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Fighting Fair: Never Bring Up the Past; It Always Goes Bad

Have you ever been pulled over by the cops for speeding or rolling through a stop sign? It’s happened to me. I hate the stomach-sinking feeling of seeing the reds and blues in my rearview mirror. After the cop takes my license and insurance and goes back to their vehicle, I’ve always wondered whether or not he or she will let me go with a warning or write me a ticket.

But, what would it be like if the cop came back to my car and said, “I was going to give you a warning, but you never obey the law. I remember that time back in 2015 you had expired registration. I know that has nothing to do with why I’m pulling you over today, but I’m bringing it up now because that’s enough reason for me to give you a ticket today. You always try to get away with something.”

I might say to myself, “Wow! What does my expired registration from six years ago have anything to do with my current infraction? And, what does he mean, I never obey the law? First, it’s not fair that an old infraction is even being currently considered, and second I obey the law all the time, just not this time. Oh, and I’m not always trying to get away with anything.”

The cop in this example is being unfair because one incident has nothing to do with the prior, and the prior was also over half a decade ago, plus he made some wild assumptions about my character and my intentions.

But in couple relationships when an argument brews up, it’s an unfortunately common occurrence to have one, or both, bring up the other person’s past mistakes and assume intentions. One of the easiest ways to tell when the past is being resurrected as a weapon is when someone uses catch-all words like “you always” and “you never”.

“You always” and “You never” imply a predictive behavior based upon a past occurrence. It means you assume to know what a person will do because of what you’ve seen them do before. Even more, it’s loaded with the assumption that there is no possible chance of change away from those assumptions. As a result, the receiver of your assumptions will likely feel trapped by your predictions and resentful for “always” and “never” being able to please you. And nobody likes to feel trapped.

When a person senses a power struggle and they’re feeling trapped, it activates the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response. This response process is an involuntary survival mechanism carried over from our ancestors that naturally inhibits higher brain function, such as language. This is why if you ever were at a loss of words during a specific time in an argument, it’s likely due to your brain blocking higher functions for the sake of survival because it is detecting a threat. In other words, your brain decides language is not essential to survival, but fighting, fleeing, or freezing is.

Another negative effect of “always” and “never” is that it produces rich soil for the person to eventually create a counter-argument. “What do you mean I always walk away from an argument? I don’t always. I’m not walking away right now!” Or, “What do you mean I never show you respect? Name one time I didn’t show you respect when you deserved it!” Suddenly, the argument has shifted off-topic and the couple begins arguing about something entirely different from the original argument.

Bringing up the past, and using “always” and “never” statements will only cause the argument to escalate, derail off the original topic, and not resolve the original issue. Even more, it negatively impacts self-esteem and can activate the brain’s threat responses which inhibit clear thinking and good communication.

In marriage counseling, your therapist can help you identify the true sources of your disagreement. Your therapist can also offer strategies to help you work with your spouse to solve the problem together. Don’t wait for the arguments to do lasting damage, a good therapist can help you even before a problem arises.

In my next post, we’ll look at the damage that is done if you argue in front of your children.

Be blessed and stay safe.

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