Marriage is hard. It takes work, sacrifice, and an intentional commitment to work through the best and worst of matters. Although we all bring a past into relationships, your past doesn't have to take the blame for the issues currently arising in your marriage.
Childhood defines much of how we think, behave, and interact with others during our adult life. Depending on the sentiment attached, we often dwell on or attempt to suppress certain parts of our early years. Whether we like admitting it or not, the events of childhood can and will affect marriage, in both negative and positive ways, depending on who we are and what experiences we bring to the table.
However, that past, particularly the darker parts of your past, don't have to continue creating issues in your marriage. Painful memories don't have to keep chipping away at your relationship if you choose to address them. A broken past doesn't have to make for a broken marriage.
Whether we like admitting it or not, the events of childhood can and will affect marriage, in both negative and positive ways.
The point of not blaming your childhood isn’t to suppress the traumas or hardships you have experienced, but rather to confront and address them. Overcoming the lingering issues you still harbor in your heart and preventing them from affecting your relationship will allow you to move forward, both as an individual and as a couple.
Identify the Root of the Problem
To keep painful feelings from negatively affecting your marriage, seek help and take steps to address the underlying issues. David Hosier of the Childhood Trauma Recovery Center describes the five steps psychologists have identified as necessary for bringing about change. They include not even thinking about change, thinking about it, planning it, starting to do it, and maintaining the effort to continue doing it. The good news is that “not even thinking about it” is the first step towards enacting change, so if this is where you are, then consider that a valid starting point.
Suppressing the pains of the past won’t help you solve them, and it certainly won’t prevent those problems from affecting your marriage. Be honest with yourself about real abuses and traumas you may have experienced, as some are obviously more extreme than others. Depending on the varying levels of psychological damage, different methods and types of professional help may be necessary, both for you and for your relationship.
Suppressing the pains of the past won’t help you solve them, and it certainly won’t prevent those problems from affecting your marriage.
Often times believing the lie that “this shouldn’t bother me” doesn’t change the fact that it does indeed bother you, and it's probably affecting your marriage in some way. If you have a tendency to be frustrated with your spouse over the same, often seemingly small issues, address the root cause of those frustrations, whether that be on your own or through professional help.
Ask yourself, is it really that your partner isn’t a good listener, or could it be that you aren’t opening up enough emotionally because as a child you felt misunderstood by your parents, and are worried about the same thing happening with your spouse? Is it actually about the dishes your spouse keeps leaving in the sink or is it about the fact that you feel like it's your job to take care of everything?
This isn’t to say that every small issue has a deeper meaning. Sometimes, it really is just about the dishes. Sometimes, however, there is more hidden beneath the surface. Identifying why some actions make you feel a certain way and choosing to address the bigger issue with your partner will only strengthen your marriage.
Abuses and traumas that are real and lasting often must be addressed through professional help. However, there are also minor issues from childhood that can certainly cause issues but may be reconcilable between you and your spouse without the assistance of outside help. According to Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, a premier marriage and relationship research institution, it's not personality types, differing interests, or even pasts that cause the most divisive conflicts in marriage.
Rather than your childhood and upbringings, Dr. Gottman cites criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling as the actual culprits that hurt marriages the most. Now, these behaviors can undoubtedly stem from past hurt, but that doesn’t mean they have to be an inherent part of you or your relationship. Blaming your partner or your marriage for bringing these issues to the surface only enables problems to continue festering within your heart and your relationship.
Dr. Gottman cites criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling as the actual culprits that hurt marriages the most.
After years of research, the Gottman Institute found that a significant predictor of marital success is the ratio of positive to negative interactions between partners. Having a 20:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions during generally happy times, and a 5:1 ratio during conflict, has a huge impact on the overall health and satisfaction of a marriage. Rather than falling into criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, couples who took intentional steps to resolve conflict in proactive ways, often by dealing with the bigger picture and the underlying causes of their issues, had much higher rates of martial success.
There Is Hope
For many, the past can be challenging to overcome, but it is possible. It may take work, effort, and some painful discoveries along the way, but the good news is that through marriage you’ve promised yourself to another forever, for better or for worse. Rather than blaming your marriage, you must choose to take care of your marriage, and the person whom you’ve entered into that marriage with.
No marriage, family, or person is perfect, and the baggage we bring can have a heavy and lasting effect. The truth is that baggage doesn’t have to define you or your relationship. You are not inherently broken, and neither is your marriage. Healing is possible, and so is a lasting, loving, joy-filled marriage.
For more information on counseling and marital resources, check out The Gottman Institute.