let’s look at some of the reasons you might do this

  1. To avoid conflict

    When something happens, and you respond by pointing out that the same thing is happening again and again, it prevents you from dealing with the present conflict.  Think about this a moment; when you do this, are you listening to your partner’s concerns or expressing your experience?  You are likely to be focused on your feelings about how this hasn’t changed yet.  Then your partner feels overwhelmed, blamed and paralyzed.  You end up not being able to repair that moment because it has become something bigger.  Implicit is the message that ‘this’ should not happen, and underneath is a desire not to have anything uncomfortable in the relationship. In other words, there is a desire for the relationship to be perfect, our partner to be perfect and no conflict.

  2. To have your pain acknowledged

    When you develop a style to deal with conflict by avoidance or blame, it is tough to resolve breaches in your relationship.  You store unresolved hurt, betrayal, and disappointment.  When something new occurs that reflects these wounds the unacknowledged pain is activated.  By going over and over past transgressions, you are seeking to have that pain acknowledged. 

  3. To assign responsibility or blame

    When you feel that your pain has gone unacknowledged, you are likely to feel that your partner hasn’t taken responsibility for it.  By going over the past, you are targeting your partner’s behaviour, and communicating that they are responsible for the relationship failing.  There can also be a defensive attack implicit in this.  When something comes up that your partner is unhappy with you can go over all their ‘transgressions’ as a way of deflecting and shifting blame.

  4. Maintain a lack of trust and self-protection

    I don’t know how many times I have been working with a couple and something new and positive is experienced and then on its heels, one or both partners express a fear that ‘this will not last’ and ‘what happens if’.  These expressions prevent the immediate experience from being fully experienced and developing trust in the relationship.  By focusing on a fear that you are going to repeat the past, you protect yourself from the vulnerability of opening up to your partner.

Going through the same situations, again and again, does not avoid conflict nor repair any hurt, but rather, partners end up feeling overwhelmed, blamed and increasingly distant. 

Ways you can overcome the past and leave it behind

You want your relationship to be a place where you can feel safe and secure and overcome the negative interactions you have developed.  The following will help you work on this and let go of the past.

  1. You can only solve this moment

    Even if this moment seems familiar, it is a different moment.  When you focus on just this tiny moment and repair it,  you bring an experience of success into your relationship.  Your brain begins to rewire around an experience of change.  Celebrate these moments.  Appreciate each other for both working towards this achievement.

  2. Keep in mind the big picture

    Change is difficult and takes time.  In the process of changing dynamics, you can expect your partner and yourself to keep falling into the same unhelpful and reactive responses as you learn to overcome them.  By bearing in mind the big picture; that you are both working on your part, you become allies.  When you have a difficult moment, it doesn’t mean that nothing is changing.

  3. It is not personal

    Your partner is probably not trying to hurt you.  They are struggling, and when you can see this, there is the possibility of opening up to what is going on for them and being curious.  Sure, you didn’t deserve them taking whatever out on you, but focusing on that doesn’t sort out what is going on.  When you can see it this way, you are more likely to stay calm and open to what is going on with your partner.  As you develop these skills together, there is room to foster understanding making it easier to apologize genuinely and repair the situation.

  4. Setting up a time to deal with historical events

    It is sometimes necessary and valuable to talk about past events in a once only, let’s clear it out of the way, process.  When you feel understood and responded to, it is possible to move on.  It can help to set this up with a therapist as part of couples counselling. Especially when events and experiences hold deep hurts and resentment.  It may take several conversations to feel that you have adequately addressed the hurt or betrayal you may be carrying.  When this is done in a structured and mindful way – let it go.  Take time to discuss resentments and betrayals with the intention of working together to let them go.

The past then becomes something you can refer to as a recognition of how things have changed and celebrate the journey you have made together.

Photo credit: Mona & Neal via photopin (license)