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by Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies

I'd like to do a ghost hunting thing.

Dan Aykroyd

It might be fun to do the “ghost haunting thing” in the movies, but not in real life. If you are married to someone who is haunted by a ghost from marriage past, here’s how you can help bust that ghost. [Is your spouse blind to their ghost? Have them read this article: Ghost Whispers]

  1. Spotting a ghost: I’ve often said that the answer to the question How does someone know if they have a ghost? is that their spouse will tell them! If you are feeling like something unseen is infiltrating your marriage, say so, but do so carefully. If you are feeling unfairly attacked or pre-judged by your spouse, softly say something like, “I’m pretty confused about why this subject sets you off the way it does. I’m wondering if it reminds you of anything.” Let your spouse process your observation over time; if they haven’t spotted the ghost yet themselves, they may need time to make the connection. Again, be soft in your observations. Remember, “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1 NIV).

  2. Once a ghost is identified, be patient. Naming the ghost is an important first step toward change, but don’t expect your spouse to corral that thing immediately. Because change is difficult, you will see it haunting again and again as they strive to move out from under its influence. Offer support, not quick judgment. “But I shouldn’t have to suffer for the sins of their ex-spouse?” you might object. Unfortunately, marriage means we join ourselves to one another’s past—positive and negative—for better or worse; remarriage is a package deal. Stop feeling victimized and start helping.

  3. Don’t take responsibility for their ghost. Ultimately you cannot do enough to bust their ghost; it’s their ghost and they must do the work to manage it. But here’s what you can do to be supportive:

    • Ask, “How can I mention a ‘haunting in progress’ when I see it without putting you on the defensive?” This gives both of you a system for acknowledging what’s happening without setting you against each other.

    • Let the bullet bounce. When your spouse overreacts, remind yourself that it is about the past, not so much about you personally. Like putting on a bullet-proof vest, you can let what was fired at you bounce instead of penetrate. When you de-personalize their comments you are left with a bruise instead of a piercing hole through your heart.

    • Own your part of the exchange. Ghosts are sometimes triggered when you act in a way that mirrors the previous partner. Anything that closely resembles their behavior or attitudes creates a landmine. As your spouse talks about their ghost learn what you can do to avoid triggering those explosions and monitor yourself closely.

    • Love as “perfectly” as you can. Most ghosts are rooted in fear, but scripture tells us that perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). Having an unconditional love that reflects the love of Christ will eventually help to root out and destroy your spouse’s ghosts.

  4. Pray with and for your spouse. Taking ghosts to the Father together as a couple and asking for His wisdom and power to overcome can bring powerful healing. Besides enlisting the power of the Holy Spirit, praying together reminds you that you are a team who is attempting to chase, face, and displace the ghosts. Prayer strengthens your resolve and unites you.

  5. Focus on improved behavior before softened emotions. The process of change for your partner requires them to “act better than they feel.” Don’t be discouraged when you notice negative emotions set off by the ghost. Instead, focus on their effort to change their responses toward you (behavior). Offer encouragement by saying, “I’ve noticed you trying to [identify the positive behavior] and I appreciate your commitment to our relationship. Your effort is bringing us closer together. Thank you.”

Ghosts are hovering, irritating pests; they are about the past. Love and service are about the present and future. That’s where you are headed. Follow God and He’ll take you there, ghost free.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.