Pains of the Past: How Old Wounds Can Sabotage a Marriage

Many couples have the same argument, unresolved, throughout their marriages. At times, it may feel or sound like different topics, but beneath the surface lurks the same issue; it is just wearing a different dress. This familiar and unsettled conflict represents a painful dance between two people, most always set up long before they met. In the beginning, the dance may go unnoticed because of the narcotic effect of new love, but we may suspect something, fleeting though it may be, which later turns out to be the first few steps of this dance of the old wounds.

We may have more than a simple suspicion, however: When people want to get to know each other, it is just a matter of time before they begin to show their scars to one another, and this issue that festers now may have been revealed during a delicate showcasing-of-injuries ritual, just as school friends point out fingers, knees, and legs, where some injury occurred. It is a sacred ceremony: “Now you know how I was wounded and what it has done to me. Welcome to my life.”

In more intimate relationships, as trust is built, other scars are displayed: abuse from the alcoholic father, rejection from the critical mother, neglect by the workaholic parents, and more. Certainly, it is difficult to date someone and not hear about these painful events, but we never imagine that these hurts could become part of our future together. We rarely conceive of exactly how the old wounds helped to shape this person we now love. And we almost never anticipate how our old wounds will interact with those old wounds and form The Dance of the Old Wounds!

Remembering and Not Remembering

For some, the reality of being wounded in childhood and adolescence is undisputed. They readily acknowledge some form of chronic sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. They have crystal-clear memories and feelings regarding neglect or loss. They may not be aware of the whole picture, but they do have a head start when it comes to knowing what is contributing to their current life challenges. Others are ambivalent: they recall painful interactions and feelings, but they exonerate their families-of-origin. “That’s just life!” is what they tell themselves. “Sure, Dad hit us a lot but he taught us to have respect.”

Many people, however, cannot imagine their childhoods as anything but idyllic at best or normal at worst. Sometimes these same people have spotty or non-existent childhood memories with significant gaps for which they have no explanation. Over time, however, images, scenes, or feelings from the past may begin to peak through, like reluctant sunshine on a gray winter day. One of the first patients I treated as a practicum student was in her mid-forties, trying to manage what at first felt like intrusive images of sexual violation. Over time, she became aware of her history of abuse, kept secret both by her fear and her mother’s persuasive words: “He couldn’t do anything like that. You have such an active imagination!” To protect her mother and her own mind, these experiences were, in a way, sealed off from her daily awareness until years later.

The Phenomenon of Dissociation

Today, we know that trauma often causes a self-protective phenomenon known as dissociation, in which a person may find himself in an altered state other than the typical way-of-being with which he has come to know himself. Dissociation may take mild forms, such as temporarily disconnecting from one’s surroundings when driving long distances (everyone experiences this type of dissociation; it is not triggered by past trauma), or more significant forms where we find ourselves “stuck” in another internal place in which we feel quite different from our normal selves. Some report feeling small and helpless in this self-state, while others may be aggressive, irritable, or angry. Still others may become seductive or compliant. Often during therapy they report “hating it when [they] go there.” It can be scary, both to the one experiencing this other state as well as the other person. But, this is precisely where one could end up, particularly during stressful interactions, and especially during those interactions that in some way may evoke feelings and memories of the earlier trauma; dissociative episodes can be rough on relationships.

Marital researcher John Gottman, PhD, describes the process of “flooding,” in which one’s focus shifts from reasoning to survival. Activity in the frontal lobes (the center of reasoning and judgment) is supplanted by primitive emotional impulses in the limbic system and elsewhere in the brain. When flooded, one is unable to reason with one’s spouse: the aim is survival, so fighting, fleeing, or freezing are the usual responses.

A Typical Scenario

So, what might trigger a dissociative episode or flooding? If you have been wounded in your childhood, teen years, and/or early adulthood, then all it takes is for your spouse to inadvertently tap this very raw area in your soul. For example, if the primary way you were hurt over the course of your life was by being ignored, abandoned, or forgotten, then you are set up to construe any innocent or minor infraction by your spouse in much larger terms. If your spouse gets caught in traffic or is held up by an emergency at work, this may easily evoke the old painful sense that, once again, you are disposable, unimportant, and certainly no one’s priority. Before you realize it, you may find yourself in this other self-state, flooded, trying simply to protect yourself from further injury.

When your spouse arrives, often very apologetic, you are not interested in anything he or she may have to say: you are in another self-state, unable to reason, unable — and frankly, unwilling — at that time, to repair this rift between you. Because you are defending yourself against this connection with your spouse, he or she experiences helplessness (“nothing I do matters,” “I can’t get through to her”), frustration, irritation, and  especially if your spouse’s early woundedness surrounds feeling misunderstood, unseen or unknown, or feeling easily criticized or judged, sometimes now your spouse is triggered into a self-protective self-state and the two of you are in the midst of a nasty, escalating war. If this sounds familiar, please do not feel alone. At times a dance, but now The Battle of the Old Wounds is one of the most common conflicts in marriage, and it can be resolved.

Ending the War

How does a couple end such a war? You can imagine the above scenario being replayed in one form or another by a couple over many years. New raw wounds are inflicted and soon, the spouse is the enemy who inflicts pain. Many give up on such a relationship with a rationale sounding something like, “Life is too short to live this way. I’m going to salvage what is left of my life!” Let me suggest an alternate path from separation or divorce. Before doing so, let me express a caveat: If you are in a violent or dangerous relationship where you and/or your children are at risk, securing their safety and your own is a priority. Most communities have resources to help take care of spouses and children of abuse.

Path to Peace

The following are tools you can use to move toward peace (or at least, for now, a truce) in your relationship: First, self-awareness. If you have been living inside a marriage where non-violent eruptions occur, I have no doubt that you have volumes of offenses committed by your spouse, and you feel deeply hurt over these battles. There will come a time to address all of that. But for now, it is important for you to take stock in the role you have played in this Dance of the Old Wounds.

This is very difficult, especially if you do not remember how you experienced relational trauma throughout your childhood. When we are hurt as children, we are powerless to respond: We need our parents in order to survive. We may even exonerate our parents and family for this hurtful pattern (at least for many, it is easier for us to think of ourselves as bad than to think of our parents as at fault). Not so in marriage. We may hold our spouse responsible, and direct our aggression against him or her in order to continue protecting Mom and Dad, a very old habit developed in childhood. It is not uncommon to hear in therapy a spouse remark, “I feel like I am paying for the sins of those who came before me.” And many times, it is true.

Self-awareness is invaluable. It is also quite challenging to develop. Through cultivating an open attitude and utilizing meditation and other spiritual disciplines, we may begin to see ourselves more clearly, especially, how we have been hurt and how we may hurt others as well. Often, we need the help of a skillful and trusted other to help us see some blind spots we have (as all humans do), and to help us realize the impact on our relationship(s). And sometimes we become aware of certain unrealized patterns only after years of searching and being open to them.

Second, empathy. What do you know about your spouse’s early life? How was he or she wounded by parents and family? What are your spouse’s trigger points, and what is the hurt behind them? Cultivating this life skill of empathy enables you to see your spouse not as the enemy, but as a fellow wounded human being, who at times responds out of this pain. This shift is essential: from focusing on your spouse as the enemy to focusing on his or her injuries as needing to be cared for and tended to. This process of sustained empathy toward a spouse who has wounded you over the years is no easy goal, and it is likely that you will fail at times. Again, the help of a couples’ therapist may be invaluable for you in this process.

Third, spousal cooperation. The sooner both of you recognize that it is the woundedness each has carried into the marriage that is the problem, not the marriage itself, the better. Sometimes you may be ready to do this work long before your spouse. Occasionally, for reasons I will address in a later article, a spouse simply will not acknowledge any wrongdoing or admit to anything but an ideal family-of-origin and perfect upbringing. It is very painful and lonely to be the only one in a marriage willing to do the work necessary to bring about both the needed repair (forgiveness, healing, and restoration) and the necessary changes to reduce misunderstandings and conflicts in the future. It is devastating to realize that one’s spouse refuses to change. How you navigate your relationship beyond that requires a great deal of wisdom and support from others you can trust.

Fourth, continued healing. If you have been hurt interpersonally, that hurt can only be healed in a relationship. That relationship may come from a loving, accepting spouse, a trusted friend, a mentor, a spiritual advisor, a therapist, or some combination of the above. Simply becoming aware of how you were deeply wounded and its impact on your choices, expectations, and attitudes, while significant, is not sufficient. Like learning a second language, it takes immersion in a different culture to come to truly feel that the power of the past is diminished.


Gottman, J. M. (2000). 7 principles for making marriage work. New York: Random House.