The List (Part 4): Looking for Answers

Posted on 02/08/2013 by


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We have been looking at dealing with the “list.” You know those moments when you feel like you are in a disturbed version of Groundhog’s Day, a bad rerun, or a broken record. You are in the middle of a discussion and something from your past gets brought out on the table to create an even bigger predicament. We have looked at several sides of this issue so far and our ultimate goal is to figure out how a husband can best respond in this situation so that the list doesn’t come out again and he is able to show concern, love, and reassurance to his wife. The Peacefulwife and I have looked at this issue over the last several days, but I wanted to hear your thoughts. The Peacefulwife let me put out the question on her Facebook page and we got some really great answers.

One man that responded to the question I thought gave a good picture of how a husband feels when the list is interjected into a disagreement.

“The list was always built off of my moral failings (especially past pornography use) and the multiple times I had hurt or disappointed her. Everything was fair game — spiritual leadership, finances, sex, job changes, moves, school decisions, etc. It included things that we’d disagreed on and never resolved (to her satisfaction) as well as things I’d apologized for and that she had supposedly forgiven. Frequently, when she would start complaining about something that had been previously forgiven and I objected that it was supposed to be in the past, her response was, “but actions have consequences.” It was completely frustrating on multiple levels. It was usually brought up in the context of some current disagreement, so it got us off the actual subject and piled on more disagreement. It meant that I was never going to hear the end of the things on the list. And it meant there was no such thing as forgiveness or grace with her. It was very defeating.”

Wife K responded with the following suggestions:

Refrain from using the words “You Always or You Never” that automatically brings up the past and implies a constant and continual failure.

Maybe a suggestion when a wife DOES bring up the past, instead of shutting down, stone-walling, or playing the victim by saying, “I’m such a failure, I never do anything right, it’s always my fault,” make the choice to say something like “If we need to discuss something from the past again, I’m happy to acknowledge your feelings and any areas of trust and forgiveness another time in another discussion, but I’d really appreciate it if we could stay on topic right now and really work through the current issue at hand and not blanket any mistakes as a character attack.

I think as husbands if we have seen the list appear often before the immediate response mechanism is to shut down. The easiest way to not prolong the argument is to not participate is the thought. As a pretty passive husband I just wanted out of the unrest. I can also relate to the just accepting defeat and pronouncing my failure. I knew I had failures and I screwed up often, wouldn’t be easier just to accept that and move on. While these things feel right to a husband, they scream “I don’t love you” to our wives. The biggest defense when your wife looks like she is about to attack you is almost always to hold and hug her. Let her know that we need to get through this and then we might be able to solve the other issues.

Wife A submitted the following thoughts:

When my husband hurt me and we’re trying to make peace it goes so well if my husband say something similar to – I did wrong. I’m so sorry. I’ll try to change.

But if he says – I did wrong BUT the circumstances were this and this…. it will be very hard for me to just forgive and not continue arguing about what happened. I will feel that I still need to convince him that he did wrong.

The important thing for me to hear is not why he hurt me, but that he doesn’t want to hurt me and that he will try not to even when it’s hard. If I can sense that it’s super easy to forgive and totally leave the subject and all objections I may have on him.

I also feel tremendous respect for him when he’s taking on responsibility for his actions and that helps me to take responsibility for mine.

Wife R suggested preparing ahead of time for an argument by having a signal or timeout to help direct the discussion forward.

I think you should both agree to leave the past in the past, but barring that, maybe have a secret signal that alerts the other person that they are bringing the past into the present argument, like the timeout sign.

Wife K2 below suggests working on amping up the reassurance.

Reassurance, and in a loving, understanding way remind her by saying “I thank you that you forgave me for that, I didn’t mean to hurt you because of what I did. Let’s both together heal from that offense.

Wife S has some great advice below and wanted to bring up that using the list is not a one way street. Husbands can be just as guilty of bringing up the past and can be just as damaging. We need to be just as mindful of the hurt that can be unleashed with the list.

Both husbands and wives need to be aware of this…It’s super damaging to a marriage!!!! I don’t think it’s just wives who are in the habit of bringing up the past though….

I think also that it is the responsibility of each spouse to deal with past hurts appropriately…give it to God, if it’s been spoken about before, even if there was no agreement there must be forgiveness as God requires that we forgive! Once it’s forgiven we need to NOT bring it up again. If it is still painful to us we haven’t dealt with it appropriately…we need to give it to God, filter our thoughts so that we are not dwelling on it and keep giving it to Him. We need to ask God to heal us, remove that hurt and replace it with His comfort and healing. It’s not our spouse’s responsibility to heal us from that hurt, they can’t and bringing it up over and over is not going to help!

Wife M suggests a gentle reminder to move on and move forward.

Love and tenderness in the present heals past hurts, and gentle reminders when or if we bring things up that make you feel bad until we eventually ‘remember to forget.’

Wife J suggested working on reconciliation.

Bringing things back up after giving it to God is doubting God’s promises and ability to forgive. If something keeps coming back up from the past in a marriage relationship that couple should turn to God for reconciliation and to get their walk with Him back where it needs to be. Isaiah 43:25, Psalm 103:10-12, Ephesians 4:32, 1 John 1:9. I could give more but that’s enough for now.

Husband E made a point that the past may be used as a power play to derail a discussion.

Difficult. Husbands should avoid doing this too. It could be an indication of unresolved hurt from the past that should be dealt with sooner or later even if not then. It could also be a distraction tactic to end or simply derail the discussion. I hate to say it but I’ve brought up the past.

Wife D suggests we look to our relationship with God.

What does God do when we refuse to believe him? Resentment only comes from lack of faith. No person or thing can heal us, except our relationship with God.

The last two wives make cases for patience.  One for the husband to use patience with his wife and the other to understand that the wife may have lost patience with her husband.  Wife B asks for patience to help her forgive and forget.

Ask them, “What do I continue to do that keeps the hurt going in this area?  What do I need to really work hard at NOT doing any more?”  Listen carefully to their answer and SHOW them you mean business.  After years and years of dealing with the same hurts/frustrations, a person begins to feel that it’s hopeless…it will never change, that talking about it won’t make an ounce of difference.  And unfortunately, we aren’t God – we can’t just forgive and forget.  Sometimes we have to keep forgiving over and over, every time it pops up in our brain, until it eventually stops rearing it’s ugly little head.  We have to choose forgiveness every moment of every day.  Give them the same grace you want, and show them you are asking the Lord to help you change in those areas.  Ask them to please forgive you again every time it pops up in their heart.  That will gently help them see that they have to KEEP choosing forgiveness…70 x 7.

Wife J2 I thought had some great suggestions in dealing with this and added that the list may sometimes just be that we have exhausted our wife’s patience sometimes.

I think the main reason wives bring up the past is not out of unforgiveness, but out of frustration when their husbands continue to exhibit (present) behaviors that are the same, similar, or remind them of that “past” problem. Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but it has helped my husband to know that I’m struggling not with forgiveness, but with patience.

Things that my husband has done that have helped me to be more patient, respectful, and to not bring up the past so much:

  1. He prays for me a lot, and God changes my heart and mind.
  2. He has listened to me and allowed me to talk through the things in our past that still hurt me and to seek deeper healing.
  3. He hardly ever brings up my past failings, and has been a good model for me in this area.
  4. He has communicated to me that it hurts him when I bring up the past. I tend to respond to his pain more than to his judgment or anger.
  5. He has shown understanding that my referring to the past is not only impatience, but also grief over repeated behaviors.
  6. He has had compassion on my distress, and has been able to humble himself and communicate to me that he’s sorry. He still stumbles in the same areas, and is trying to do better.
  7. He has gently shown me how I to struggle in the same areas.

We’ve been married for 25 years and these things have really helped me.

I think we have touched on parts of most of these from wife J2, but I think number 4 is a very important one. Often times husbands fail to allow their wife to see them in pain. They hold all of that in to the point that their wives start to think that they do not feel. I can remember finally saying that something really hurt my feelings to my wife and it was startling to her. I had built up such a strong fortress that when I finally allowed her to see the holes in the walls she felt awful. A wife will react to a husband’s pain because this is an emotion she can understand. Sometimes it is your pain as a husband that lets your wife see that you truly love her and have feeling strong enough to be hurt.  I touched on this scenario in a post called Stop Hiding Start Hurting Start Healing.

I want to thank all of the people that contributed to this post.  I think together we have explored some of the reasons the list is brought into the discussion and also some ways that we can help our wives if the list is brought up.  Maybe by reading this series you might think twice about bringing the list into an argument in the future whether husband or wife.  Also, maybe instead of shutting down, getting angry, or stonewalling when the list comes up, you can try to help your wife get through the issue whether by trying to reassure her on the issue or giving her confidence that you will discuss the list issue at a later time away from the current issue. 

If you want to go back and view the List series Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are linked here.