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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

Have you ever been in an argument with your special someone when he or she brought-up some relationship-crime you committed years ago?

Most of us have, however, though this a natural and automatic process, it is counterproductive and usually harmful. If you continue to be angry about something that happened years ago, and bring it up during arguments, it can transform a small disagreement into a major fray. To prevent this, here are three goals to work on:

  1. Release your past anger.
  2. Don’t use anger to ‘save’ yourself.
  3. Don’t use past anger to punish your partner.

Don’t Hold on to Your Anger

Studies show that forgiving increases your well-being. Unfortunately, some people struggle to forgive past indiscretions. You might believe that some crimes are unforgivable, but it is actually the harboring of the anger that is damaging - and even if the infraction is minor, festering anger can explode and damage the relationship.

Anger about the past is just not healthy, and since it tends to resurface when you feel angry again, it is like a minefield until it is cleared.

For example:

  • Overworked and stressed out, you make a wise decision to get away for the weekend.
  • You start to make some phone calls to find an inexpensive room and your spouse reminds you to make sure it is a clean room. 
  • You ask, “Why are you nagging me about that?” 
  • Your spouse says, “Don’t you remember what a mess the house was when I came back from a business trip? You clearly don’t care about cleanliness!”

And there goes the weekend get-a-way!

  • Bringing up a negative past is likely to lead to an even larger disagreement. Forgiveness would have gone a long way to improving everyone's quality of life..

Don’t Use Your Anger to Save Yourself

If you are harboring anger it can come up in other scenarios. If you feel threatened because you are expecting to be blamed, it is not unusual to recall the past in order to divert the subject. For example:

  1. You were supposed to pay the cable bill.
  2. Sitting down for dinner you hear a courtesy call come through on the answering machine.
  3. Your spouse asks why you didn’t pay the bill.
  4. You respond with, “The same reason you haven’t taken care of the taxes yet!”

By retorting with an even greater problem you remind your spouse of their problems and suggest that you are the less guilty party. 

You’ve done nothing to resolve the problem and created an even bigger one. When using old grudges to save yourself, you will probably dig yourself into a bigger hole.

Don’t Use Your Anger to Punish

This use of pent up anger is really insidious. Even if you really believe that you shouldn’t be punishing your spouse, you can often “get away with it” by expressing “righteous” anger.

This often originates from the feeling that your partner has hurt or rejected you. Bringing up past anger issues puts the blame on the other person and makes them feel all the worse. 

This can happen when past issues are brought up, for example:

  • Jack is planning a week-long business trip.
  • Jacquie thinks she will be bored and lonely. 
  • She brings up the time he was away for their anniversary or maybe Johnny’s kindergarten graduation to try and make him feel guilty and not go. 

People skilled in this form of negativity can get their own way, but the long term result is resentment, which can lead to contempt.

If contempt creeps into a relationship it leads to serious trouble.

Learning to Forgive

If you have difficulty letting go of the past, perhaps you still need to learn the skill of forgiving. Try starting slowly. Here are two suggestions:

Start with the Small Stuff

Work on forgiving the small things first. Find something that is annoying, but not terribly so. Consciously say to yourself that although it is annoying I forgive her/him. It is not worthwhile to get anybody upset. Then tell him/her about your forgiveness and mention that your love is still strong. Do it enough times that it stops feeling weird, and then progress to more serious annoyances.

Say It in Writing

A second method is to write notes of forgiveness. Everybody has their own favorite medium, so it can be in a text message, email or a hand-written note, but there are two important factors that you need to include in the note.

  1. First that your being annoyed or upset is your problem and not his/her fault. 
  2. And second, as in suggestion one, that your love is still strong.

 It is that tone of positivity that will do the trick.

About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated May 16, 2014

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