Stuck in the Past

Stuck in the Past

Q: Every time my boyfriend, Sam, and I have any type of argument or disagreement, he brings up all of my past wrongs. We have been together for five years and are currently living together. Our relationship has been pretty good, with some definite ups and downs.  I do feel like we have worked through a lot and are currently at a great place. At the very beginning of our relationship, I was still in communication with my ex-boyfriend. We were both having a hard time severing the tie, although the relationship had always been toxic. Sam eventually found out that we were still communicating when he saw some texts between us on my phone. This did not go well and almost ended our relationship. Although this was 4½ years ago, I feel like I am never going to live it down. He continues to bring it up when he is mad at me (especially when he has been drinking) and makes small digs about not being able to trust me. When we have real conversations about it, he seems to believe me that I am sorry and that he can trust me- our relationship was new when he found these texts and I was confused. Is there something else I should do to prove to him that he can trust me?  I’m really actually getting fed up with continuing to have to defend myself and badly want to move forward. 

He: The fact that your boyfriend is dwelling on the past is a refreshing twist- this is typically the well-worn terrain of the female. Far more than men, women have a very developed and enormous capacity for recalling specific information that is tied to an emotionally scarring event. This may have come about because men are much more likely to “step out” on their partners, which causes these emotional events. One could argue that men “step out” more frequently than women because their partners are constantly brow-beating them about past actions. A real chicken or the egg situation.

Regardless, as a woman, you may be in a situation to understand what is happening with him and why he is dwelling on that past issue. My guess is that he has a little bit of trauma around your contact with the old boyfriend. This is not the big trauma you experience in a battlefield or abusive childhood, but the little trauma that you experience when you constantly feel insecure and unsettled in a relationship.

Your boyfriend, Sam, is bringing up this past event is his way of requesting reassurance about the relationship and your commitment to him. Your job is to give him reassurance only when he asks for it appropriately, which it sounds like he does at times. To do this, you have to think of him as your new puppy (I imagine him as a Basset Hound- kind of sad-looking but extremely loyal).  When this puppy wants attention, he will either jump up on you, or sit next to you. Of course, if you give him attention when he jumps up, you can look forward to a many years of muddy paw prints all over your pants. If you give him attention when he acts appropriately, you will have many years with a cute, sad-looking, loyal, puppy and/or boyfriend by your side.

She: It is certainly true that it is time for ole’ Sam to move on- and perhaps he just needs a little motivation.  He seems to be behaving like a hurt child, and I would go so far as to say, one that enjoys even negative attention. I am guessing that, by making you feel guilty, he gets your attention and is able to manipulate you into giving reassurance of your commitment to him.

The intervention is simple. You sit Sam down and let him know that you are no longer willing to keep apologizing for something that happened 4 ½ years ago, at a very different time in your relationship. You then tell him that you love him and that you would not do anything to hurt him (I’m assuming this is the case). You tell him that you are absolutely sorry and explain to him one last time the circumstances around the inappropriate texting of your ex-boyfriend. This is also a good time to ask him if still has any concerns or questions around this issue and give him free reign to ask you anything he wants. You, of course, must answer any questions with brutal honesty. After this part of the intervention is complete, you ask him a final time if he feels comfortable with your answers and believes that you do not intend to hurt him again. Finally, you inform him that you are no longer going to defend yourself on this issue and are not going to talk about it anymore. Be honest and straightforward that if he begins to mini-jab or try to bring up the topic he is going to be met with silence. You then, under no circumstances, are to talk to him about this again. If he brings it up, you simply state, “Sam, I love you, but I am not going to talk about this with you anymore”.

Once Sam stops getting attention and reassurance when he brings up this issue (by being met with your silence) the behavior will eventually cease. The key is for you to be consistent in not engaging with him when he does bring it up. You have helped to create this man-child, it is time for you to do the work to help him grow.

Dr. Jen Semmes and Andy Wilson have been (mostly) happily married for nine years (currently happily).  They are the owners of Coastal Counseling therapy center in Carlsbad, California.  Jen holds a license in clinical social work and a doctorate in psychology, and is a therapist at Coastal Counseling. Andy just tries to hold it together.


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