Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Putting The Past In The Past

October 30, 2000

Not far down the list of marital complaints coming in a counselor’s office is "bringing up the past". Past hurts, trauma, resentments, anger and unresolved problems bubble to the surface like flotsam on a backwater pond.

No resolution of the event. Every marriage has its history of stupidity, willful misconduct, selfish acts, neglect, betrayal, or even cruelty. One act can be remembered because of its powerful effect. The wound was grievous and not enough was done to rectify the harm caused.

The hurtful event hasn’t been repeated. Everything that can be learned from the incident has been learned and there is no value in discussing it further. It won’t happen again. The connection to a current problem is vague or non-existent, yet the pain and bad memories continue to fester. The issue lies there, like so many other weeds in a a garden, growing and eventually choking off the fruit and the flower of the marriage.

The negative emotions and memory won’t go way because of the lack of validation or acknowledgment of the harm that was caused and the lack of a heartfelt apology or plea for forgiveness. Victims of trauma need this to move forward. I’ve seen too many instances where the hurt was swept under the rug, ignored and left unacknowledged. It doesn’t go away until a proper apology has been made. The lack of an apology may be the only thing preventing the past to be put in the past.

I’ve seen instant relief and equally quick forgiveness once a genuine apology has been given. Why are people reluctant to apologize? Why don’t they say the words that need to be said to repair the harm they caused? I suppose pride has something to do with it. Maybe they don’t understand how important an apology is in the healing process.

Feeling bad and not repeating the problem are not enough. Justice demands confession and restitution. To the extent that he or she can, an offender has to make amends for the harm caused. The failure to make an effort to make amends can often be a stumbling block to the process of letting go of the past.

Forgiveness. If appropriate acknowledgment, apologies and amends are made, the burden then shifts to the victim to forgive. The failure to forgive may cause equal or greater harm to the marriage than the actual act itself. In a similar manner to how unexpressed apologies keep the past alive, unexpressed forgiveness holds the offender captive and withholds a final resolution of the problem.

Forgiveness means letting go. It means giving up the power of victimhood and turning a new page in the marriage. It means accepting that whatever justice, however meager and unequal to the original harm, has been meted out. That’s the best it will ever be. It is time to move on.

Saying the words of forgiveness is as important as saying the actual apology. It is a clear signal that the past is over. Too many times the failure to say, "I forgive you," keeps the past alive.

The past as a weapon. Sometimes the past is unfairly brought up as a weapon in a fight to retaliate the hurt or as a powerful distracter when one is losing an argument. It is painful. Unfortunately, it works.

However, if the relevance to the topic at hand isn’t made, the recipient feels helpless and ambushed in an unfair fight. It feels like a sledgehammer has been brought out to smash a mosquito. There is no retaliation possible.

Past is still present. When actions are repeated and destructive habits go uncorrected over time, they drain the good feelings out of marriage. Promises are made. Attempts to change fail. The past isn’t left in the past because the problems are as current as today’s newspaper.

If there is a perceived connection between past hurts and a current problem, then the past becomes a legitimate example of how the problem is continuing. By objecting to a discussion of the past, the repeat offender either doesn’t "get it" or is trying to deny or obscure the connection. Complaining about bringing up the past can be a ploy for avoiding the fact that a harmful pattern of behavior hasn’t been stopped.

The difference between trust and forgiveness. Some people may feel they can’t forgive until they can trust again. Trust has to be earned. Trust takes time. It takes experiencing the consistency of the change. It means truly believing that the offending act will never happen again.

People don’t have to wait until they fully trust someone in order to forgive them. They can forgive and if the offending act happens again, then the past surfaces again as a current problem. There is something new to forgive and the journey of trust begins again along an even longer path.

For a full restoration of a relationship, offenders have to do two more things in addition to acknowledging the harm, apologizing and making amends. They have to first make a commitment not to repeat the offending action and then secondly, live up to the commitments they have made. The past continues to circulate because a specific and detailed commitment to change has not been made and/or the offender has failed to live up to his or her commitment to change.