Emotional baggage from past relationships almost always affects your present and future relationships. Whether it's something seemingly benign like finding a less-than-compatible partner or something more serious like trauma, you carry some of that baggage with you wherever you go.
The problem, however, is not knowing what kind of baggage you may have. You might think that you or your partner don't have any issues because things are fine right now. But when negative past experiences creep up on you, it can have a huge impact on your relationship. That's why it's important to know what emotional baggage either of you has and what you can do to deal with them.
Let’s take a look at what it means to have emotional baggage from past relationships, how it can affect new relationships, and ultimately the best ways to learn how to let the dead weight from our past go.
Understanding Your Emotional Baggage from Past Relationships
In essence, emotional baggage is what has happened to you in your past relationships that now directly affects your current and future happiness.
And like the metaphor implies, emotional baggage relates to negative experiences that weigh you and/or your partner down, stopping you from being in a healthy relationship. The more baggage you carry around, the harder it is for you or your partners to settle comfortably into new relationships.
Emotional baggage may come from a variety of sources:
- You were overly attached to your mother, which makes you project this need on romantic partners
- Your partner had an absent father, so she has separation anxiety when you’re apart
- Your friends betrayed you when you were younger, so you have trouble trusting those that are close to you
- Your partner was a loner growing up, so she requires lots of personal time alone
Your previous romantic relationships
- Your fiance may have cheated on you prior to getting married, so you have trouble committing to a partner
- Your partner may have had a toxic ex-boyfriend, making it difficult for her to feel comfortable during intimate moments
- Either partner may be going through a nasty divorce or custody issues with children, draining time and energy from focusing on your current relationship
Whatever the source, the truth of the matter is that emotional baggage is often unseen or unspoken until a conflict arises. Blinded by love or infatuation with a partner, we often don’t realize our partner has issues and hang-ups until it leads to a painful breakup, irreconcilable differences, or some reaction to previous trauma that seems to come from out of nowhere.
Given a long enough timeline, emotional baggage leads to resentment of our partners. We often ask ourselves, “Why can’t they just let it go?”
Conversely, if we are the bearer of our own emotional baggage, we resent our partner’s inability to accommodate our needs.
In either case, emotional baggage prevents men and women from experiencing the best version of their relationship.
Types of Emotional Baggage
By the broadest definition of emotional baggage, nearly anything you or your partner are carrying around that weighs down your present relationship could be classified as an emotional problem that you probably want to work on.
Let’s look at some of the most common types of emotional baggage from past relationships:
Anger is a response to intolerable circumstances, so it’s no surprise that misguided anger rears its ugly head when a person perceives their partner is transgressing their deeply-held values (intentional or unintentional). Very often, this anger can build over time, eventually leading to a “blow up”, where even little actions set the person off into a rage - either through screaming, self-harm, or violence against their partner.
Fear of commitment
Many men have a fear of commitment, where they don’t want to be locked into a relationship due to feeling trapped, stifled, or as if they’re missing out on life. Very often, a fear of commitment comes from experiencing a failed relationship - especially if that person was cheated on despite being in love with them.
Similarly, women express a fear of commitment for the same reasons, often choosing to sabotage a relationship by cheating or losing interest before deepening feelings, which can get them hurt.
It’s often said that once trust is lost in a relationship, it’s very difficult or near impossible to get it back. However, what’s often unsaid is that previous bonds of trust make it more difficult for those to trust others in the future.
Trust issues often develop from idealistic or naive relationships gone bad, where others abused them (e.g. physically, emotionally, sexually, etc.) in some form that destroys their previous comfortable persona. As a protective measure, these individuals put up walls, become cynical and are ultimately unable to move past their mistrust of others.
Worse, those who have trust issues often create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they goad and test their partner to break any bonds of trust until eventually their partner is left with no option but to do so.
Regret, guilt, or shame
Another common form of emotional baggage comes in the form of lingering negative feelings towards one's own self. Regret, guilt, or shame all fall within these categories of emotional behavior.
For example, a man may feel guilt for not providing his children with the best upbringing that he would have provided due to past drug addiction. Or, maybe a woman had a promiscuous past and can’t get over their poor choices of partners.
What makes this type of emotional baggage so hard to overcome is that the person may not be able to change any circumstances in the past, creating no clear resolution and lingering for years in a person’s subconscious as feelings of inadequacy and humiliation.
The inability to let things go
Ever have difficulty in forgiving and forgetting? By not being able to let a past experience go, we are continually weighed down by a vast array of scenarios that never seem to resolve.
Often, we felt that we shouldn’t have been betrayed, we shouldn’t have let things happen, we will never be able to forgive a person for transgressing our boundaries, so on and so forth. Over time, this inability to let things go manifests in outbursts, resentment, avoidance, and other coping strategies.
Trauma is a deep and disturbing personal experience that often leaves deep emotional wounds. These experiences are often not the individual’s fault, but can create unconscious reactions as a protective mechanism or a need to continually relive the experience. From losing a family member at a young age, being a victim of abuse, or witnessing severe violence, trauma and painful memories form are a type of emotional baggage that can be very difficult to overcome.
Dealing with Emotional Baggage
Emotional baggage is an obstacle to any fruitful relationship, but there are plenty of strategies to overcome it - either for yourself or for the woman you are dating.
By working through emotional baggage, both you and your woman can enjoy a healthier relationship to either avoid certain triggers, accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies, or transcend them entirely.
Let’s look at how to deal with emotional baggage so it doesn't affect your relationships.
Identify the problem areas
Awareness of emotional baggage is the first step to dealing with emotional baggage. By understanding what sets each other off, you gain the ability to take action.
Pattern-awareness is related to a person’s intelligence; the same goes for emotional intelligence. If you can understand what’s been holding you or your partner by observing the patterns, you can find ways to overcome or avoid problematic scenarios.
For instance, if you realize that your girlfriend is afraid of abandonment, you can work through this by exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or simply checking in with her on a reasonable basis.
Self-assessments are more difficult, as we often deceive ourselves to feel better about ourselves. Emotional baggage can be difficult to extricate from who we view we are (ego), the persona (who we show to the world), or if it’s an inextricable part of our personalities.
As a shortcut, go over the types of emotional baggage listed in the previous section. How many apply to you or your partner? Make a mental list, even for the aspects that you can’t confirm (e.g. your girlfriend hasn’t revealed her previous traumas). Chances are that the ones that resonate with you the most are clear areas needed for improvement or resolution.
Not every type of emotional baggage is able to be dealt with. In these scenarios, dealing with emotional baggage is much in the same way that one deals with the failing health of their loved ones.
This type of emotional caregiving comes in the form of accommodations such as:
- not raising your voice
- not bringing up painful memories as leverage in arguments
- not acting out
- and many other actions.
These accommodations should be talked about freely with a willing partner. After all, there may come a time when either person needs to be understanding.
For example, you may want to live an independent life after a bad breakup, whereas she might need extra emotional comfort due to her upbringing.
Last, it should be said that depending on the concessions each of you can make, there may be irreconcilable differences. If either partner isn’t willing to make these concessions, it may be better to walk away for each other’s sake.
Create a fresh start
Sometimes the best thing you can do for emotional baggage is to leave it behind.
Starting a new life together gives you and your partner a fresh start. Having each other to rely on strengthens the bonds of your relationship and also provides fewer reminders of the past that are tinged with bad memories and behavior patterns.
Of course, your problems may follow you. However, if you determine that perhaps a city or living situation that you lived in brought on bad memories, it’s worth moving to take a new shot for the sake of your relationship’s future.
It should also be said that creating a fresh start can be a symbolic gesture. Going for a day trip, giving a gift, or going for a long walk together to discuss your future life together can deepen your bonds and give each other the commitment to live together.
Time heals all wounds
It sounds like a cliché, but time has a positive effect on emotional baggage. Understand that the further away from a traumatic event or triggering memory, the less severe someone’s emotional baggage will be. New responsibilities and new circumstances often overshadow our past, forcing us to deal with the urgency of the present.
Find a therapist
For many types of emotional baggage, talking with a professional therapist is often a wise move. By having an impartial observer to explore your hang-ups and insecurities, you may be surprised to learn new insights about yourself that were right under your nose the entire time.
Therapy is also a great recommendation for a person you deeply care about. Suggesting they see a therapist may come off as an insult, but if you show that you care and that they can benefit from a healthier relationship, it’s easier to convince someone. Offer to accompany them if needed for emotional support, but give them space for private sessions as needed to work on deeper issues that they’re not willing to discuss (even with trusted spouses).
And for those who struggle with long-term relationship issues, there’s no shame in going to couple’s therapy. By having a third party as an active listening partner, you may learn patterns that exacerbate each other’s emotional baggage and work to resolve these issues without finger-pointing and accusations.
Consider moving on
While no one wants to give up on someone they care about, you should be pragmatic.
For example, you may try to reason with a lover that has severe trauma to get help, but you may not have the patience to help them get through their pain - especially if they don’t show any effort towards confronting their issues.
Long/term relationships are obviously more complicated, where an overly-attached lover may threaten to harm themselves if you leave them. Or, maybe kids are in the mix. That’s why it’s so important to recognize emotional baggage long before you become too invested.
Essentially, choosing to move on requires determining if this individual is worth the negatives that you have to deal with, or is it possible to overlook these hurts and hang-ups to focus on the positive? If they’re worth it, try to work it out. If they’re too much of a burden, it may be time to end the relationship.