“Help! Why does she keep bringing up the past? Nothing I can do is ever good enough.” Sound familiar? One reoccurring theme I hear from many of my heterosexual couples is the issue with repairing past conflict. I don’t mean to generalize here and sound sexist, but there are definite similarities between what I hear many men experience and say vs their women counterparts. Again, not everyone is the same, but I can’t deny how often I hear the same complaint from men.
Some examples are:
“Why does she keep bringing up the past? It never stops.”
“She never lets things go.”
“She’s so negative.”
“She never sees my attempts at making things better.”
“I am always wrong.”
“She is always nagging at me for something.”
So, I am sure you want an objective understanding to help you better understand her, right? Here are some common reasons why she may keep bringing up the past and holding grudges:
The biggest reason anyone holds onto the past is that they don’t feel heard and/or fully understood by the person they perceived hurt them. You can do this by naming her emotion, not putting yourself into the situation for a moment and just hearing her experience. Ask yourself, What is she saying? And just reflect it back. It is that easy!
For example, you say: “I can understand that I really upset you when I did X.”
NOTHING ELSE is required in that exact moment! Once she feels validated and like you understand why she upset, she can come back to the logical and her defensive and/or emotional state becomes more regulated and soothed. When she is no longer stuck in the emotion, you can then explain the misunderstanding from more of the logical (ie. your experience). “That wasn’t my intention at all and I can see how we misunderstood each other. I meant to do. I never intended to hurt you and I am sorry it felt that way.”
The power of validation is tremendous!
If your partner keeps bringing up reoccurring issues, it may be because you are trying too hard to fix it, rather than just acknowledge it. Women tend to emotionally process while they externally express; men tend to internally process, then choose to emotionally / externally express. TOTALLY OPPOSITE. Not that one is right or wrong, but we typically go about working through issues completely different.
No wonder you perceive her as incredibly negative!
She’s not “negative,” she is just working through her emotion in the innate way she knows how; to feel it, then to think about. You may perceive her as negative because you don’t typically feel experiences first in order to process it. Her “negativity” is actually just unprocessed emotions and all you need to do is try your hardest not to take it personally and allow her the space to have emotional reactions while she works through it.
(For the record, she needs to do her best at not projecting them onto you! Just because she is more emotionally expressive does not give her the right to be aggressive toward you without taking accountability or considering how her emotional reaction impacts you).
Here is an example: Let’s say she comes home and her energy is off. She storms in, throws her purse down and yells, “I hate my job! It’s awful! No one is nice to me in the office and I F** hate it! I’m just so done!” You may innately feel triggered, want to crawl into your shell and turn the TV up. You may think to yourself, “Ugh, here we go again! I wish she was just happy.” You may traditionally react by saying, “You need to look at the positive sides. Look how great your commute is, how much money you make, how early you get off! Who cares what your co-workers think about you.”
Unfortunately, you trying to “fix her issue” is actually you trying to “fix her mood,” because her mood makes you feel uncomfortable. She internalizes that as feeling dismissed. She may potentially get angrier and then you both get into an argument. You then feed your narrative, “See, she’s always so negative! Nothing will make her happy,” and she feeds her narrative, “See, he never listens and he doesn’t care about me or how I feel.”
The bulk of repairing conflict (in a healthy way) is mostly about validating each other’s perspectives without trying to win the argument. If your intention is to be right, then you have lost the ability to repair anything with your partner effectively. Your intention should be to deepen your understanding of each other. This helps you continue to respect each other and feel secure with one another in your relationship. If your partner feels hurt by you, try to understand why instead of getting defensive. It’s natural to then tell them they are “wrong” because you don’t agree or your intention was perceived differently. This then becomes about being “right,” versus validating each other and understanding the misunderstanding. You can clear up any and all misunderstandings by validating each other and work on creating consistency and awareness for future issues together.
Going back to the emotional processing piece, women tend to be more emotionally expressive by nature (or nurture). You may be making the assumption that every time she is emotional or having a reaction that it is PERSONALLY targeted toward you. I know her reactions may seem scary and you don’t want to make an even bigger issue by saying the “wrong” thing, but try to reassure yourself in those moments that “she may not even be upset with me.” Ask her for clarity without being defensive, example: “Are you upset with me?” versus “What the hell did I do to you?” or “What’s your problem?”
At times, she will express that she is struggling with things external to you and your relationship. At this moment, you know it’s not personal, which helps you better support her instead of getting into a huge argument. Ask her, “What do you need at this moment?” or “How can I help?” Possibly, by just giving her permission to be a little emotional without getting defensive, may help her de-escalate and calm down.
Most likely, when a partner keeps bringing up past issues defensively, they are feeling extremely insecure in the relationship and they aren’t getting something significant that they are needing. Maybe your partner doesn’t know what is missing, but something may be causing her to feel insecure about your relationship and/or how she assumes you perceive her. She still may be hurt about an issue that happened 6 months ago but struggles with bringing it up and fears she will not be heard. Unfortunately, she invalidates herself, most likely telling herself that “she’s being ridiculous and needs to get over it,” until she no longer can hold it in. She also fears to be a nag and tries her best to let it go on her own. (You’ve probably told her to “let it go,” once before and she fears to bring it up again. She’s probably beating herself up because she doesn’t understand why she just can’t.)
Unfortunately, ignoring emotion rarely makes them go away and she may find herself exploding at one little frustration that arises. This is most likely why you perceive her as unpredictable and why you feel you are walking on eggshells.
As her partner, this is incredibly unfair to you because it doesn’t help you understand what she needs. You are just trying to defend yourself and fix whatever you “did” to upset her. This is why the two of you need to work together. She needs to do her part and work on understanding her emotions as they come up for her, but she also needs to take the risk of expressing what she needs at the moment instead of waiting until she snaps out of nowhere. This is also why you work on the above tips to help you understand her behavior and needs more, so you aren’t feeling incredibly beat down.