I am all in favour of letting go of the past. I think couples should let bygones be bygones and “move on” as much as possible. BUT if you are experiencing vivid memories and strong feelings about something that happened years ago, then it is not just “in the past”. In that case, it is actively affecting your relationship in the present and needs to be dealt with.
In my experience, the key to effectively addressing past hurts that occurred within a relationship is summed up by two lines of a song:
“Would you run to me if “somebody” hurt you,
Even if that “somebody” was me?”
Prince: If I Was Your Girlfriend
The way to heal past hurts is for your partner to be the one to give you care and support and empathy as you think and feel and talk about them.
However many of us find this difficult to do. If our partner is telling us about a situation where, in their experience, what we did was thoughtless, unkind, selfish, cruel or whatever, we may struggle to accept it. Often it is hard to believe that the hurt we are doing to our partner is as bad as the pain we experience them inflicting on us.
The picture they are painting of us may hurt our pride or our self-image and we will want to reject it. We may minimise or justify our behavior. We might try and prove that it was our partner’s fault or do something else that undermines or dismisses their experience. This will compound the past hurt and ensure that it stays alive in our relationship, forever unresolved between us.
The alternative is to place our partner’s well-being above our ego, to accept their subjective experience as real and valid, and really listen to how it was for them. We can show interest in and care about their experience. Even better, we can show empathy by acknowledging that it makes sense how this experience impacted them.
If we have been hurt by our partner’s words or actions and tell them about it and they respond like this, it makes a difference. It signals to our brain that we are in a different time and place, that things have indeed “moved on”. Human beings process hurts by getting them out – by talking or writing about them. When we can do this in the presence of a caring other, who validates our experience, it will frequently shift how heavily this past event weighs on our heart and mind. And when the caring other is the person who was the source of our pain, true healing can occur.