THE BLOG

Owning Our Emotional Baggage in Relationships

08/19/2013 11:41 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Everyone, especially anyone older than the age of 18 or so, has some sort of emotional baggage. Of course, this looks different for everyone and does not manifest the same in any two people. When I was younger and in relationships, I always thought that emotional baggage was a bad thing, partly because society had always told me that and partly because it seemed to be the reason why I (and other people) would end relationships. Being in my early and mid-20s, I was usually pretty invested in a relationship until the time would come for something "unfavorable" to come up. This could be anything from a first argument to an insecurity to a trust issue that I just wasn't ready to face. Once I felt this happen, or experienced it happening in the other person, I had one foot out the door and would be running for the hills, either trying to get away from myself or trying to get away from the other person.

As I've gotten older, though, and have been in more (and longer term) relationships, my opinions on all of this have changed quite a bit. It might be because I work with clients on these very topics or because I went to school to learn how to deal with my own emotions and understanding them. But it also might be that I have finally reached a place in my life where I can feel thankful and grateful for all the things in my past (as challenging as it may have been at times) and allow them to be things that help me in making better choices as I move forward. And in return, I can have that same awareness and point of view when it comes to someone I am dating. Sure, I still have some "red flags" that I do my best to avoid in relationships -- things that would not work for me in the long term, etc. -- but for the most part there isn't a whole lot I am unwilling to work through with someone if I feel like it's "worth it."

What I have started realizing as I have been in more mature and meaningful relationships is that the emotional baggage isn't what the actual issue is. The actual issue is how the baggage is handled and what the behavior is when it comes to handling the baggage. In school, I was taught that "how I relate to the issue is the issue." Which means, let's say my partner spills a glass of red wine on my favorite dress. I freak out, panic, yell, say mean things -- and storm out of the room and ignore the person for two hours. In this situation, the issue is no longer that wine has been spilled on my dress, but in the unreasonable and over-reactive way that I handled the situation. The "issue" would then be that I freaked out and lost my cool over something as silly as a dress. And then in that situation it would be my own responsibility to deal with it and figure out why I reacted the way I did. Is there some sort of underlying issue going on? Am I truthfully just not happy in the relationship? Do I not feel heard or loved or supported? The truth is that the chance of being 30-something and going into a relationship without some sort of emotional baggage, whether it be a trust issue or intimacy insecurity or a fear of being vulnerable, is highly unlikely. But the way we handle it has everything to do with how it impacts the relationship and how it can actually deepen and strengthen the relationship if reframed in a way that's beneficial and positive. And a lot of that begins with self-awareness.

Truthfully, we never really have any idea what is going on for the other person when we get into a new relationship. In the beginning, things are usually at an all-time high and no one is really thinking about anything other than love, lust, and that new sex position that had obviously never been discovered before. But as relationships progress and intimacy begins to deepen and things start to "get real," our issues tend to surface and we can either avoid what's going on (and have it come out later, somehow) or we can deal with it, work through it, and see what kind of positivity the outcome brings. And most of us already know what our issues are and can point them out, name them, and even pinpoint when and why they get triggered. I think a lot of people go into relationships looking to the other person to "fix" their feelings or issues. For example, in a relationship between a man and a woman, a woman might feel insecure about her body. She may ask the man to remind her over and over that she is beautiful and skinny, though even after he tells her over and over, she still does not fully believe him. In this situation, the woman is looking to the man for validation about something that can only actually come from her. Sure, it feels good to hear nice things about our bodies (or other parts), but the issues really begin when partners look to each other to "fix" things. A lot of the time, people in relationships come to a place where they don't actually want to do the personal work on themselves anymore and instead want to focus on the relationship. But this gets old fast and can lead to all sorts of resentments and unhealthy dynamics that can be otherwise avoided.

In my opinion, the key to handling emotional baggage is to be aware of it, know it, own it, and handle it. I do think that open communication is helpful and necessary in any and all relationships (especially romantic relationships), but I also don't agree that sharing every tiny detail of feelings is necessary either. Personally, I know what my baggage is. In a new relationship, it will inevitably come up but my first rule of thumb is to see how much I can handle on my own. I ask myself three questions: 1. Is this a new or old issue? 2. What is actually happening in this moment? 3. What can I do to take care of myself? If I can get to the bottom of what's really going on (example: a jealousy issue, a trust issue, etc.) then when I do to my partner, I'm not a jumbled mess of emotions. My preference is always to handle what I can on my own, take care of myself, and then come forward to share with my partner. There's a time and place to be emotional, and as a woman I can certainly be emotional, but handling myself with integrity is important to me in any situation. On the other side of that, it's my hope that my partner has similar views and is aware of his own issues just as much as I'm aware of mine. Not everyone works things out in the same way, and there's always room for compromise and understanding, but it's much easier to have an honest, communicative and productive conversation when both people are in an emotional space to actually talk to each other. I think it's the dramatic, crying conversations that turn to arguments that tend to be the most draining and trying on a relationship, no matter how strong it is.

The thing is, this "baggage" that we all think drives relationships apart can actually be the lasting force to hold them together. There isn't really anything that's more emotionally intimate than sharing from my heart and saying what I am feeling, without asking someone to fix or change anything. It's not my partner's job to "make" me feel better -- or less insecure or less critical of myself, or less jealous, if that's how I'm feeling. We are all human and need the time and space to experience our feelings, and when the time is right we can share them in a way that works for us. We all have a past. We've all been hurt in one way or another and we're all scared on some level -- that's human nature. But we have a choice as to how we let them impact our decisions when it comes to moving forward with someone else. Sure, we could drag our "baggage" around with us or we could realize that what's in the past can stay there and we are free to move forward taking only what we really need and want. At the very least, it might result in a very different relationship and in all honesty, why not take the risk? Old relationships ended for a reason and you never know how special or amazing the next will be.

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