We’ve all been there: You have something to say to your better half. Something’s been bugging you for a long time, and it’s time to have that hard conversation. Something needs fixing in your relationship. Why is it always you who has to be the one to start these difficult discussions?

Closeup of couple with relationship problems having emotional conversation while lying in bed at home
Adobe Stock photo. Click to enlarge.

You’ve planned it out in your head, but you’re tongue-tied when the time comes. Why do these gut-wrenchers always seem to happen in bed? Maybe because after sex seems like a good time—your partner is in a good mood and might be the most receptive. In retrospect, it might be the worst time because what they really want to do is fall asleep. They’ll be cranky if you’re trying to keep them awake with an outpouring of emotions and deep-diving into relationship analysis.

Of course, if things don’t go as planned (which they often don’t), all the second-guessing in the world won’t fix it. For days afterward, you think about how it might have gone. All the things you should have said. All the things they should have said.

Sometimes in the aftermath, it’s a useful exercise to rewrite history. When we’re well past the hurt, we may be able to laugh at certain situations. We can see our own glaring mistakes as well as the mistakes of our partner’s and, hopefully, learn to communicate better in the future.

In the following scenario, the names and circumstances have been changed to maintain privacy. First, I’ll tell the story how it really went down. Then I’ll tell it how the storyteller wanted it to go down.

“You don’t love me as much as you loved her”

Soon after Nancy started dating Rick, she became aware that he had a former love who really broke his heart. He was wise enough not to mention her for the first year or so, but once the name came out (Wendy), that was it—Nancy’s antennae were up.

Oh, and there was that photo of her still displayed in his apartment that she finally got up the nerve to ask about: “Who’s this?” He admitted it was Wendy. When, after a year of dating Nancy, this photo of bikini-clad Wendy standing next to a horse was still displayed in his apartment, and that said photo was not his sister as Nancy had been assuming, well, that went over like a lead balloon. Said photo disappeared shortly thereafter.

Nancy hoped that was the end of the matter.

She and Rick dated for the next year and then moved in together in a new place. They lived together for a while, eventually becoming engaged.

Sharing living quarters meant that she became aware of Rick’s extensive journal-keeping habit, dating back decades. When he was initially unpacking, he had boxes full of journals that he lined up in an open bookcase, seemingly unconcerned that those should be kept private. Perhaps he had lived alone for so long that it didn’t occur to him that someone might read his personal journals.

This temptation proved too much for Nancy. She found the years where Rick had dated Wendy and the time period of the breakup. Saw Rick’s devastation and how much he had worshipped this woman. Saw that there were actually multiple breakups, how many times Wendy had come back to him, only to break his heart again. She even read a few pages where Wendy had written a passage in his journal that said, “Hey Rick, if we get to be in our 40s and we’re both still single, let’s look each other up and let’s get married!”

“What a bitch,” Nancy thought, “to play with his emotions like that. ‘Sure, wait for me at least until you’re 40.’”

Of course, once she started reading the journals, she couldn’t stop. Every chance she got to be alone in the apartment, she tried to find his most recent journal to see what he’d written. She tried to take the temperature of their relationship, comparing it to the passion she remembered from the writing he’d done about Wendy. But it never measured up. He’d even written at one point how he was “happy enough with Nancy, but she wasn’t Wendy.” This, of course, devastated her, but what could she say? She never wanted to admit she’d been reading his journals.

They eventually got married and a few years later, had two girls. And even though Nancy should have felt secure in their relationship and the life they’d built together, she always had that nagging feeling that she had been his consolation prize.

One night after a difficult week together, she felt like she had to clear the air once and for all. The girls were bathed and put to bed. They were both sitting up in bed reading, and with great trepidation she put down her book and said she needed to talk to him about something. As soon as she started talking, her emotions got the better of her and her voice started trembling.

“I need to talk to you about Wendy.”

“Wendy…you mean Wendy Birch?! What about her?”

“Well, you remember how when we first started dating and you still had her picture up for the longest time, and how that bothered me? It seemed like you were really hanging on to her memory. And after you told me more about what she meant to you and how she broke your heart, I felt that even more.

“I guess I just need to say that over the years, it hasn’t gotten any better. Every time you’ve gotten an email or phone call from her, you’ve always perked up like you just won the lottery. I’ve always felt that you’ve been disappointed, that you married your second choice, that she was the one you really wanted. I’ve never really felt…deeply loved by you, or valued…or treasured, the way a lot of husbands describe their wives.”

Whew. She took a deep breath. And waited.

Rick looked at her and responded flatly: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Now, I need to get up early. Can I go to sleep?”

Sad senior woman after quarrel
Adobe Stock photo. Click to enlarge.

[[[[[[sound effect of needle scratching on a record]]]]]

Let’s rewrite history

In our reimagined conversation, it goes like this:

“I need to talk to you about Wendy.”

“Wendy…you mean Wendy Birch?! What about her?”

“Well, you remember how when we first started dating, and I learned your history with this woman. How much she meant to you. How much she hurt you. And I sensed you weren’t truly over her. I could see that every time she got back in touch with you, it kind of yanked you back for a few days, and that really hurt.

“When you and I moved in together, I have to confess something to you. I started reading your journals…I know, I know it was wrong. But they were right THERE. You didn’t make any attempt to hide them or lock them up or anything, and it was just too much of a temptation for me. I couldn’t help myself. I read about when you were together, how obsessed you got, how she hurt you, how you guys broke up and got back together time and time again…all of it. And then I couldn’t stop reading. I’ve been reading them all along. Reading what you wrote about me.

“And I’ve always felt like I’ve never compared with her. The feelings have never compared. I’ve always felt that you’ve been disappointed, that you married your second choice, that she was the one you really wanted. I’ve never really felt…deeply loved by you, or valued…or treasured, the way a lot of husbands describe their wives.

“So finally, I just want to say first of all, that I’m truly and deeply, very, very sorry for violating your privacy and your trust. I had no right to do that. Because once I did it, I found out things I didn’t want to know, so I truly regret doing it. I’ve carried this cloud over me for years, feeling like you didn’t love me as much as you loved her, only because I read things I had no right to read. And I don’t know what to do with this anymore.”

Whew. She took a deep breath. And waited.

Rick looked at her and said, “Wow. I can’t believe you did that.” And then he fell silent for a minute or so.

“Well, you’re right. The feelings don’t compare. But there’s a very good reason for that, if you’ll give me a chance to explain.

“Wendy was my first love. We were on again, off again, for 6 years. I’d never met anyone like her, and never before had anyone taken any notice of me, so that feeling was new. Because it was new, I was over the moon infatuated with her. I thought she was perfect. When she started cheating on me with other guys, it almost destroyed me. When she would come back to me, my life was renewed. Then it would happen again and again. I’ve never been on such a rollercoaster in my life.

“So no, the feelings don’t compare. How do you compare utter infatuation, deep jealousy, and intense passion with a steady and abiding love with someone you can completely trust, someone you know will be there tomorrow? It’s a totally different set of emotions. I’ve built a life with you because you’re loving and stable—I know you’ll be around to help me raise our girls, see them get married, retire together, push me in my wheelchair, all the rest. She was never going to do any of those things.”


Etc. etc. Because of Nancy’s honesty and Rick’s response, the evening might have had a very different outcome.

It’s unknown whether either Nancy or Rick were capable of having that second conversation, but I’d like to think that they were. At least eventually.


In real life, after that conversation that night, Nancy felt put down, deflated, and uncared for by Rick’s response. For Rick’s part, Nancy came at him out of left field—he didn’t know or understand what was truly behind her speech in the first place. To dredge up an old girlfriend like that, after all these years? Ridiculous!

They ended up getting into a huge fight that lasted into the wee hours. The whole thing caused a rift that did not get repaired for quite some time.

“Rewriting history” is a common exercise, a type of role playing that therapists use to help us recognize and unravel unhealthy patterns of communication. But both parties must be open to acting (and reacting) in ways that might not come naturally to us.

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2 Responses

  1. This was definitely what I needed to read today! Luckily I somehow didn’t start the conversation with my fiancé yet. I really need to be more prepared before I open my mouth! I’m going to rewrite the conversation I really want to have because if it doesn’t go well I doubt I have the energy to fix this again. Thank you

    1. Thank you Nikki, you made my day! Hope everything goes well for the both of you. Sending positive thoughts.

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