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Ghosts of Marriage Past

Facing the unseen hurts that haunt your relationship.

It was a playful moment of laughter and light hearted fun. My wife, Sharon, teasingly said, "Who do you think you are, anyway?" Suddenly, I felt anything but playful. I felt hurt and angry, and I didn't know why.

I knew Sharon wasn't being critical or trying to hurt me. I knew I should have been laughing and giving her a smart-guy answer, but I felt like exploding. It was totally irrational.

Sharon could tell something was wrong, but I wasn't ready to talk about it—I didn't understand why I was feeling these strong negative emotions, so I certainly couldn't explain them. Instead, there was a sudden uncomfortable silence, an unexpected chasm between us.

Does this story sound familiar? Every remarried couple (and many in first marriages) have similar moments. Depending on your history, the result could range from an unexplained hurt that's never verbalized to an all-out, bitter confrontation. Through our 16 years of remarriage, Sharon and I have learned a lot about these situations and how to handle them. We call them" ghosts."

Haunting memories

"Ghosts" are irrational emotional reactions that are rooted in our past heartaches and painful memories. Ghosts can be triggered by words, situations, or sensory recall, and usually attack without notice or warning. They have the potential to destroy relationships—even healthy ones—if we don't learn to identify, understand, and resolve them. Managing your ghosts isn't just a good idea—it can be the difference between the success or failure of your marriage.

A few hours after my wife's comment, I was finally ready to talk. I'd realized that Sharon had unknowingly triggered a ghost from my first marriage, the memory of a painful and confusing day when I told my first wife I felt God calling me to pursue vocational ministry. She laughed and mocked me, and made it clear she wanted no part of such a call. It was an extremely hurtful day for me. One of the things she said repeatedly that day was," Who do you think you are, anyway?"

When I faced the truth of my past, I discovered that my reaction was actually a response to my ex and not to Sharon, and I was able to call that memory what it was.

That memory hurt—and it was something I didn't want to face. But I needed to grieve for the calling I wasn't able to pursue, and even though that grieving experience wasn't fun, it enabled me to toss that mental trigger and keep it from ever sneaking up on me again. If I hadn't gone through the momentary pain of facing the memory, it would have been like in viting my ex to move in with us and be part of our blended family. Not a good thing.

Sharon understood. She had her ghosts too. We talked the incident through, prayed over it together, and that particular ghost has never again launched a successful attack.

Unfortunately, that ghost wasn't alone. Recognizing ghosts and exorcising them from our relationship has become part of our lifestyle. For any remarriage to be successful, a couple has to chase, face, and displace as a team those unfriendly, unwanted visitors.

Staying alert

One of your most important weapons against ghost attacks is awareness. Unchecked mental triggers do the most damage when we don't recognize them for what they are. Sometimes we don't even know they exist until they blindside us, while there are other ghosts we can almost count on making appearances.

Facing your ghosts isn't for the faint of heart. It takes time, emotional energy, and a level of honesty that can be painful. Sometimes we have to admit to things we did wrong, problems where we were at fault either wholly or in part. For example, Sharon has experienced several ghosts related to her first husband's unfaithfulness. It would have been easy to say that their marriage failed because he cheated—but in facing her ghosts, she had to admit that she didn't always put as much work into the marriage as she could have, and reached a point where she felt things were as good as they'd get and quit trying to make them better.

Be sure to include your spouse in the process and share your awareness. In our marriage, whenever one of us experiences a mental trigger, we say, "It's okay. It's just a ghost." That tells the other to back off and let it pass, rather than inadvertently making the situation worse by trying to fix a problem the spouse didn't cause.

You might have ghosts you can't face alone. There's no shame in asking for help from a pastor, professional counselor, support group, or trusted friend. It's important to know you aren't the only person who's had to face that variety of ghost, whatever it may be.

After you become a seasoned ghost chaser, it's tempting to drop your guard if you haven't experienced one for a while. Tempting, yes; but the most hazardous thing we can do is to decide we've dealt with everything and no longer need to watch for those enemies. It doesn't matter how healthy you are, or how strong your relationship, it's still possible that there's a ghost waiting for the right time to spring a surprise attack.

In one church where Sharon and I started a divorce recovery ministry, two of our workers—both divorced—began dating. Both were mature Christians and thought they'd worked through their past. Both were, by the toughest standards, ready to be successfully remarried. When they finally did marry, we thought they'd be a shining testimony to God's healing power over the heartaches of divorce.

On their wedding night, however, the bride experienced a trigger related to problems in her sexual relationship with her ex-husband, something she never discussed with her groom. The problem resurfaced when she saw her new husband naked. Something snapped and she ran from the room, never to return. Their marriage was annulled.

No matter how successful we've been in dealing with our past, we must always be on guard for triggers that can make a ghost return.

Two keys to success

There are two key ways to chase ghosts: reactive and proactive.

Reactive.Think of this way like a smoke alarm in your home—a vigilant monitor that gets your attention if it senses danger. Always be on the lookout. Any time you react strongly to something your spouse says or does, stop and examine that reaction before saying or doing anything else. Ask yourself: Am I reacting to my spouse, or is this a reaction to something from my past? Is my reaction appropriate and rational?

Virtually anything that involves your five senses can be a trigger. When we were first married, I suggested several times that we have breakfast at Waffle House. Whenever we did, it seemed as though there was a cloud hanging over us that followed us home. Sharon finally told me that Waffle House was a place her ex liked, and she hated being anywhere near one. I haven't darkened the door of a Waffle House since.

Even someone's tone or personality can be a trigger. If you think your reaction is caused by a ghost, then say so—even if it's just telling yourself. Sometimes all you need to deal successfully with that ghost is to call it what it is.

Proactive. If reactive ghost chasing is like a smoke alarm, proactive ghost chasing is like having regular fire safety inspections. As important as it is to react to problems, the best long-term success results from identifying your mental triggers proactively, before they appear. Exposing your ghosts proactively eliminates the element of surprise, prevents damage, and puts you in control.

What were the critical wedges that split your first marriage apart? What is it about your ex that makes you see red? What are the qualities of your ex that you're glad aren't qualities of your current spouse? Examine these points of stress carefully and look for the ghosts hiding within. If you find a place where you may have a ghost hiding, work through it and talk with your spouse about it before it has the chance to attack. This may not be easy, because it requires absolute honesty about your past, even the parts you'd rather not talk about.

Nobody really wantsto deal with painful mental triggers. Sharon and I would like to think that we've got them all under control, but even after 16 years of success, we can't afford to be anything less than vigilant when it comes to catching them before they cause harm.

In her first marriage, Sharon handled the bills and household budget, because her ex had difficulty managing their money. In our marriage, I handle the bills. When we had a tight month recently and I told Sharon to be careful with her spending, it triggered a ghost that made her feel I was calling her irresponsible—just like her ex was. When she responded by becoming irritable, I asked her about it. She was honest with me, and we were able to clear up the issue.

Fortunately, we'd been proactive about that particular ghost by talking about it beforehand, so that when it did pop up, we recognized it and sent it packing

Displacing the ghosts

Once you've chased down a ghost and faced it, is it possible for it to sneak up on you again? You betcha, but only if you let it. You can displace your ghosts by filling their hiding places with good things that build your relationship.

The "who do you think you are" ghost is one of several that involve memories of being harshly criticized and belittled. Sharon has been proactive about displacing those ghosts and filling that void with love, support, and encouragement. She goes out of her way to encourage me in my pursuit of my dreams and reminds me of her belief in me on a regular basis.

We also tell each other, "I'm not your ex." Although it seems obvious, it's a powerful reminder that a ghost may be appearing and we're not even aware of it.

While the fight has been difficult, the results have been powerful. Sharon and I are closer today because we've faced our ghosts together. Those experiences have made us passionate champions of grace and healing, and have empowered us to pursue all we were designed to be. Those same results can be yours too.

Dan Case, a freelance author, and his wife, Sharon, have been married 16 years. They live in Arkansas. www.case-studies.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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