Our 10-year-old next-door neighbor showed up at our house selling hoagie sandwiches for the Boy Scouts. My husband, Scott, who answered the door, told him, "Sure, just let me check with …" And out it came — his previous wife's name.
I was within earshot of the entire exchange. So was my stepdaughter. The name landed in my heart with a heavy thud. I ached with embarrassment, anxiety and anger.
Remarriage may start a clean relationship slate, but it doesn't wipe away memories and old habits that can slide into our marriage and affect our intimacy. Since these slipups are guaranteed to happen, we need to be prepared to act wisely, appropriately and compassionately. And it actually may be simpler than we realize.
When Scott called me by his first wife's name, my initial reaction was to take revenge for the pain and embarrassment he'd caused me — and then to have a good wail. But I had a God-inspired moment in which I sat back and said nothing. I processed what had happened and tried to remove my emotions from the situation. I asked myself, What's really going on here? By doing that I discovered the following tips:
Don't take it personally
Scott's misstep was based on a habit from having been married to his previous wife for almost 20 years — and old habits die hard. It's similar to when your mom calls you by your sibling's name. My mom occasionally calls me "Sherry," her Yorkie's name.
When Scott messed up, it wasn't an indication that he still pined for his previous wife any more than my mom wishes I were a dog. He wasn't thinking of his ex or secretly longing they were together again.
When I was able to rationally consider the facts and the underlying issue — not my assumptions — I could kindly and unemotionally alert my husband to what he'd done and know that he hadn't set out to hurt me or our relationship. And he certainly didn't do it on purpose. In fact, it had absolutely, positively nothing to do with anything other than a brain hiccup.
Do our spouse's words or actions hurt? Of course. Do they feel personal? Sure! But we will only add to the pain if we don't stop and consider that it has nada to do with us. It's a habit or a mental trigger and nothing more. The best thing we can do is not take it personally.
Eileen and her husband, Lee, had been married only a few months when Lee traveled to a conference. He called Eileen the first night and then didn't call again the rest of the conference because, as he explained to her, he'd been busy and overwhelmed there, plus he'd been single so long, he wasn't used to "checking in" with someone. But his innocent neglect wasn't so innocent for Eileen.
What Lee failed to understand was that by not calling Eileen, the silence triggered painful and scary memories from her first marriage, which had been filled with betrayal. She couldn't help the anguish that popped up when something happened to pull her back into the nightmares she'd experienced with her previous husband.
Lee had a choice: He could get cranky that Eileen "demanded" he check in with her to ease her fears. He could yell about how she didn't trust him and that she needed to get over it. By doing so, he would reinforce (and actually contribute to) the triggers by engaging them in threatening ways, such as arguing or accusing. Or he could refuse to make a big deal about it and instead ease her fears and comfort her.
Fortunately, Lee realized the underlying issue — that his actions were unintentionally bringing his wife's anxiety to the forefront. So he opted to extend grace.
When we offer grace to our spouse, we recognize the trigger or habit for what it is and choose not to engage the issue in a way that contributes to our spouse's angst. This in turn eases his or her fear and builds trust.
Now married more than 15 years, Eileen no longer experiences those triggers, thanks to Lee's commitment to extend grace by regularly communicating by phone or text and not engaging in potential conflict.
Find creative responses
"I'm so sick of Dan constantly comparing me to his first wife," Beth told me one day. "Every time I go shopping, he flips out. I keep a budget and we have no debt, but that doesn't matter. So I decided to go ahead and run up the credit card, just like his first wife did, since he accuses me of it anyway."
"Whoa," I told her. "That's not the best way to help him get over his anxiety."
Habits and mental triggers take time to fade. We may want them to disappear as quickly as a rash, but it simply doesn't work that way. So it's important for us to communicate honestly about what's going on and then be creative in how we choose to respond. I encouraged Beth to be patient with Dan, to see the root of his pain and then do something positive to counter it — such as including him when she pays bills. That way she reinforces that their marriage isn't the same as his previous one.
Whatever creative way we choose to respond needs to include compassion. It wouldn't help Dan for Beth to throw the credit card bill in front of him with a huff and a look-at-this-you-dope attitude. Getting creative allows us to more easily resist harboring the hurt, remembering that we are on our spouse's side and that we wouldn't hurt him or her by retaliating in a spiteful way. We want our marriage to be a safe place. If we work together through those mistakes, habits and triggers, eventually we will conquer them.
Ask your spouse to share with you ways you can recognize triggers and what you can do together to lessen their impact on your relationship. To ensure that Scott rewired his brain, for instance, we called each other by our first names, as opposed to pet names, for our first year together. If I'd thought of it, I would have made a tag with my name on it and worn it as a joke to dinner. Maybe I could still wear one to my mom's house ...
The important thing to remember is that your spouse wants this marriage with you to succeed. When he or she does something lunkheaded, it isn't purposely to hurt you. But it is an opportunity to show compassion and love — and to prove that you are not, in fact, the previous spouse.* Names have been changed.