3 Reasons Why You Can’t Let Go of the Past

Our past flows in and out of our lives. The questions are: Why now? Why this?

Posted Oct 31, 2020

Source: klimkin/Pixabay

Sara had an affair several years ago and feels that she and Patrick had done the right thing and worked through it—couple counseling, working to improve their relationship in many ways. But periodically Patrick brings it up, seemingly out the blue, peppering her yet again with detailed questions, and leaving Sara feeling angry and defensive.

When Jess and Sam’s relationship became serious, Sam brought up the idea of their having separate financial accounts. Both had been married before, Sam felt it was just the “sensible” thing to do. But Jess was initially put off by the whole idea and thought it would just be simpler to have joint accounts. Sam persisted and she eventually agreed. But periodically she brings this up, complaining not so much about the accounts, but questioning Sam about why he was so insistent.

Yes, it was Allie’s idea to move to the big city for her job with Marco's wholehearted support, despite some understandable anxiety at the time. But at the height of a heated argument, Marco brings this up—how he was the one who made the sacrifice, how she selfishly dragged them to this town—catching Allie totally off-guard.

Why do we bring up our past? Because like that software on our computers that always running in the background, our pasts are always running behind our present. We're aware of it when a comment, a smell, song triggers a memory. But here we're talking about something different—those times when old wounds from our past that we thought we put to rest—unexpectedly rise up, particularly in our intimate relationships. 

Here are three of the common underlying causes:

Lack of closure: Sara and Patrick

Patrick was understandably deeply wounded by Sara's affair but he admits that she stepped up—didn’t deny or blame, accepted responsibility—yes they together were able to constructively move forward, learned some important lessons along the way, and are in a better place now than they were before. So why does this all periodically come back for Patrick?

One likely culprit is that the emotional closure they were both seeking was for Patrick never fully complete despite doing all the right stuff, the emotional closure that never fully closed. What often happens for couples in these situations is that they simply get tired of treading over the same ground week after week. There's psychological pressure to move on and put this behind them. And so, Patrick stops asking the questions he needs to be answered to help him really put this to rest. Instead, he pushes those questions down, but they periodically come to the surface when he's stressed or feels like Sara has been pulling away. 

Patrick needs to do two things: Identify the triggers to answer the question, Why Now and see if there is a problem in the present to fix, such as Sara's seeming withdrawal. And then he needs to tackle the Why This and help her understand what he needs to hear in order to heal his sense of loss and put this to rest. 

Past problems coming into the present: Sam and Jess

Separate accounts. Sure, this is about deciding how we as a couple manage money, but for Jess, it is more about something else—the pressure that she feels and is sensitive to. The Why This is likely a leftover from her childhood where she may have felt always controlled and pressured by her parents. And while in her everyday life she has learned to emotionally work around such potential triggers, she's more easily triggered simply because of the closeness of their relationship. 

The Why Now may, like Patrick, be fueled in part by some incomplete closure from the original wound. But more likely it is triggered by similar problems unfolding in their present—times when Jess feels Sam pressing her too hard to agree with him about the kids, or about sex, or dealing with their extended family. The problem in the present ignites that chain of similar experiences and memories.

The problem is not the current topic—money, sex, kids, family—about her once again not feeling heard, feeling overrun. That is what Jess needs to speak up about, push back against, resolve.

The past as anger-fuel: Allie and Marco

Like Patrick, Marco too may have some leftover feelings about the past—in his case the move—how difficult it was for him that Allie needs to understand and appreciate. Or like Jess, he may have felt pressured, and Allie again may need to understand how he felt at the time.

But for him, it is probably less Why This—because he has truly adjusted to the move and feels settled—and more about Why Now. The likely driver is the heat of the argument itself. Once arguments get too heated, it's all too easy for them to turn into a free-for-all. Things get ugly fast, they both pull out the stops, they each get tunnel-vision and pull whatever they each can to stack up evidence to make their case, to win their argument. In the light of day, Marco's resentments fade away.

What Marco needs to do is see what is left once the anger subsides. There may be some wounding leftover from the move, or a bigger issue about Allie always getting her way. But more likely it is about anger and arguments themselves, both learning to manage their anger and learning to calm the emotional climate when anger flares.

The theme running through scenarios when our pasts come into our present in a negative way is determining Why Now? Why This? The past is being ignited in the present. It may be because of an unresolved old wound, a sign that there is a real problem in the present that is not being addressed, about anger grasping to fortify its myopic vision. If the past periodically rises up, comes back to haunt you, take the time to break it down, drill-down, and see if you can find that underlying driver, see if there is a real problem that now, right now, needs to be fixed.

Don’t just use it as ammunition, don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t obsess and get lost within it. Instead, use it as information; your past is running alongside your present. Let it tell you what you need to fix right now.

See what your past is telling you.