When the Past Is Present

By Terri Clark
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Orio Vidal
Your spouse 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 — these are triggers.

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.

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
  • 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

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

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.

© 2019 by Terri Clark. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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About the Author

Terri Clark

Terri Clark is president and founder of Terri Clark Ministries, which provides practical help for stepfamilies.

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