She remembers (and tells him) how he insisted she go with him to New York, which she didn't want to do; and how it rained and she had a terrible time; and she remembers how she wanted a car, so he got a pickup that turned out to be a real lemon; and how, on her birthday, he bought her a faucet for the kitchen sink, which proves he is a cheapskate; and how, when she asked him three times to pick up her pink chiffon dress from the cleaners, he still forgot, so she had to wear her last year's Easter dress to his parents' 25th wedding anniversary celebration.
And he remembers (and tells her) what a terrible manager of money she is and can recite in detail a number of overdrafts (which he is sure is a low estimate) caused by her; and how she is always late to everything (including his company's Christmas party, which was a terrible embarrassment); and how she didn't pick up the basetball tickets the day of the big game like he asked and so it turned out he was late to see his favorite team; and how she didn't support him when he wanted to buy the vacant lot down the street (which then went up considerably in value); and so now it's her fault they aren't rich or at least able to support her in the manner to which she apparently is accustomed.Both "He" and "She" have long memories and well-developed mental archives in which they have stored all the other's past crimes. In any argument, these two criminal experts can harangue each other with a never-ending list of misdeeds having to do with such key marital issues as sex, in-laws, money, communicating, disciplining the kids, etc.
And both these experts know how to keep the marital fire smoldering by taking frequent potshots: "It's just like you not to want to go to a movie. You don't mind spoiling anything. Why, it's just like on our honeymoon when you. . . ."
Couples who recycle the past and old gripes tend never to get to the point of solving their issues. They merely take the lastest "crimes" and add them to the existing heap.
Their troubles are several:
- He and She don't recognize they are enmeshed in wheel-spinning conflict. The negative pattern of dwelling on the past has taken over the relationship. Slinging the past at each other makes it impossible to bring in new, fresh approaches to solve problems or to repair the relationship.
- He and She aren't aware they each have imperfect memories that have recorded only the other person's negative behavior. Neither party can be heard saying: "If you think that's bad, let me tell you all the things I've done wrong."
In interacting, the intent of each party typically is to establish that the other person is to blame for something or everything. Dwelling on the past is one of the most common and destructive problems couples encounter as they try to communicate. If this is a habit you'd like to overcome in your relationship, consider these approaches:
Declare a statute of limitations on past crimes. If you'd like to bring the habit of focusing on the past to a screeching halt, agree with your partner to the rule that no crimes, faults or misdeeds can be brought up that are more than 48 hours old. If you're frustrated about recurring behavior, talk about present, instead of past, incidents.
Become responsible for talking about problems as they happen instead of harboring resentments and bringing up incidents weeks or months after they've occurred.
Try to discover real problems. When you peel away at past grievances, you often find at a deeper level discontentment or a need that is not being met in the relationship. Review privately your own complaints about your partner's past behaviors. You've been expressing what you don't like - documenting the things that exasperate you.
But what is it you'd like? What would fill the bill? When you clobber people with past actions, you're telling them what they did wrong and often implying that the behavior is unalterable in the future. There's no chance for others to "start fresh." They're burdened by past sins that may never be forgiven and may always be held against them.
On the other hand, when you ask or invite persons to meet your needs in the future, you give them a chance to give you a gift. So take responsibility for letting other people know what you'd like but give them ample room to give to you in their own way and on their own terms.
Stay with problems until they are solved. Couples who focus on the past engage in frequent "context-changing" as they shift subjects every few minutes or seconds. This keeps them from solving any issues. If you have this problem, agree with your partner to problem-solving sessions in which you choose one problem, talk about that problem only, and opt for solutions that are "no-lose" for either party.
Release other poeple from being what you want. Probably many of the past complaints you've collected and clobbered your partner with have to do with stylized behaviors of that person that irritate you. Maybe you don't like the way your partner is "always" late for appointments, or sings in the bathtub, or talks to the dog, or piles up papers in the front room, or snores (so loud the neighbors can hear), or reads the newspaper when you're trying to talk.
Simply give up being so particular and fussy about the other person's behavior. Release your partner to be who and what he or she is and allow that person much more personal space.