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Just like packing winter-wear for a trip to Tahiti will make for a sweaty and miserable time on the beach, carrying baggage with us from past relationships can make it hard to fully enjoy new ones. Baggage leads to fights and misunderstandings; it’s something that every one of us has because our brains are designed to physically change and rewire themselves based on our experiences. Any time we find ourselves in a new situation, we will try to use what we have already learned to deal with the challenges. We all learned ways to protect ourselves emotionally, and those can get in the way of building trust, intimacy, and love.
What exactly is the baggage we carry around? It’s mostly expectations about how people will act and what those actions mean. If our ex used to get quiet when they were angry, then when our new partner gets quiet, we will probably assume they’re angry as well. That can be a problem if we’ve developed a defensive reaction to anger like shutting down emotionally and withdrawing. It would make sense to pull away when our spouse was angry if staying close meant things escalated to verbal or physical violence. But does that behavior help us in the new relationship? What if our partner gets quiet when they are relaxing? What would it look like from their point of view if all of the sudden we pull away from them without an obvious reason? They will likely feel hurt and confused, and those emotions mixed with misunderstanding can easily lead to a fight.
One Christmas I ordered a handmade gift for my wife. Unfortunately, the item was stolen out of the maker’s car just before it was going to ship. I told my wife that there was a problem and her gift wouldn’t be here in time for Christmas. I couldn’t tell her details because she would have figured out what it was. I assumed it would be a minor disappointment. But my wife’s baggage sparked a huge fight. When she was a child, her dad wouldn’t buy her presents, he would take her to the mall on Christmas to pick out their own gifts. Her dad not expending the energy to buy gifts for her was a clear sign to her young mind that she wasn’t valuable. So to her, the late gift meant her husband didn’t think she mattered and that’s why the fight was so intense.
How did my wife figure that out? She applied step one of getting rid of baggage: she had the courage to face, feel, and stick with the emotion until she found the beliefs and experiences that were underneath them. We can’t get rid of baggage until we are conscious that it exists, and that means being aware of our emotions. If we are willing to sit with the emotion, we will eventually find the message in it. It can be a healing experience when we let our partner help us. As quickly as we recognize that our emotions are starting to take over, we can say, “I feel unsafe right now, would you help me to figure out why?” If you’re both really upset, call a 20-minute timeout first. Then you can begin a much different and much more helpful conversation.
Decide right now to become aware of your emotions on a much higher level. Decide to journal about your emotions and the thoughts, experiences, and beliefs that come with them. Being aware will give you the power to choose new responses and build the kind of relationship you have dreamed of.
Kenneth is a therapist at the American Fork Center for Couples and Families and is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. He enjoys helping individuals and couples find peace and happiness and spends the rest of his time learning about everything!