Your new spouse isn’t your ex, but that can be hard to remember while living in the shadow of an unhappy marriage.
It was late and my husband and I were deep in conversation when I made an offhanded comment about my first marriage. He looked at me, momentarily confused.
“Sometimes I forget you were married before,” he said. It wasn’t always that way.
My first dip into the promise of “Till death do us part,” at the tender age of 25, lasted less than 18 months, but its effects reverberated for years. The marriage was awful, rife with various acts of love-shattering harm. We divorced when I was 27 and both moved on—well, more or less.
I met my current husband a year after the end of that matrimonial train-wreck and learned that I still bore its scars, often finding myself suspicious, anxious, or angry. I worried about the way this new boyfriend talked to me, fretted he’d cheat and wondered what kind of damages he was capable of inflicting. My future husband often found himself on the defensive.
“I’m not him,” he finally said once, exasperated after I’d accused him—again—of acting just like my ex. Those words stopped me.
He was right, of course. My husband was his own man—not without his own flaws, but infinitely kinder, more compassionate and driven by a sense of generosity and fairness.
I’d like to say that moment changed everything, but it would take more than a year to figure out how not to hold my second marriage up under the murky spotlight cast by the first. What that moment did do, however, was help us both develop tools for getting out from under its shadow.
Even at its best, love is difficult. Even if you don’t remarry but just want to enjoy healthy relationships, these tools are key. Even if your bad marriage was okay by bad-marriage standards, they’re useful. Even if you’re the type of person who remained friends with your ex, they’re important. Here are five things to consider.
- Recognize differences. For me the most important lesson was that first one: Realizing I’d set my husband and our marriage up for failure by comparing him to my ex.
- Recognize similarities. Just as you must set your current relationship apart from the past, it’s also key to look for patterns, particularly bad ones. Identifying similarities makes for a good jumping-off point. For example, if your ex used to talk down to you in front of others and your new partner has a habit of interrupting you mid-sentence, that needs to be addressed.
- Discuss triggers. A bad relationship can cause what feels like post-traumatic stress disorder. For years after my first marriage ended I was plagued by memories that left me feeling out-of-control and threatened. Eventually I learned to recognize some of the trigger situations, words and actions that pushed me there. By sharing those with my husband we were able to discuss different ways to act and communicate with each other. This isn’t a fail-proof approach because real interaction—the stuff of wonderfully real and messy relationships—isn’t something you want to strip of all its spontaneity, but it can and does help..
- Change your thinking. Your partner is not your ex. Your partner is not your ex. Your partner is not your ex. That is your mantra whenever you start to slip into old patterns of negative thinking, blaming and knee-jerk reactions.
- Change your action. Feel the shadow getting heavier? Pause and take a deep breath. Repeat the mantra above. Respect yourself and respect your partner. That person deserves to be in a relationship free of all that heavy past baggage they did not pack.
Rachel Leibrock is a writer and editor living in Northern California.