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Is your partner bringing up the past? Learn why and what to do about it

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The things that we or our partners have done in the past can cast long shadows over our present and future relationship if we let them.

The most common time for these things to raise their heads again is during arguments.

When tensions rise and partners come to blows, the temptation to bring up the past can be too much to resist.

But the result is rarely what we hope it might be.

Instead, it only fuels the ill-feeling that has already grown into conflict.

It makes the situation worse, not better.

This article will cover four sections: first we will look at why bringing up the past is a bad idea, then we’ll explore some reasons why people do it, then we’ll share some advice on what to do when your partner brings up the past, and, finally, we’ll give some tips on how to stop yourself from doing it.

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6 Problems With Bringing Up The Past In Arguments

1. It prevents issues from ever being fully resolved.

The more you cover old ground in a relationship, the more you reinforce those memories.

The events and the issues surrounding those events become defining moments of your relationship.

When you drag up past transgressions, you stop yourself from ever fully coming to terms with them and forgiving your partner for them.

It’s the equivalent of ripping a scab off a wound over and over again before the skin underneath is fully healed. The wound will just continue to ooze and form a scab in an endless cycle.

That scab will likely become infected over time and need more extensive treatment to heal. Likewise, your relationship will suffer more and more each time an old wound is reopened until it needs serious attention to fix it.

2. It burdens you with additional emotional load.

An argument is probably going to have an emotional element to it as it is.

But when you add the past into the mix, you unleash a whole other emotional load.

Our mind tends to hold onto negative past experiences more than it does positive ones and it is believed that this is because of the strength of negative emotions and how they attach themselves to events and memories.

So when you rake up old ground, you spark those old memories and this causes the emotions surrounding those memories to explode.

3. It can cause little disagreements to spiral into much bigger fights.

Those emotions mentioned above have the effect of eclipsing the original issue that was being discussed.

So what was a minor disagreement suddenly has fuel poured onto it, making it into a much bigger conflict.

The net result is an argument that will leave you both feeling terrible instead of an issue that could have been dealt with calmly.

4. It prolongs the punishment one person faces.

If your partner has done something regretful in the past, it is quite likely that they already carry that regret with them.

But when you raise that past misdemeanor in the present, you are effectively punishing them for it again.

The guilt they feel will come back. The regret they have will be amplified. They will feel pretty bad about themselves.

5. It causes resentment for both partners.

Resentment occurs when we feel we have been mistreated by someone.

And when someone brings up the past in an argument, that resentment is felt in both directions.

The person raising the past has their resentment of that mistake or action reignited.

The person who made the original mistake begins to resent their partner for holding onto the issue and dragging it up all the time. And each time the past is raised, the resentment grows stronger.

6. Memories of the past are never fully accurate.

When you rake up past events and go over them again and again, you are probably remembering them slightly differently each time.

No one can ever have a perfect memory of the past and that is even more the case if you have stewed over events for a prolonged period of time.

Your mind skews the memories. Your emotions and thoughts regarding the events morph the details each time you remember them.

That’s not to say that you will misremember the underlying reasons for those memories, but you might add or remove context that affects how you respond to it.

10 Reasons Why Someone Might Bring Up The Past In A Relationship

1. They are using it as ammunition.

Past wrongdoings might be used to hurt your partner, particularly if you feel you are ‘losing’ the current argument.

If you are on the defensive or have nowhere else to go with your reasoning, you may resort to bringing up something they did with which to attack them with.

2. They are trying to justify or minimize something they have done.

Perhaps you are the one to have put a foot wrong this time. You might have done or said something to upset your partner.

But rather than own up to that, take responsibility, and accept that you have made a mistake, you try to compare it to the mistake they made previously which you see as bigger.

It’s the old “Yeah, well you did such and such, so don’t go lecturing me!” approach to dodging the blame on this occasion.

3. It’s a diversionary tactic to avoid discussing the matter at hand.

If there is some topic that you don’t want to discuss, something that you are uncomfortable talking about or where you know there is a major difference in opinion, you might bring up the past to avoid discussing it.

By going over old ground, you can put the original conversation off until another time, or in the hope that your partner doesn’t raise it again.

4. They want revenge for the hurt their partner is causing them.

Maybe your partner is saying some things that really hit you hard. You are genuinely hurt by their comments.

So you drag up things from the past to get your own back on them and cause them hurt to match that which you are feeling.

5. They want to shame their partner into changing.

If something your partner previously did still weighs heavily on your mind, you might keep raising the issue with them in the hope that it will shame them into not doing it again.

In effect, you are trying to get them to change by not letting them forget it.

The problem is, shame is not the best motivator. All it tends to do is make your partner feel lousy and not really want to put in the effort required to make that change.

6. The issue was never fully resolved.

When you get closure on something, you tend not to bring it back up again. Or, if you do, it’s not in an emotional way.

The fact that you are raising the past means the issue was probably left unresolved, at least in your eyes.

Or maybe you had the discussions required to address the issue in a practical sense, but you still haven’t healed the emotional wound.

7. They are trying too hard to fix the problem.

Sometimes your intentions aren’t bad when you rake up old problems. It might be that you want to fix that problem and you think that by talking about it, you are helping do that.

But some problems can’t be fixed. All they can be is acknowledged. And as much as you try to fix them, by mentioning them again and again, all you are doing is reminding your partner of that issue.

8. They want to push their partner away to get some space and time.

There are times in every relationship where one or both partners need some space and time to themselves. That’s natural.

But rather than just communicate that with your partner, you drag up the past to force a wedge between you in the hope that they then leave you be for a while. 

9. They want to force the end of the relationship.

Perhaps you have had enough with your partner and you want to break up with them. Or maybe you are just very anxious or have commitment issues that mean you feel compelled to run away.

Either way, by bringing up the past, you are hoping to steer the relationship to breaking point. It is a way to get your partner to break up with you if you can’t face doing it yourself.

10. There is a pattern of repeated behavior.

There are times when bringing up the past in arguments is valid. That is when your partner displays a pattern of behavior that is not acceptable or desirable and that isn’t getting better.

In this case, you are raising the issue again because you need them to know that their continuation of this behavior has to end.

5 Ways To Deal With A Partner Who Brings Up The Past

1. Don’t apologize again.

Whatever you do, don’t say you’re sorry for the past mistake if you have already apologized for it and taken full ownership of it.

Doing so only encourages this behavior because your partner will know that it works to put you on the back foot.

Of course, if you are repeating the same mistake, you will need to apologize again, but if your partner has no valid reason to go over old ground, you have no valid reason to apologize.

2. Bring the focus of the discussion back to the issue at hand.

Should your partner try to move the argument onto past issues for whatever reason, just keep returning the focus back to whatever initially caused the argument.

Simply say something along the lines of, “That’s not the issue we’re talking about right now. Let’s focus on…”

Don’t give in to repeated attempts to sidetrack the conversation. Just keep insisting that they stick to the issue at hand.

3. Agree to a separate time when the past issue can be discussed.

If they seem determined to talk about things from the past, you can agree to discuss them at a later point in time so that it does not interfere with the thing you want to resolve now.

Just say, “I appreciate that you want to talk about that, but now is not the right time. Why don’t be sit down and dedicate a conversation to it tomorrow evening or this weekend?”

If they insist that now is the right time, hold your ground and keep suggesting another time.

4. Validate their feelings.

If your partner is bringing up past hurts, there’s a good chance that they still have feelings about it.

So it’s important that you say and do things that validate those feelings. But then you can remind them that this is a new problem.

Say something like, “I know that you’re still feeling hurt by what happened and that’s okay, but we were discussing a different issue and I think it’s best to stick to that new issue right now.”

Don’t say things like, “We’ve dealt with that, why do you have to keep talking about it?” You may have discussed it, but that doesn’t mean they feel okay about it now.

5. Look for solutions together.

Whenever there are issues in a relationship, one of the keys to resolving them is to approach them together.

You have to work as a team to find solutions so that your relationship can get back to a healthier place – something you should hopefully both want.

So always remember that it is you and them versus the problem, not versus each other.

4 Ways To Stop Bringing Up The Past In Arguments

1. Stop trying to win the argument.

Arguments in a relationship aren’t all bad. They can help you to discover issues and put things in place to fix them.

They also allow you to grow together and better understand each other.

So don’t try to “win” an argument by raking over old ground. An argument isn’t something you can really win or lose.

But the relationship can be better for it or it can be worse for it. And by dragging up the past, chances are it will be worse for it.

2. Remind yourself that you love your partner.

It can be hard to see past the annoyance or anger during conflict. But you must try to remember that your partner isn’t the enemy; they are someone you love.

You may not be able to summon those feelings, but you can rationally accept that you do love the person staring back at you.

And by doing so, you’ll be less likely to want to intentionally hurt your partner by reminding them of the mistakes they made in the past.

3. Don’t rush; consider your responses carefully.

During an argument, there is a tendency to act first and think second. You may say things you don’t really mean simply because you are not giving yourself the time to think before you speak.

This is particularly common in people who get easily flustered when tensions are high and voices are raised.

But there is no need to instantly respond to something your partner has said. You can either remain in silence until you have got your thoughts in order or simply allow them to have their say and listen carefully before voicing your views.

By doing so, you will avoid the knee-jerk reaction to attack them with things from the past.

4. Do some work around that past issue.

If there is a particular thing from your relationship’s past that you don’t think has been fully resolved, you need to work on it.

That might be work you carry out yourself by processing the feelings you have about it and finding ways to close the book on that issue.

It might mean talking things through with your partner at a separate point in time to address any pain points you might still have.

Or it might mean discussing the issue with a relationship counselor who will be able to guide the conversation, keep it on topic, and offer advice on how to resolve the issue.

The latter is a particularly good idea if the same thing from the past finds its way back into your arguments again and again. Clearly something is not fully resolved, but it might take a fresh set of eyes on the problem because you and your partner are so emotionally invested in it.

Relationship Hero can guide the way and help you achieve the best outcome. Through regular sessions with a dedicated relationship expert (by yourself and/or as a couple), you’ll learn precisely how to create a healthier and more fulfilling relationship—one that can last a lifetime. Learn more about Relationship Hero and get the kind of tactical relationship advice and ongoing support you need.

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About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.