Sometimes the hardest thing to overcome in your relationship is not what’s happening right now, but what happened to you in the past and how that affects you today. This post in my Relationship Series is going to address how the pain from your past hurts your relationship today, and how you can work to overcome that pain so that you can thrive in your current partnership.
I frequently tell my clients that for a relationship to work we need two people who both want to be in the relationship. If we have that we can do a lot to work through things and make the relationship stronger and able to withstand lots of challenges. One of the ways that you can do to be present in your relationship and make it more meaningful and fulfilling is for you to do the work that needs to be done to understand how past pain has impacted you and work to release those past burdens from your current partnership.
There are many ways that our past pain can hurt our partnerships. Being aware of how your past has impacted you emotionally will help you to have a healthier approach to resolving conflict with your partner and build the relationship you really want. Here are a few common ways that your past may be holding your partnership back:
- Past trauma or abuse has damaged your sense of self-worth
When you have experienced a trauma, such as childhood abuse, domestic abuse (an emotionally or physically abusive relationship), a specific traumatic incident or a major loss that significantly affected you, you may struggle with feelings of low self-worth. This can affect your partnership because when you carry around the burden of these traumatic emotions, you may be seeking a level of validation from your partner that s/he is not able to give enough of to heal that past trauma.
When we struggle with low self-esteem, we feel temporarily better when other people validate us and show us love. But that feeling never lasts because you still don’t feel good about yourself and you constantly want more validation from your partner. This can leave your partner feeling frustrated or helpless because although they may be trying to express love and support for you, it never seems to matter or be enough.
When you make the decision to face and heal the trauma you have endured and build your self-esteem and confidence, you will not need constant validation from your partner, because you will feel good about yourself anyways. Making the commitment to address this past trauma can be an asset to your partnership, but more importantly, a way for you to heal and release yourself from past pain.
- Past betrayals have impacted your ability to trust
Perhaps you have experienced infidelity in past relationships, or even in your current one. Betrayal may come from infidelity, but it could also come from other things, such as issues related to finances, substance abuse, or emotional betrayals. Whatever the source, when we feel betrayed it makes it hard to trust other people, especially your partner.
Regardless of who betrayed you, it may be your partner who feels the impact of that lost trust. Our partner is usually who we want to trust the most, but the pain of past betrayals make that hard. If your partner was not the one who betrayed you, you may need to ask yourself if you are misplacing this loss of trust. Your partner will never be able to make up for the mistakes of another person, and misplaced blame can damage your emotional intimacy. Realigning your hurt and releasing your partner from the responsibility to heal the betrayals that came from other people will enable you to stop past betrayals from impacting your relationship today.
If your partner IS the one who betrayed you, then you have some work to do as a couple to sort out how to overcome that betrayal. This might mean that you have a lot of discussions over time about the impact of the betrayal, but eventually there will come a time when the power of that betrayal needs to be diminished. Ongoing infidelity is a different matter entirely. But when you make the decision to continue on working in your relationship after a betrayal, then it should not be something that gets dragged into every argument or brought up at every conflict. Sometimes counseling is in order, other times you may be able to work through it together on your own.
- Past mistakes have left you feeling guilty and defensive
Sometimes you are the one who has made a mistake, either by betraying your partner or due to other mistakes you may have made in the past. This can cause feelings of guilt and shame, which sometimes manifests as defensiveness. Defensiveness can cause you to be hyper-sensitive to criticism. You already feel guilt and shame about mistakes you’ve made, but maybe you don’t really want to hear about it from your partner. You may already feel burdened with feelings of shame or disappointment about not living up to your own values, creating problems that could have been prevented, or falling short of your responsibilities. Sometimes this gets taken out on your partner because you already feel so bad about yourself that you don’t want to hear any more criticism, so anything they say gets taken out of context or blown out of proportion. This can cause lots of arguments and often little issues turn into big problems for no good reason.
Part of healing this problem is about forgiving yourself, but the other part is about being able to withstand some criticism about your actions or decisions. Sometimes your partner may need to feel heard, so you need to be the one doing some listening. Other times, you may need to accept that you made a mistake and try to make up for it as best you can. This isn’t an easy solution, because it takes time to build back trust and you will have to withstand feeling uncomfortable as you acknowledge your mistakes. The good news is that sitting with that discomfort, acknowledging your mistakes, and acknowledging your partner’s feelings will allow you release the defensiveness so that you can move past the guilt and shame of past mistakes.
- Past conflicts have built up and created distrust and resentment
Sometimes things just build up over time, and problems seem to fester and resentment grows. Maybe it’s not about any one thing or a specific act of betrayal, but a more general sense of discontentment that comes with life just getting hard and hurtful conflicts building up resentment over time. This can manifest itself in your relationship as frequent conflicts, loss of interest in intimacy, and revolving problems that never get resolved. When this happens you need to reconnect with each other as couple and identify what has been holding you back. Perhaps there is tension around relationships with your partner’s family, and you felt s/he never stuck up for you enough. That can turn into a resentment about not feeling supported by your partner or thinking that they value other relationships more than your partnership as a couple.
It’s not fun to look at emotions like resentment, jealousy, or anger. Yet those emotions are part of being human, and your partner might actually relate to those feelings when you talk about them. Acknowledging how those past conflicts and resentments have built up to your partner can help you get to a place where you can renew your commitment to one another by creating a shared vision together of your future, and working towards the goals that you both have for your partnership.
How Releasing Past Pain Benefits Your Relationship Today
These are just a few ways that the emotional pain we have experienced in our lives impact our ability to connect with and respond to our partners. No one wants to keeping feeling the pain of the past over and over again, but holding onto negative patterns in your relationship will not help you to heal from those emotional injuries.
You are likely in the relationship you are in because you love and care about your partner and see a future with them. Creating a future for yourself and your partnership starts with healing from past pain so that the past doesn’t define your future. No one should be defined only by their past experiences, good or bad. This means that good deeds done in the past doesn’t excuse bad behavior today, the same way as bad behavior in the past shouldn’t define who you are and what you care about today. We all just have to keep pressing forward to become the people we aspire to be.
Our experiences shape who we are and they can help us learn about ourselves and what we do and do not want or what we will or will not tolerate in our relationships. This doesn’t mean though, that those experiences have to define all of our choices in the present.
You can choose to be emotionally vulnerable even though you have been hurt in the past. That is an act of bravery. You can choose to acknowledge your own shortcomings in order to become the person you are meant to be. That is an act of growth. You can choose to acknowledge the ugly parts of your feelings like jealousy or resentment that you don’t feel proud about. That is an act of truth-telling and honesty.
Acknowledging these feelings and expressing them assertively is hard, but it’s a necessary part of building a stronger partnership where you feel heard and where you feel capable of expressing your emotions and building strong communication with your partner. If you feel weighed down by emotional struggles that are influencing your relationship dynamics, think about how things could be different if you really decided to confront that past pain and stop letting it rule over your relationship. This doesn’t guarantee that you will instantly feel better, but it will make you more confident in knowing how you feel and being able to release the pain from your past that doesn’t serve you any longer so that you can have the kind of partnership you want for your future.
For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.
For more posts in this series, please see: