When the past is so present, how can there ever be a future?
A person refusing to let go of the past or its problems is a common complaint that enters my sessions that can frustrate both people, but for different reasons.
In many cases, one person will hold on to the past whilst their partner will want them to move on and let it go, in their minds, they can’t change the past so why keep going on about it?
The dynamic of this battle is why so many couples fail and then make it worse.
Never ask someone to let it go!
I would never ask someone to let go of a past event. It’s like we are trying to pretend it didn’t happen.
So if letting it go should NOT be the process and would only make it worse, what should we do?
To start with, it’s important to understand what is going on for them.
The reason people don’t let go of their past challenges is, in most cases, their fears become the driving force for meeting their needs.
They won’t consciously know what those needs are, but they will be active.
The problem is their fears will disconnect them from the energy they need to keep the relationship with themselves and their partner alive.
This can lead to anxiety, and that will kill their ability to see a future that makes sense.
These fears can come from past problems, and stacked resentments and vary from breaks of trust, such as affairs, to constant conflicts to misunderstandings, all triggering their fears.
I also see many cases where past fear patterns created by childhood traumas are triggered and reinforced by ongoing relationship stress, negatively affecting a person’s emotional system.
When their fears take over, the emotional shift they make can feel like a change of personality to themselves and those around them.
If this happens and it’s not understood, it can stress the relationship into a hopeless loop of compounding upset and can lead couples to a separation or divorce position.
In many cases, when this loop is practised, it can create either ongoing anxiety or a self-numbing process designed to help them avoid the overwhelming emotional pain.
So why do they keep the past alive within them?
The starting point is understanding this:
- Some are totally unaware they are doing it.
- Some know they are doing it and don’t know why.
- Some know exactly what they are doing but refuse to stop.
Emotionally they will want to feel safe in two positions firstly, they want to feel safe today and secondly, safe in their future.
Past breaks of trust can prove that future safety is unlikely, which triggers a self-protection response.
Multiple breaks of trust or past problems can help the person to use outdated, ineffective patterns to survive.
In simple terms, if they don’t feel safe today or in the future, they will feel compelled to keep their past memories alive to protect themselves.
They are afraid of losing connection to what happened because letting it go would put them back into emotional danger, so keeping it alive helps them to stand guard protecting their emotional security.
Emotionally standing guard whilst remaining connected to the past can happen consciously or at a subconscious level.
Affairs are one example of many reasons people hold onto the past
A person may hold onto the fact their partner had an affair; I’ve seen people that have done this their entire lives – they don’t leave the marriage, but they withhold their love and desire to connect because this would be too emotionally risky.
This process can result in their partner giving up, a sexless existence, the relationship becomes transactional, and many exit the marriage moment the kids leave home.
Holding onto the past is a problem
We can see holding onto the past doesn’t work, so what does?
In essence, the process is complex for the couple to see, which is why they struggle and need help.
Many couples try to sweep their problems under the carpet; this is a mistake because it’s unlikely the problem has been dealt with.
Just because couples don’t talk about their past problems doesn’t mean the past problems have gone away.
Past problems are always there, eroding their connection even if their communication has stopped.
Change the emotional connection to the problems
The key is to help the memory of the event become one that is empowering for them by putting them in the driving seat for their own life.
So one couple I met were on the edge of divorce; he had an affair, and they were at the end.
She was naturally furious at him and couldn’t get past it.
The key in this situation is to show them this affair was a symptom of their creation over the years.
That doesn’t mean she was to blame for the affair; that was his decision, but she was a significant part of what was collapsing their connection.
They were both totally unaware of how they were negatively affecting each other, and both people thought the other was the problem.
They had created a very unhappy connection, and she agreed that it was true.
Once they understood where they went wrong and why, it put them on a very different trajectory where their relationship became far more connected, fun and passionate than before.
So the meaning she attached to the affair no longer triggered a need for self-protection and loss of her future.
She now saw a far more secure future that she could influence; she became her own certainty.
The new empowering meaning was this: As upsetting as the affair was, it stopped them from suffering with each other and helped them see what they would never have seen if the relationship was allowed to die a slow death.
The solution isn’t to let the past go
The real solution is helping a person who is stuck in an unhelpful pattern to change their emotional attachment to those past problems.
The moment the person can look at what happened, and that doesn’t trigger their fear system, then the person will no longer need to keep their memories alive.
So the worst thing a person can do when someone is keeping the past alive is to be upset they won’t let it go because that will simply trigger them to hold on tighter to those thoughts.