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Dealing With the Past When You’re Remarried

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Gil and Brenda Stuart brought memories, habits and history into their new marriage. They learned the importance of acknowledging the associated emotions and being able to talk about them.

Three days into our honeymoon, my husband, Gil, asked me to sit down so we could talk. He said, “I have to get this out in the open. I struggle with suspicion of you not being faithful.”

The issue came up several times in the first few years we were married, and I often asked myself, Why is he thinking like this? Haven’t I done everything I know to do to help him trust me and feel secure in our relationship?

But in Gil’s first marriage, he had similar concerns about his wife. Some were unfounded … but others were not.

Because both Gil and I were previously married, we each brought memories, habits, history and concerns from our past into our new marriage. As we realized how these things affected our relationship, we learned the importance of acknowledging the emotions and being able to talk about them. You, too, may experience some emotions in a second marriage that are reflective of things that happened in your first marriage, so here are some tips to help you deal with them:

Mistaken reactions

Let’s say that your husband makes a comment about something another woman said at lunch. This touches a nerve in you. You’re frustrated with him, and he doesn’t pick up on your attitude until you erupt in an angry outburst. He attempts to reassure you that it was nothing at all, just a meeting with other business associates.

As you process the events and the discussion, once again you have to acknowledge that your first husband used lunch meetings as a cover for an affair. This painful truth explains why anything remotely related to such a meeting now has a way of triggering old memories for you.

When a word, statement or action triggers an intense emotional reaction, we call these “bare wires.” Often, the trigger is an innocent comment or gesture that you somehow relate to your first marriage, maybe specifically to your ex. The emotion is raw because of past hurt or broken trust. Whenever you’re in a similar situation — perhaps only slightly similar — the negative emotions resurface even though the threat is not what it was in the previous relationship.

Still, elements of suspicion, distrust, envy, broken promises and disregard for your feelings and needs can set you off. Your ability to cope with and understand those situations is impaired by your past experiences. You try not to be defensive or to withdraw from your new spouse, but keeping your emotions in check becomes a constant battle.

A first step toward healing will include acknowledging to your spouse that you have bare wires. Because your new husband or wife is a safe place for you, trust and vulnerability can act like electrical tape to cover the exposed wire in your heart — insulating and repairing it to help bring closure.

Overwhelming memories

Soon after we were married, Gil and I planned for a bonding weekend with the kids. Our friends Bruce and Vicky had offered to share their lake house with us, so we were excited to get away and create some new history with our blended family.

Shortly after we arrived at the lake, I started feeling unsettled and depressed. At first I tried to ignore the emotions, but soon realized I needed some privacy to sort out my feelings. I could not stop crying. Eventually I realized I was missing my “old family.” I was supposed to be here with my ex and just our kids. I was grieving the loss of my previous family and the fun vacations we had taken together. But mixed in with the grief was a sense of guilt. I wondered, Don’t I appreciate my new family?

When Gil and I talked about it later, we agreed that this type of internal struggle that catches us off guard is like a “sneaker wave” — an unexpected wave on the beach that knocks you off your feet. When you and your spouse understand this phenomenon, you can label those difficult events more clearly. By exposing what is going on in your heart and your head, your spouse will know that you’re not upset with him or her — you’re just dealing with past issues.

Old habits

Current behavior patterns are often connected to your past experiences. In the context of a new marriage, you probably need to approach the current environment with different habits. I recognized my need to trade in old habits for new ones when financial insecurities from my first marriage were defining my emotional responses to Gil.

My ex worked in sales, and his income reflected how much he sold. Some months were steak and lobster months; others were rice and beans months. I felt that I needed to know what was going to be on our plates each month, so I began nagging my ex about his sales numbers every week. Defenses went up and tension would build between us.

When Gil and I first married, he worked in sales, too. When I would ask where he was with his sales for the month, he would nonchalantly respond, “I don’t know.” And I fell into the same pattern as before: I hit the roof.

Instead of hurting this new man in my life, I needed to exchange the old tapes that played in my mind (and the words that I spoke) for new tapes that reflected trust in my marriage. So I promised Gil that I would watch my tongue before blurting out anything that had to do with finances.

I kept my word, and two interesting things happened. Gil voluntarily started sharing his sales totals with me each week. And I felt as though I was in a fresh place with God — the One who makes sales happen. My ability to trust the Lord put my heart at ease and kept financial stress from coming between Gil and me.

Many remarried couples simply go back to their old ways of dealing with things — thinking that their new spouse is deceptive, selfish or intentionally picking a fight. Rather than responding to your new spouse according to your past hurts, we recommend that when an old habit threatens to surface, you take 20 minutes to regroup before saying a word. If you stop to think before reacting to something that triggers your defenses, you allow yourself to say to your spouse, “I love you enough to be uncomfortable; I trust you.”

Remember, this is a new relationship. Get rid of the old patterns and start forming new habits together … today!

This article is adapted from Restored and Remarried by Gil and Brenda Stuart. © Copyright 2009 by Gil and Brenda Stuart.

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