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Don’t Look Back {at an old relationship}

Don't Look Back at an Old Relationship

A relationship from my teen years still makes me wince whenever the girl’s name comes to mind. One day I was praying about looking her up to tell her how sorry I felt for how I acted 25 years ago.

One of my best friends—an experienced family counselor–adamantly opposed the idea. Steve said that looking up someone after two decades can be dangerous; you don’t know what’s happening in their life. The potential for hurt is just as great as the potential for healing.

But the clincher came when he said, “Look, why don’t you take all the energy you’re using thinking about something from your distant past and instead spend it planning on how you can love your wife today?

That’s when it dawned on me that guilt sometimes attacks us by using a dead relationship to distract us from a living one.

Some things in our past can’t be “fixed.” You can repent, you can ask for forgiveness, but you can’t always go back—nor should you always try. Some of us are more introspective and hold onto our guilt in such a way that we become blinded to our present obligations. In a way, this is a useful tool for Satan—instead of us working on something that can be improved and “fixed” (our present marriage), he lures us into wasting energy on a past relationship that can’t.

Very clever, Satan—but we’re on to you!

Instead of worrying about what you did ten or fifteen years ago, rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ, receive His grace, and ask God to empower you to do something creatively loving today.

Scripture can be your friend here. In one of Scripture’s most glorious passages, the apostle Paul lists the four works of Christ through which we can face our past: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34)

Christ died for us, removing sin’s guilt. He was raised to life and so is able to bestow that life on anyone who trusts Him. He was exalted to God’s right hand, given all power and authority over heaven and earth; He represents us and is more than a match for any of our adversaries. Even now, He intercedes for us and God will not deny His Son’s request.

When Satan oppresses you about the past or your own guilt overwhelms you, look your worst sin, your worst failure in the face and proclaim (out loud—it really helps): “Listen to me, any accusers: Christ died for me, Christ was raised to life for me. Christ is at God’s right hand, with all power and authority Christ represents me; even now, Christ intercedes for me. I am Christ’s! There is now no condemnation.”

Free from condemnation, we are emboldened and impassioned to do good works (Titus 3:1, 8, 14). Guilt keeps us obsessed with fixing an unfixable broken past; grace launches us into the exciting and very real world of spreading God’s good works on those we are presently called to love.

Fantasy Land

For others of you, the dead relationship holding your marriage back isn’t rooted in guilt, it’s rooted in fantasy. You’re allowing a relationship that never worked out to steal the energy you should be pouring into your marriage. “If only I had married him instead!” you think, or, “I wonder what so-and-so is doing right now?” Instead of praying about how to love your spouse today, you daydream about what it would be like being married to this other person tomorrow.

Few things are as destructive as giving way to such fantasies. They steal our energy from making our real marriage more meaningful. In a sense, the worse your marriage is, the more energy you need to reserve to focus on it!

Besides, be honest with yourself: there’s a reason that dead relationship isn’t a living one, isn’t there? Our memories tend to be very selective. We forget the negative and fixate on the positive—and every such fantasy robs our spouse of energy and thought that should be expended on them.

Don’t let guilt or fantasy cause you to look back. You’re cheating your spouse—and ultimately yourself—when you do. Pour your energy into something current and real. And then say a prayer, something along the lines of, “God, thank you for your grace, your forgiveness, and your gift of the second chance. Thank you for the spouse I now have. Help me to love him (or her) today like he has never been loved or ever will be loved. Let me be spectacularly creative in addressing our problems and in showing generous affection and service. I have so many areas to grow in myself that I don’t want to cheat my current spouse out of a single moment of thought or effort. In Jesus’ Name, amen.”

It’s your choice—wasting your time ruminating on an often unfixable past, or focusing on making the present at least a little better.

Want to know the best application to this blog post?

Plan something special, right now, for your spouse that you can do in the next three days. And then do it.


Gary Thomas

This post is adapted from my book, Devotions for a Sacred Marriage

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  1. I’ve been struggling for so very long with what feels to be insurmountable problems. My husband, a retired Air Force veteran, has been under psychiatric care for severe depression/PTSD for the past 21 years. After suffering a breakdown almost 4 years ago they finally and correctly added a diagnoses of bi-polar to the mix! The struggle to maintain my own sanity is so great that I have found myself reminiscing of my ‘easy life/love’ before him, followed by a little pity party and shame. I love my husband and would never hurt him by admitting this to him. I often wonder if these peaceful moments in an otherwise chaotic life are keeping me sane or am I fooling myself

    1. Deborah,

      Being married to a mentally ill person takes more courage, perseverance, discernment and wisdom than I could possibly provide here. I hope you’re getting the pastoral care you need. You certainly need moments of peace and rest–those marriages are exhausting–but I agree with you, these kinds of fantasy will not help. That’s not the kind of peace and rest you need. You forget about the pain for a short while, but it leaves you worse off in the end. Not only do you wake up to a frustrating marriage, but your heart is even more discontented.

      One of your strategies has to be not “going down” with your husband. Fantasies like this will take you down. You need to focus on what God is calling you to in the present, and what kind of future He wants to create for you. In many ways, you just don’t have the “luxury” of escaping to a distant past. Your present is so challenging, you have to be fully engaged.

      I’m sorry; I wish there were easier words I could offer, but I’ve talked to too many couples in this situation to pretend there are any pat answers. Just be thankful your husband is at least getting some medical care…

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