How To Deal With A Partner Who Has Baggage, Because Everyone Has Tough Stuff They're Coping With
One of the toughest things about dating is slowly uncovering the secrets in our past that we may not be not proud of or personality traits that may not work well together. It's not easy figuring out how to deal with relationship baggage, especially if you're still in the honeymoon phase. After all, it's so much more comfortable believing that your partner is this perfect person who's never been bitter about life or made any mistakes. But that's not reality.
"I’m not sure there’s anyone out there without any 'baggage,'" Anita Chlipala, a relationship coach and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love, tells Bustle. "It can be exhausting. For example, if your partner is sensitive to feeling excluded and you value independence and want some time to do your own activities, it can create hurt feelings or constant arguments unless it’s managed appropriately."
There are many different types of emotional baggage that your partner (or you) may tug along into the romance. Some people may act in a certain way because of things that happened in their previous romantic relationships. For instance, if your partner's been cheated on (especially multiple times), that can lead to anxiety and trust issues between the two of you. Or if your partner is used to being with someone who's constantly critical or even disrespectful, he or she may harbor insecurities, like never feeling good enough or feeling like a failure, Chlipala says.
Others may have baggage stemming from their childhood experiences or family history. Although this may not be directly related to past romantic relationships, it can certainly affect future ones. "If your parent left you when you were a kid, you may be sensitive to feeling abandoned by your partner," Chlipala says. "If your sibling got more attention than you, having attention or validation from your partner may be important."
Whatever it may be, just because one or both of you carry a lot of luggage doesn't mean your love is doomed forever. Here are ways to make your relationship work with a partner who has a lot of baggage:
1. Remember That Communication Is Key
While it may seem easy to just brush off issues that arise in your relationship as a result of emotional baggage, it's important to have those tough conversations, Chlipala says. Have consistent, open communication with your partner as much as possible — heck, even if that means getting meta and having a conversation about how to be communicative with one another. If your partner is struggling to move on from the past, take your time to really understand what's going on with him or her and be cognizant of what might trigger those emotions or difficult memories.
And if you're the one with a lot of hangups? "Let your partner know what you’re sensitive to and when it happens. But there has to be balance," Chlipala says. "It’s not up to your partner to 'fix' it or make it go away. They can modify their behavior and be sensitive to it, but it’s also up to you to manage it, and especially to not take things personally."
2. Pay Attention To Patterns
Sometimes, what may appear to be red flags for emotional baggage are just false alarms. Everyone's bound to get insecure or upset at some point. But other times, red flags are indeed exactly that: Red flags. If you notice that your partner is always picking fights with you or constantly bringing up one particular ex, consider bringing it up and having a serious conversation about it.
Identifying interaction patterns in your relationship could be the first step toward addressing any emotional baggage, according to Chlipala. And even then, "(one person's) interpretations of what their partner does or says could be rooted in their baggage, and then the couple gets caught up in a no-win cycle," she says. "You can still make it work, it just depends on your dynamics."
3. Be Patient And Understanding
All of us are doing the best we can to become a better version of ourselves. The next time you're talking about something that you know is difficult for your partner, make sure you're intentionally listening to what they have to say (and vice versa). If you don't, you may accidentally push each other's buttons without even meaning to, Chlipala says.
Know that cultivating a healthy relationship takes time. Love is more than just about saying three words, sharing a smoothie, and buying gifts. It's about showing genuine respect for one another and being supportive on both good days and bad days — no matter what.
4. Be Honest With Each Other
There's a reason why people say that "honesty is the best policy." It's not always the easiest thing to do, but being honest will most likely save significant amounts of time, energy, and confusion in the long run.
For instance, if you learn that your partner once cheated on another person and if that makes you uncomfortable, say so. The fact that he or she cheated on someone else doesn't necessarily mean your relationship is over, but you should talk about any concerns you may have or details you'd like to know about the situation.
"If you still can’t live with your partner’s baggage in a way that works for your relationship, it may be a deal-breaker," Chlipala says. "You want to exhaust all possibilities – communicate your expectations, talk about common ground, discuss possibilities, etc. You want to see if compromise is possible where both people feel respected and honored."
5. Try To Stay Positive
It's important to set aside time for real talk, but don't forget to focus on the good parts of your relationship, too. I mean, you got together (hopefully) because you make each other happy, right? And the truth is that everyone has baggage to some degree, Chlipala points out. "The challenge is whether you can handle each other’s baggage in ways that keep the positivity and respect in your relationship," she says.
And once you've discussed all that baggage and talked so much about it until there's nothing more to say or analyze, keep it all in the past if you can help it. The whole point of dealing with baggage is to help both of you move forward, together.
6. Listen To What Your Partner Has To Say
This goes hand-in-hand with being patient and understanding. If your significant other comes clean about a cheating past, abusive parents, a creepy stalker ex or another major bombshell that you just can't seem to wrap around your head, practice active listening before you start making assumptions about the situation. One of the worst things that can happen is over-reacting, Chlipala says.
"You can ask your [partner] why their previous relationship didn’t work out. Talking about exes and past relationships can give each person some basic information about what they’re sensitive too and possibly what they would need in their next relationship," she says.
Get your partner's perspective on what happened and find out what stage he or she is at in the recovery process. Ultimately, this will better equip you to handle the information you've been told with time.
7. Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Imagine what it was like for your partner to go through whatever it was that made him or her this way. And, in turn, ask your partner to do the same.
"Everyone has something they are sensitive to. One of the keys to making a relationship work is to find someone sensitive to your baggage and who can work with it," Chlipala says. "Try to understand where your partner is coming from and don’t try to minimize it or make your partner feel [bad] for having this issue or sensitivity."
8. Consider Couples Therapy
If it doesn't look like you and your partner will be able to work things out on your own, there's absolutely no shame in seeking the help of a qualified therapist. It may take some research and a couple of initial appointments to find the right expert for your relationship, but it's worth it.
"Frequently, my clients might know that things aren’t working out for them but don’t have the knowledge or tools to make things better. These are the things I teach so they can have a happy relationship," Chlipala says.
9. Don't Forget Your Personal Needs
One of your top priorities, if not the top priority, should be taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Working through relationship issues as a result of baggage can wear anyone out, so be sure to stay healthy and do activities that make you happy. Surround yourself with other people who care about you. Whoever you're dating is just one part of your life, not the core of your identity.
10. Remind Yourself Of The Commitment You've Made
When it feels like things can't get any worse, remind each other of all the reasons why you decided to get together in the first place. Those reasons are hopefully still there and worth fighting for — you just have to keep things in perspective.
At the end of the day, it takes all parties in a relationship to make things work. More than anything, being able to unpack those bags will make your relationship stronger in the end.