Ghosts Of Relationship Past: 3 Reasons Your Marriage Is Suffering

Love, Family

This updated take on "The Christmas Carol" will have you rethinking your relationship values.

The bed was cold that night, the distance between them more emotional than physical. Both were feigning sleep, trying not to let on that their minds were both working on the same issue: their marriage. What had happened? So many promises. So many dreams. Over the years, the promises were lost to missed opportunities. Dreams had become daily drudgery.

When they acknowledged each other these days, it was perfunctory. Each is civil to the other, primarily because each believed in his and her own innocence—and that each was a nice person. Sadly, both were fixated on their relationship, but it was only in their thoughts. In action, both were disconnected and hurting.

This was not any night. It was Christmas Eve. The rush of the holidays was upon them. They had already been to 6 parties, pretending to be the happy couple for all who might witness them. They played their roles, as they had for years. 

That night, the children's presents were wrapped and in place under the tree. The phones were charging, ready to capture the rapture of the children in the morning. Neither, however, found comfort in having worked together to prepare for the morning.

As both fixated on the same thought, "What happened?," they heard a noise, a rustling. The air in the room grew colder. A voice came to them, "What has happened to you? What has brought you to this point? Why have you lost your way?" Both sat upright, looked at each other in fear, but said nothing. 

The voice proclaimed, "Tonight, you will be visited by ghosts. Heed them well. Your path is not destined, but only as you choose it. You will be visited by three apparitions, the Ghosts Of Relationship Past, who can show you how to save your marriage."

With that, the room grew a bit more temperate. The bewildered couple could do nothing but hold each other, fearful of what the night might hold. Neither quite knew what to say, what to do. What had that voice meant? What was to come?

From under the bed, a mist began to fill the room. A shape began to form. The shape then spoke, "I am the Ghost of Things Done and Undone. My children are Guilt and Regret." Ah, the first apparition. The Ghost of Things Done and Undone haunts us all. There are many actions we have all taken for which we feel guilt. There are many actions we fail to take and choices we fail to make, which lead us to feelings of regret. Guilt and regret are often the starting points to disconnection. Many times, we don't want to accept responsibility, so we push guilt aside. Yet we know, deep inside, that there was no excuse for the hurtful word or the unkind action. Perhaps we betrayed the relationship in big ways or small, infidelity or speaking poorly of a spouse.

Guilt and regret go hand-in-hand. Since most people don't want to feel guilt or regret, we find shortcuts around the feelings. Sometimes, we make a hasty apology and want to move forward. Sometimes, we play a mean game of "it's not my fault," even while our conscience knows we had a choice. 

This apparition haunts our couple, as they replay in their heads the chances they had to take a different path. Both see the actions they took, and choices they did not take. For that moment, their eyes are open to their full responsibility.

Chris asks the apparition, "What can we do? Is it too late?" The apparition replies, "It is never too late, but what you have to do is what you resist. You must first reclaim your responsibility. Then, you must forgive and let go." Both Chris and Holly thought to themselves, "I can't do that! I will have to accept I am not innocent." Yet, both knew this was the path through.

Forgiveness is misunderstood in our culture. We have come to associate forgiving with "giving in," "forgetting," "knuckling under," and "letting the person off the hook." In the process, we all carry around a heavy emotional load. It's as if we continue to stuff all the things we believe have been done against us into a bag, and then drag that bag around with us wherever we go. In the process, we believe we are somehow holding the other person responsible. Yet, it is our own energy that is being drained. We constantly add weight to ourselves with events that have happened—to a point in the past, hoping it will somehow protect us. It doesn't. It only keeps us anchored to a weight that robs us of potential and choice.

Slowly, Chris and Holly began to wonder, "Could I let that go? Could I choose to move forward? Could I let the past be the past, recognizing my spouse was doing the best my spouse could do at the time, as was I?" The grip of the past began to loosen. And as it did, the mist began to retreat back under the bed.

The couple began to hold each other closer, tighter, both out of fear and as a bridge to something new. The room was dark, silent and enveloped the couple. A red light began to shine around the frame of the closet door. The room began to warm, then quickly grew hot, becoming a sauna of heat and heavy air. Just as the couple felt they couldn't handle the heat anymore, the closet door burst open. The next apparition stood above them, eyes burning.  The words slammed out of his mouth, pronouncing in a thunderous voice, "I am the Ghost of Anger and Resentment!"

This ghost reminded the couple of all the shortcomings, all the angry words and arguments, all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they each had hurt the other. And that is the secret of this ghost. The resentment? Nothing other than unresolved and unprocessed anger. The anger? Behind it was the true emotions of hurt and fear. But instead of admitting to the hurt and fear, the Ghost of Anger and Resentment fools us all into believing these are the true emotions, righteously earned and expressed. 

Hurt and fear can feel too vulnerable to share, so instead we lash out in anger. And here, the problem begins—anger is met with anger, and since the underlying hurt is rarely addressed, the anger takes root. It becomes an infection. That infection is the resentment that poisons countless relationships. In a moment of clarity and vulnerability, both Chris and Holly realized that the other really meant no harm. Instead, each had been unable and unwilling to be fully vulnerable and let the other person in on each person's hurt. 

The Ghost of Anger and Resentment gains power and prominence by hiding a secret; when we love someone, we don't want them to hurt. So, when hurt is shared, we often want to soothe it. Hurt can be connecting. But when anger is shared, it is met with repulsion and distancing. Hurt leads to connection and healing. Anger leads to anger and disconnection. That little secret is what the Ghost of Anger and Resentment must hide in order to possess a relationship, stoking the fire of anger in the soul and robbing the warmth of connection.

The Ghost of Anger and Resentment feeds on those haunted by the Ghost of Things Done and Undone. They often haunt, hand-in-hand, one in action or inaction and the other in the response to actions and inactions. They thrive and gain power in self-righteousness. They wilt in the face of self-responsibility and acceptance.

Chris and Holly both quietly wondered, "How did these ghosts gain such control over us?" But they both knew the answer; they had believed these things were beyond their control. They each told themselves the same lie, "What can I do? It isn't my fault. You can't blame me for how I respond. What do you expect?"

Yet each knew the truth—that there is a small space, a point of choice, between something happening and someone responding. That space is open to options. It can be filled with habitual reaction or with chosen response. Pretense of innocence fell away from Holly and Chris. Both felt the hurt each held inside, and the fears growing from the hurt. And both recognized the anger was misplaced. The anger dissipated. The hurt was soothed. They clung closer.

The Ghost of Anger and Resentment, having lost his power, retreated into the closet. The heat of anger cooled to the embers of connection. Those embers warmed the hearts of Chris and Holly, each breathing in a renewed calm and connection.

But old habits die hard! A dark form was upon them before they even noticed. The dark cape covering this creature hid his face. This apparition found his way to the bedside without notice. Holly and Chris were staring at each other in the darkness, not noticing this apparition. They relaxed their grips on each other, speechless from the hauntings, fearful to breathe a word of the changes happening within.

As each leaned back into their pillows, the Ghost of Neglect made his presence known. He does that. He waits until a couple loses track of each other. Then, he reveals himself. This quiet ghost has three faces—rejection, withholding and ignoring. The faces shift quickly, one to another. Each face serves the same purpose. They distract couples from paying attention to each other. This ghost feeds on busyness and misplaced priorities. The energy that is left by the Ghost of Anger and Resentment draws couples to the busyness and priorities and away from each other.

The face of rejection often appears because of the hurts and sleights of the past. When this face appears, couples push each other away in subtle ways:  "Can't you see I am busy?," "No, I don't want you to go with me!," "Why would I want to be with you?"

The face of withholding draws more energy from anger and hurt. This face appears when people want to reach out to someone, but refuse to do so, just to prove a poin. "The way he/she is treating me, there is no way I am going to be physically close!," "I refuse to tell him/her about my day! Not the way he/she acted yesterday!" This face hides from the other person, showing up only as rejection and disinterest. The face of ignoring is especially painful. This face appears when one feels like a non-entity to the other. Pleas for conversation, touch and acceptance are simply and purposefully not noticed. Opinions and thoughts are dismissed or downplayed. Soon, a person begins to disappear from the relationship.

This ghost haunts many couples. It slowly saps the energy right out of the relationship, leaving two individuals coexisting and hurting, but disconnected and distant.

Couples who choose to can starve this ghost. While he may constantly follow them, hiding and waiting for opportunities to show his face, he loses strength when a couple chooses to connect. When they choose to share and to view themselves as a unit, a team, a we, this ghost loses power and control. 

But Chris and Holly had not been vigilant. The Ghost of Neglect had grown strong over the years. Decisions had been made unilaterally. Needs had been unmet. Dreams, desires and hopes were no longer shared. And the ghost had grown stronger. Children, work, hobbies, house projects, and separate friends had only added to the power of this ghost. Oh, it wasn't really these areas of life. It was the fact that Chris and Holly lost track of each other—and their relationship—in the midst of life. They clung to other people and things, rather than to each other.

Had they simply set a priority of their relationship being primary, the other pieces of life would have found their place. The ghost would then only be slinking around, stepping in only momentarily, only to be banished again, when the couple chose actions toward each other.

The Ghost of Neglect was far less horrifying than the other two ghosts, but no less destructive. Tonight, it tried to do what it always did. It tried to rest between Chris and Holly, slowly growing in size. In the process, the Ghost of Neglect had pushed them apart. But tonight was different; Chris and Holly turned toward each other. They stared right through the Ghost of Neglect. And as they did, the ghost grew more and more transparent, occupied less and less space, and began to dissipate. Chris and Holly reached out toward each other and grabbed hands. With that, the moldy smell of this ghost evaporated. The Ghost of Neglect slunk away, ever watching for another opportunity.

The room was dark and quiet. Chris and Holly pulled each other close.  Slowly, their heartbeats calmed, their breathing returned to normal. As they held each other close, their hearts warmed. 

Then, they heard another voice. A squeal. The squeal of delight that comes when a small child discovers Christmas Morning. Holly and Chris looked at each other and smiled. They pulled on their robes and opened the bedroom door. The still-dark hall was lit by the glow of the Christmas tree in the family room, shadows cast by dancing children, unable to stay still.

Had it all been a dream? Either way, Chris and Holly walked toward their family, hand-in-hand, renewed in their love and dedicated to their marriage.

Learn more about defeating the Ghosts of Relationship Past by listening to the Save The Marriage Podcast.