One of the hardest parts of reconciling a marriage is remembering that you’ve reconciled the marriage.
Allow me to explain.
Two years ago, my husband and I separated. Our marriage was at rock bottom, and we needed time and space to heal, to get some therapy, and to figure out what we wanted. During that time, we both grew tremendously. And eventually, we found our way back to each other. The hard work we did in therapy paid off. We returned to our marriage as new people with better coping skills and a lot of unhealed trauma that was finally in recovery. Since then, marriage has been relatively easy.
Well, at least it’s been easier than it was when we were toxic and broken versions of ourselves.
But the thing about healing is that there are parts of your brain that still remember — that carry around the hurt like luggage they just can’t let go of. Sometimes, you find yourself behaving in your new, healed marriage as though you are still in your incredibly broken one.
And that, my friends, sucks.
One of the biggest problems in our marriage was the lack of support I received from Charlie. For many years, it felt like I was carrying the full weight of the household responsibilities on my own. A lot of this was due to his colitis and chronic depression, but even the justifiable reasons behind his lack of support didn’t change the very real consequences it had on my life. I felt utterly alone. (There is far more to the story than just this, but out of respect to my restored marriage, I don’t want to go any further into the past).
When we healed and then reconciled our marriage, we utilized the method from Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play of dividing up the household chores and each “owning” the entire process of that chore from start to finish. One of the main things that I took over was getting the kids ready for school in the mornings. Charlie took ownership of the finances. He pays all our bills, handles the budget, and basically takes care of everything that keeps our house financially above board. As someone who has significant anxiety around money and budgeting, it is an enormous gift for Charlie to take care of those tasks.
For the most part, we’re really slaying this whole marriage reboot thing! Except when, occasionally, one of us gets pushed back into old thought patterns, letting the past seep its way into our present.
Last week, Charlie decided to get up with me and help with the kids’ morning routine for school. My gratitude for his help quickly dissolved into frustration as I watched him fumble just about every task he tried to help me with. He put my son’s shirt on backwards. He dressed my daughter in my son’s clothes. It took him three attempts just to find the right pair of socks for each kid, and every step along the way took an enormous amount of hand-holding on my part. Honestly, it would have been faster and way less frustrating for us both if I had just done it all myself.
I began to fester. I was angry that he couldn’t accomplish just one simple thing from the kids’ morning routine, like getting them dressed, without my help. I started tossing around words in my head like weaponized incompetence, unfair division of labor, and so on. I was dangerously close to entering a nasty headspace that would for sure lead to a fight between us.
And why? He was up and trying to help me with a task that we specifically agreed was mine. Was this weaponized incompetence, or was it the natural result of my husband never learning the morning routine because it wasn’t his agreed-upon task?
I realized, with shame, that these negative thoughts were coming from that part of my brain that thinks I’m still living in my old marriage. And it absolutely was not fair. I had a fight all queued up in my head, ready to launch it at him the moment he walked out of the bedroom with one more godforsaken wrong pair of socks.
And I had to let it go
When Charlie came into the kitchen with a sheepish, apologetic look on his face, holding socks that absolutely were not the right ones, I allowed the healthy and healed part of my brain to take over. Instead of getting frustrated, I chuckled. Then, those chuckles erupted into great, giggling peels of laughter.
I said, “you know what, babe? Right now, you look just about as lost as I would look if one morning I woke up and offered to pay all our bills and balance the budget!” And at that, we both had a hearty, good-natured laugh.
In our new, healthy marriage, we both have tasks that we manage from beginning to end. If I tried to handle the budget and our finances, it would be an absolute disaster. That’s not weaponized incompetence. It’s not any kind of incompetence, for that matter. It’s just the natural result of my husband establishing his own practices for handing that task, and me not knowing anything about how he does it. By the same token, he is going to be confused about our morning routine. He’s not sure whose socks are whose because he has never had to be the one to dress them in the morning, and that was our joint decision. Letting my old thought patterns turn that good decision we made for the health of our marriage into something that causes tension and strife dishonors all the work we’ve done to get to this healthy place.
So, why do I act like this?
Coming to terms with this tendency of mine to drift back into old ways of thinking has meant recognizing that two things can be true at once. I can be healed, happy, and healthy in my marriage, and also have parts of my brain that might take a little more time to let go of the past. I can give those parts of my brain grace. I can recognize that those parts exist because I went through something very difficult, something that likely changed my brain chemistry a bit. It’s natural that the past might take some time to overcome completely.
At the same time, I can acknowledge that allowing myself to sink back into destructive thinking—to treat my marriage as though it still functions the way it did in the past—is unfair to Charlie and to myself.
I can choose to lovingly challenge those parts of my brain that want to teleport us back to our old marriage. I can gently remind myself that I do not live in the past; instead, I live in a new, beautiful present that Charlie and I are building together. Giving myself compassion in these moments is important, but forbidding myself to lean into toxic patterns from our past is equally important. I will never achieve the full potential of this marriage reboot if I keep letting myself devolve into unhealed, unhealthy thinking.
I have to embrace the reality that even fresh starts require continued work and effort. Healing is a process. And, as they say, it is non-linear. It is not a one-and-done deal. There will be setbacks. There will be bumps in the road. There will even be days that feel utterly disastrous.
But you keep getting up and trying again.
You do this because you deserve it. Whether it is a marriage you are healing, or a relationship with a family member, or maybe even your relationship with yourself, you deserve to keep doing the work. Try not to be too discouraged by the setbacks. And make sure you celebrate the victories! With time, your brain will learn to let go of the past and allow you to step into the beautiful future you are building for yourself.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.