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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 a 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 posttraumatic stress (PTSD) 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 from your mission. 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. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland warned of the temptation to revisit past mistakes once they’ve been resolved:

“There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life—either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes—our own or other people’s—is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist.

When something is over and done with, when it has been repented of as fully as it can be repented of, when life has moved on as it should and a lot of other wonderfully good things have happened since then, it is not right to go back and open up some ancient wound that the Son of God Himself died trying to heal.”[i]

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.

Your soul has been deeply affected by these experiences. And, as you know, the soul is comprised of the spirit and the body.[ii] Elder Dallin H. Oaks encouraged us to utilize every possible resource to heal both the spirit and the body when he said:

“Latter-day Saints believe in applying the best available scientific knowledge and techniques. We use nutrition, exercise, and other practices to preserve health, and we enlist the help of healing practitioners, such as physicians and surgeons, to restore health.”[iii]

As you work to slow down you body, open up about your experiences, and seek ways to decrease the impact these triggers have on your spirit 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.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

 

[i] https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/jeffrey-r-holland_remember-lots-wife/

[ii] D&C 88:15

[iii] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/healing-the-sick?lang=eng