When the Past Is Present

Illustration of a husband and wife conversing across a table. The presence of the husbands ex-wife is shown standing behind his current wife.
Orio Vidal

I bristled when my husband, Harvey, asked me what I bought with the money he had given me the day before. He was just curious and wanted to see what I had purchased, but I instantly put up a wall of defense and followed with words of justification.

I had used the money for family needs but couldn't help tucking some away — just in case. Hiding cash to buy essentials was an old habit because my first husband's "need" for beer usually outweighed the need for groceries.

After receiving several other undeserved reactions from me, Harvey asked why I was so upset with him over little things like his asking simple questions. This prompted me to do some honest reflection. I talked with Harvey about my previous marriage and the emotional triggers it left me with, and this important conversation paved the way for Harvey and me to enjoy a much healthier relationship.

Triggers rooted in the past

Your husband or wife may act nothing like your ex, but without even realizing it, you might be unfairly reacting based on fears and emotions that are rooted in your previous marriage. When you recognize the triggers, you can start addressing the issues and work through them so your marriage can be stronger than ever.

Do you see yourself or your new spouse in any of these scenarios?

  • An ex was abusive, controlling, addicted to pornography or sexually demanding. Now something as small as a touch or fluctuation in tone sends your emotions into a downward spiral.
  • You question every penny your husband or wife spends because your ex consistently ran up debts.
  • Your ex prioritized watching every sports event ahead of spending time with you and the children, and now you hate anything that has to do with sports.
  • You badger your spouse about being punctual because your ex was always late and had no regard for anyone else's schedule.
  • Your former husband or wife was verbally abusive and blamed you for anything that malfunctioned, so now you never tell your spouse about household items that break down.

Seeking unity

To experience greater unity in marriage, you need to work through the things that divide you and your husband or wife. Wait until you're alone with your spouse, the TV is off and smartphones are put aside. Talk honestly and lovingly to your spouse, being mindful of your tone. Invite God to join in your conversation by beginning and ending with prayer. Here's a template for your discussion:

Step 1 Recognize your fears, past wounds and unjustified reactions. If you saw yourself in any of the examples above or in a similar situation, you've already made good progress.

Step 2 Talk about your triggers and emotions, but don't ask for or share too many details about past events, especially if they are sexual in nature. You don't want to create mental images that might hinder your relationship later. Include time for brainstorming ways you can avoid reacting to your triggers.

Step 3 Identify the lies that cause your triggers. You can do that by reminding yourself that your new spouse is not your ex and that you can let go of fear. God defines your value. Read what God says about you — your worth and how He loves you — in His Word (Matthew 10:29-31, Ephesians 2:10).

Terri Clark is the author of Tying the Family Knot and Fanning the Flame

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family's marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2019 by Terri Clark. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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