How the Past Affects Our Relationships

“You always hurt the one you love” or so the song says.  Why is it so easy to be hurt by or to hurt the people we love?  Is it because we expect more of each other or just because we know how to push the right buttons?  One of the most difficult challenges in any loving relationship, is handling our differences and disagreements and remembering that we still love each other.  How quickly a simple disagreement can turn into an ugly fight and our loving feelings are completely forgotten.  What is so powerful that we are willing to throw love out the window?  Generally, our past, our history.  Past hurts, loss, disappointments, unresolved issues, all of our past experiences can get in the way of a loving and caring present.  The real difficulty lies in recognising past issues in the present.  Unfortunately our emotions don’t come with pop-ups saying “I am an unresolved past issue, don’t blame your current partner!”  How much easier relationships would be if this were possible.

Recognising Past Issues

So how do we learn to recognise when our past is infecting our present?  In the Mars/Venus workshops we talk about the 90/10 principle.  About 90% of our upset is related to our past and has nothing to do with what we think is upsetting us.  Only about 10% of our upset is caused by the present experience!  The present experience has triggered all the past issues that relate to the feelings we are currently experiencing.  To use an example from the workshop, imagine someone poking your arm a little or gently bumping into you.  It doesn’t hurt a lot.  Now imagine you have an open wound or sore and someone starts poking it or bumps into you.  It hurts much more.  In the same way, if unresolved feelings from our past are coming up, we will be overly sensitive to the normal pokes and bumps of our relationship.

Once we reach the ripe old age of 21, most of us have a history, we may even have experienced out first real love!  For some of us though, it didn’t last as long as we would have liked. However, we survived our childhood and adolescence and are now ready to embark on life as an adult.  We put away our childish things and decide to grow-up and take responsibility.  We can’t keep running home to mum when life gives us a bloody nose or a grazed knee.  So we shut away our childhood fears and emotions and take on the responsibility of a ‘relationship.’

As an adult we can rationalise someone else’s behaviour.  If our partner is a little critical of us, it may hurt our feelings a little, but because we are an adult we are capable of understanding that they don’t mean to be cruel, or maybe they have had a bad day.  We don’t take it too personally.

On another day, however, our childhood fears and emotions are playing near the surface and the same criticism triggers a past hurtful experience that creates an open wound.  Our partners’ criticism hurts that much more and we feel rejected or unloved.  Generally, when we feel hurt, rejected, blamed etc., the best form of defence is attack!  And so the argument flares up in a tit-for-tat competition to see who can hurt who the most.  We feel justified because our ‘hurt’ is so huge and we feel our partner has caused this pain.  Of course they must suffer as well!  So we both end up in pain, probably not talking and definitely not loving.

An Alternative to Arguing

There is a better way of dealing with our emotions.  It takes some effort and practice.  It’s called a Feeling Letter.  Rather than hitting back in pain, when you feel an irrational response starting to kick in, remove yourself from the situation and write a letter to your partner.  Writing is a cathartic process that allows feelings to be explored safely, and putting your thoughts and feelings onto paper allows you to get them out of your system.  There is a standard format for a feeling letter that starts with

I am angry because……. And then you list why you are angry, what has made you so angry, who you are angry with.

Then you move through the letter by examining your emotions of:

I am sad because…..

I am afraid….

I am sorry….

I love you because…

Finally, you write a response letter from the person you are writing to.  You write out the response you would like from them, how you want them to respond, what you need them to do.  Then you can choose to share as much of the letter with your partner as you would like.

There is no Future in the Past!

In following this process, past hurts and situations quite often come to the fore, and the letter that started off being addressed to your partner can suddenly be re-directed to someone else.  Through this process you become more aware of how much of the past is infecting the present and learn to deal with the present experiences on their own merit.

We always hurt the ones we love, because love makes us feel safe enough to allow past hurts to resurface.  Love makes us feel strong enough to resolve past issues, and with a little loving support from our partner, we can do anything!  Always remember why you love someone, before the heat of an argument burns the loving memory away.  “There is no Future in the Past” a good friend of mine once told me, so if you are planning on a future together, learn to let go of the past together.