Relationship Connection: My wife’s past bothers me

Stock image, St. George News

Question

My question is why does my wife’s past bother me when I’m having anxiety?

My wife and I began dating when we were teenagers and then I left on an LDS mission a few years later. When I left, our plan was to wait for each other and get married when I got back.

My wife ended up breaking up with me the last two months of my mission. When I got back I found out from other people that my wife had been dating around the entire two years, and was even sleeping with other people (we never had sex for all the years we dated). This was painful to me and she admitted things had happened while I was gone.

We ended up dating again and eventually got married. I realized the past was the past.

Currently, I deal with some post-traumatic stress disorder from past life-threatening medical issues. This PTSD can randomly trigger additional anxiety. I’ve realized that when I’m feeling anxious, my wife’s past really bothers me. I’m happily married, we have a 3-year-old, and I have forgiven her for her past.

But I don’t know why her past becomes an issue when I’m feeling anxious. I’m trying to be real with myself.

I wonder if it’s because maybe I suffered some sort of trauma when I found out after my mission that her waiting for me was all a lie? Or, that I feel insecure not knowing any details of her past (as she has never given me any details as she doesn’t want to talk about it) and it’s makes me feel like there are “secrets” about her that I still don’t know.

Part of my PTSD is that sometimes I feel like I don’t have long to live and that something bad may happen (due to my medical past). This has gotten me to wonder if my wife would be with another man if something were to happen to me. This might have something to do where it subconsciously triggers past feelings when she’s been with other guys?

I communicate with my wife and let her know, and she appreciates it.

I’m wondering if we clear the air and I get answers to the past that I’ve been wondering for years if that will help me with it?

Any advice will be greatly appreciated. It’s not affecting our marriage in a severe way, but it does put a damper on the moment when I’m experiencing these PTSD episodes and feel anxious.

Answer

Your anxiety makes sense. You’ve experienced several unfortunate surprises that have required you to recalibrate your reality. Not only has your actual life been threatened, but also, life as you understood it was threatened when you returned home. It’s only natural that you would feel uncertain and emotionally off balance at times.

Your traumatic experiences (and all traumatic experiences, for that matter) all have one thing in common: loss of control. The reason something becomes traumatic is because that experience overwhelms our ability to cope. It’s unexpected, it’s unmanageable and it’s threatening to our personal security. Also, our bodies do not easily forget these experiences. We have a natural monitoring system built into our physiology that prevents us from easily erasing those traumatic experiences. Because our emotions get overloaded, our body takes over to protect us by scanning for anything that remotely resembles the conditions of those traumatic experiences. Like a smoke detector, it sounds the alarm at the first sign of danger. It’s sudden, dramatic and disorienting.

Ordinary daily experiences that contain even small moments of powerlessness can trigger trauma. For example, something simple like losing your keys can trigger a response because you feel out of control, just like when the trauma happened. You could be having a perfectly picturesque family moment with your wife and family and suddenly get triggered into believing that she doesn’t love you anymore and will leave you. You’re not crazy when this happens. It’s just that the trauma became activated and wants to protect you from further danger.

When this happens, it’s critical that you learn to breathe, slow down whatever you’re doing, and then talk about it with someone. This isn’t a time to be a hero and muscle through it. Your willingness to open up about it allows you to sort out what is truth and what is trauma. A compassionate and supportive response from someone else really matters in moments like this.

It’s trickier to open up to your wife about it since it involves her past behaviors. However, it sounds like she’s handling it well. As you continue to turn to her and get support, it will help you sort out truth from an automatic trauma response. If you need more help talking to your wife, a skilled couples therapist can help you both respond in healthy ways during these unexpected moments.

You asked a question about her disclosing the details of her past behaviors. If this was something recent that had just happened and you were deciding whether you could trust her, then a full disclosure would make sense. However, because she’s demonstrated trustworthy behavior and stayed accountable for her mistakes through the years, I don’t think it’s necessary for your wife to go through the details of her past relationships.

Going through her past behaviors with previous boyfriends won’t answer your most pressing questions. You need to know that she understands how devastating her behaviors were to you. If you haven’t felt from her that she truly gets how this affected you, then work closely with a competent counselor who can help you repair these wounds of betrayal.

Additionally, if the triggers persist, then you can still do more by working with a licensed therapist trained in one of the many evidence-based trauma treatments (such as EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, LifeSpan Integration, etc.). This will help your body learn that it doesn’t have to protect you from these dangers any longer.

As you work to slow down your body, open up about your experiences and seek ways to decrease the impact these triggers have on your emotions and body, you will experience more peace. Trauma is treatable and symptoms can improve. It doesn’t have to turn into a punishing life sentence.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Instagram: @geoffsteurer  

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!

20 Comments

  • 42214 February 14, 2018 at 11:11 am

    My advice to the wife, run fast and far from this “PTSD” snowflake.

  • PatriotLiberal February 14, 2018 at 11:54 am

    This is an all too typical situation here, the man goes on a mission, the woman goes on a hunt for a new man. It’s clear that she found you but you have not forgiven her for going on her hunt. It sounds like you feel that she betrayed you (if she didn’t end it before she dated others then she did) and you need to deal with that.

  • Real Life February 14, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    Now this, is what’s wrong with the LDS culture. “I have forgiven her for her past”. For what??? Living her life? Get over yourself, you self righteous … *

    * Ed. ellipsis added

    • Death Valley February 14, 2018 at 3:39 pm

      This right here.
      LDS culture would have people believe that acting on natural impulses is bad. That whole “natural man/enemy of god” crap.
      Get over it or get a divorce and move on. Mormons get hung up on the dumbest things.

  • comments February 14, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Not only PTSD, but sounds like OCD. Your wife may have traumatic events in her past that are painful for her to bring up, things like csa by family member is not uncommon. Otherwise who knows why she’s so secretive. So, your now wife was out having sex with other men before you were married? If she had promised to commit to you and wait for you when you left then that is somewhat worrisome. Being married to a unfaithful and promiscuous women is a dealbreaker in my book. The question: is she faithful and loyal now? Has she left all this behavior in the past. I’d say your wife is def not the molly mormon, pure as the driven snow virgin that you may have aspired to marry. She’s flawed and has deep faults just like every woman. You’re gonna have to accept this if you wanna stay married. Get some couples therapy. Make an appointment w/ Geoff. BUT, FOR THE LOVE OF… HEAVENLY FATHER, DON’T USE YOUR BISHOP FOR MARITAL ADVICE. 😉

  • Redbud February 14, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Girls that don’t wait for their returned missionary is yesterday’s news. Lost count of how many times this has happened. Your wife did what she did, and now you CHOSE to marry her, so there’s no going back. If her past made you feel uncomfortable just because you are squeaky clean, and she isn’t, then you should not have married her in the first place. She probably feels bad for her past mistakes, and that’s why she doesn’t want to talk about them anymore, especially if she has “repented.” Let’s say your wife were to admit exactly how many partners she had while on your mission, and how many times, and what, she did with each of them. Will this really help you feel better or change things? NO! You need to drop it, get professional help for your PTSD. Also even if you have health problems, stop living each day like you are going to die. Any one of us, even healthy people, could get hit by a drunk driver and killed in a car wreck tomorrow. Deal with your health problems as best you can, and be thankful for each day. You need to step up and be there for your wife and kids. Just because someone made mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean they can’t recover and have a successful future. I would only worry about your wife if you think she is sleeping around with people right now during your marriage, then that’s a whole ‘nother story. Sounds like so far, that’s not the case, and right now YOU are the problem.

    • comments February 14, 2018 at 3:39 pm

      I mostly agree w/ that. But I do empathize with the guy in the respect of how difficult it would be to find out after you marry a women that she has a past of “promiscuous behavior”, esp if he thought she had even “waited till marriage”, which is so valued in mormon culture. After saying that, yes, he needs to focus on the here and now, and how her behavior is now, and let the past be the past. And sometimes “promiscuous behavior” in mormon culture can be defined as only having 1 sex partner before marriage, which would be unreasonable and extreme. If she had been “passed around by the entire varsity team”, so to speak, or some such thing, well, that’s a hard one to deal with I’m afraid.

  • comments February 14, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Oh yea, and when the guy says “he wants to know about her past”, I was assuming he wasn’t talking about specific details of her sexual encounters with these other men before they were married. I was thinking it was her past in terms of her general life history, etc. Don’t ever ask a women to tell you about her old flings and the specifics of the sex. Trust me, it’s better if she doesn’t tell you and that you don’t know.

    And this guy is extremely neurotic, I can tell. He needs to get psychological help for his own issues, ptsd, ocd, axiety, and whatever else.

  • NickDanger February 14, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    It’s unfortunate that humans can rarely recognize the true cause of their anxiety.

    The guy doesn’t trust his wife because he knows from experience that she can’t be trusted. It’s not much more complicated than that but for some reason we have to hem-haw and how-do-you-do and come up with with all kinds of other (non-relevant) reasons for this “problem.”

    Whole planet is full of crappy relationships – women who stay with men who abuse them, men who stay with women who lie to them. I guess most of the world is so desperate for companionship that they will overlook practically anything if it allows their relationship to continue. Should have said goodbye to this one long ago, no idea what makes this guy think a tiger’s going to change its stripes just for him.

    • comments February 14, 2018 at 6:34 pm

      Good input. I guess most of us are viewing this under the presumption that she’s left her “past behavior” behind and become trustworthy. But, it’s true, people don’t usually change. With a case like this we can’t know for sure. They’ve got the kid in the mix, so it’s hard to just dump the setup and move on. You really have to hope she is trustworthy. Was it just 1 or 2 flings in the 2yrs while this neurotic fellow was on his LDS mission, or was she really “making the rounds”? It’s not clear. Hard to just bail w/ a kid in the mix tho.

      • comments February 14, 2018 at 6:41 pm

        Plus she “confessed her transgressions” to him before they were actually married. A conniving woman wouldn’t bother.

        • comments February 14, 2018 at 6:44 pm

          oh well, all the best to the fellow. hope he gets his neuroticisms treated by a professional.

  • comments February 14, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    “My wife ended up breaking up with me the last two months of my mission. When I got back I found out from other people that my wife had been dating around the entire two years, and was even sleeping with other people (we never had sex for all the years we dated). This was painful to me and she admitted things had happened while I was gone.”

    Ok, my mistake, I misread it as her openly confessing, but maybe not until he confronted her about it after finding out about these other men from other people. And was she stringing him along for nearly 2 years at the same time as having relationships and encounters with these other men? If this is the case she may end up being bad news, and Nick might be dead-on. Oof, tough thing to deal with. Keep an eye on her I guess. Trust is the basic foundation of a good marriage. If that’s not there then… good luck. You’ll need it.

  • ladybugavenger February 14, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    There’s one truth that I will tell you, You didn’t forgive her. You may the say the words and feel like it’s the right thing that you are suppose to do, but its not forgiveness.

    No one blames you for not forgiving her. It’s not easy to live with that betrayal. And maybe, you can’t forgive her until you’re not with her.

    You must look deep because what you write about is not forgiveness.

    I do wonder why she married you. Why would she marry you when she lied to you for so long?

    • comments February 14, 2018 at 8:00 pm

      maybe she’s an opportunist. maybe she “played the field” and he ended up as the best option at the end of the day. we will never know for certain. If she did string him along for 2yrs while ‘playing the field’ that is a sign of low character. we’ll never know

  • Striker4 February 14, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    The biggest problem in this relationship is their preference of religion

    • 42214 February 14, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      Boy, did you just nail it.

    • No Filter February 15, 2018 at 11:19 am

      Agreed, Mormons need to get over their self righteous BS. That guy needs to move back in with mommy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.