She Said, He Said: Rehashing the past can be message of underlying hurt
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My wife of two years and I seem to have very different ways of dealing with conflicts in our marriage. I am able to get over things pretty quickly and move on but my wife seems to hold on and can’t let go. Even when she seems to have moved on, she inevitably brings things back up as ammunition for an argument or conflict we’re having in the present. I’ve told her many times that this kind of behavior doesn’t work for me and she promises to work on it but she never does. Any ideas?
I Wish She’d Get Over It
Lori and Jeff: Men seem to have more of a tendency to compartmentalize and move on while women often want resolution through working things out. If there is something you can learn by sorting through a past action or event, then there’s value in holding on to it until it’s been fully processed.
Lori: This may be the one and only time you can ever safely compare a woman to an elephant: we remember everything. Well, maybe not less important things like where we put our credit card or on which street we parked the car, but we do remember every word you’ve ever said and the exact place you were standing when you said it. Or at least we’re convinced that we do. It’s not intentional. Several studies, including one done at Cornell in 2013, show that women may encode more information into their memories than men during certain experiences, particularly related to social interaction.
But why we remember so much is only part of your question. Why we throw it back at you is the knowledge you really seek. There are two common dynamics that will encourage your partner to dredge up the past. The first is that whatever she is experiencing in the present moment is indicative of a pattern that has not changed. Even if you don’t see the common thread between last month’s spat and the argument of the moment, she may. Patterns, themes and stories that put her in the position of feeling vulnerable (that she can’t trust you, rely on you, feel safe with you) are going to motivate her to bring up ALL of the evidence so you can finally see what she sees. The second dynamic is that she feels diminished by you during conflicts, and her ego is presenting evidence that you’re not better, smarter or more valued than her. She’s trying to level the playing field in order to feel respected as an equal.
Jeff: It may be true that your wife has an unhealthy, neurotic pattern of holding onto and dredging up the past (which she may need to be curious about and try to resolve on her own). It may also be true that your ability to compartmentalize and let go isn’t actually providing any real resolution — it’s actually more like sweeping things under the rug, letting them fester and having them come back out in other ways. If you truly believe you can let go and move on, be sure there are no lingering or residual feelings that might resurface at the next conflict. These emotional triggers can set off the cycle of blame, inviting past injustices to be brought back into the present as ammunition and justification for how she feels and what she believes.
Lori and Jeff: Partners who bring up the past aren’t doing so to punish or to create more conflict. Often, it’s just the opposite. They’re attempting to find healing for the underlying hurts that are unresolved. If you want your arguments to stay in the moment, you have to do some work together. Take the initiative to talk outside of conflict. Ask her about the things she hasn’t let go of, the meaning they hold for her, and what she needs to feel safe and validated.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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