Let’s cut to the chase: anyone who’s been in a relationship carries emotional baggage.
Whether it be trust issues, reluctance to open up, or just being hesitant to go all in, it’s almost impossible to escape a relationship (even a primarily healthy relationship) without carrying emotional baggage with you.
Dealing with this emotional baggage in yourself is difficult enough, but what about in another person?
What if your new partner was cheated on in the past, lied to over and over again, or dealt with a psychologically manipulative person in their previous relationship?
Or worse, what if THEY WERE that manipulative person or that cheater and are in the process of growing out of it?
What can you do?
Most of us are so lost in the unfolding tale of our own life that we forget that others are writing an equally elaborate plot–a plot full of complex emotions derived from a complicated past.
During the initial waves of feeling and the honeymoon phase of our new relationship, we often neglect to even acknowledge the other’s past. We see them as a flat character in our own story–a person who is only as they are now.
Then, the midnight bell tolls, the ball ends, and our Cinderella is just a village girl with a dead father wearing the rags of her mother’s dress.
As a men’s coach for over a decade now, I’d like to potentially save your relationship by shifting your perspective on the deep emotional baggage from your partner’s past relationships. Instead of focusing on the potential danger of their baggage, focus on the good.
Here is the recognition that will help you do this:
Love doesn’t start fresh and clean; it comes with a backstory that plays a role in the present. The struggles and experiences that gave your partner her baggage are the same ones that will bring about positive change, perspective, and in the end, relational maturity.
Read that again.
It’s not about you. It’s an opportunity for both of you to grow individually and as a team.
1. Read the Signs
The first step to understanding and dealing with emotional baggage is, well, knowing it’s there in the first place.
Every relationship leaves a trail of garbage in its wake. It’s your job to recognize the existence of this garbage, figure out how much there is, and work out a way to deal with it.
Here are five common signs to look out for and what they could indicate. Before reading them, understand that this is a simple guide for your own use, not a psychology textbook.
It’s not your job to play psychologist in your relationship and diagnose your girlfriend so you can treat her. Telling a woman what’s wrong with her is VERY unproductive.
With that in mind, here they are:
- Guarded Behavior:
- Potential Indication: Fear of vulnerability or past emotional wounds may lead to a guarded demeanor. Your partner may struggle to open up or share deeper emotions.
- Difficulty Trusting:
- Potential Indication: A history of broken trust in previous relationships can make it challenging (even impossible in some cases) for your partner to trust again. Watch for signs of skepticism or hesitation.
- Fear of Commitment:
- Potential Indication: Lingering fears from past relationship experiences may manifest as a reluctance to fully commit. Your partner might seem hesitant about making long-term plans.
- Overreacting to Certain Situations:
- Potential Indication: Emotional triggers from past experiences can result in heightened reactions to related situations. Pay attention to moments of intense emotional response.
- Avoidance of Certain Topics:
- Potential Indication: Unresolved issues may lead to the avoidance of specific topics related to past relationships. Your partner might steer conversations away from certain areas.
Recognizing these signs is your first step to protecting yourself and knowing how to move forward productively.
But don’t stop at noticing the signs. No one is born angry. No one’s fatal flaw is insecurity. No one is afraid without a cause. All these issues stem from past relationships and past hurts.
2. Don’t Mistake Small Insecurities for Large Red Flags
I am a perfectionist by nature.
In my first relationship, I freaked out. Every imperfection my partner had seemed like a sign that our relationship was bound to fail. I tied anything and everything I could to my parent’s struggling relationship, my brother’s romantic exploits, and really, anything within reach at the time.
I narrowed in on what I wanted to, blew tiny red flags way out of proportion, and turned a blind eye to any improvement or positive indicators.
I was a pain of a partner, looking back, because I overlooked my girlfriend’s humanity.
I overlooked the fact that she was a human being with a past of neglect, heartbreak, distrust, and loneliness just like myself. I denied her the understanding and empathy she deserved and missed out on connection and growth via vulnerability because of my “high standards”.
I’m not saying you can’t take notice of your partner’s emotional baggage from past relationships. No, that’s critical to a healthy relationship. I’m saying that overanalyzing kills relationships far faster than the problems being analyzed ever will.
It isn’t a matter of overlooking your partner’s flaws; it’s about distinguishing between irreconcilable differences and the insecurities and flaws that make her her.
Emotional baggage in and of itself IS NOT a red flag–it’s just a part of the person you are with.
3. Do Not Neglect Communication
Many men make the mistake of thinking that the best way to deal with emotional baggage from a partner’s past relationship is by ignoring it.
Afraid of playing psychologist and dreading the wrath of their insecure woman, guys will zip their lips and sit tight for years, praying that things will sort themselves out in due time.
This results in one of two unfavorable outcomes:
- The relationship endures, but both partners silently bear the weight of insecurities, causing unspoken suffering.
- The relationship crumbles under the unaddressed emotional baggage, leaving both parties unfulfilled. She feels slighted because the break-up comes out of nowhere, and you have to live with the lingering question of whether you could have been great together had the emotional baggage been confronted and overcome.
No, neglecting the conversation altogether is never the way.
As a caring partner and grounded man, your role is to delicately navigate the discussion of her emotional baggage, finding the balance between addressing it with empathy and understanding, without playing “therapist” and overwhelming the conversation with excessive analysis.
Trust me, if your girlfriend wants a therapist, she’ll hire one.
4. Be Patient and Understanding
When it comes to another’s issues, the best and only productive thing you can do is be patient and understanding.
Your job as a grounded man is to provide an environment in which she can grow and heal from emotional baggage. You provide the sunshine and rain, but only she can choose to grow.
Here is how you can foster this environment…
- Don’t expect change quickly
- Don’t make her feel like she has to overcome emotional baggage to keep you
- Don’t make her feel like a burden…as if she carries too much emotional baggage
- While you shouldn’t ignore issues altogether, tread lightly around her trigger topics
- Show forgiveness, especially when her insecurities are concerned
- Don’t take things personally
Recognize that, as a caring partner and a man, exercising patience and understanding requires greater strength than succumbing to impulsive reactions and anger. Patience, not anger, is the surest way to reassure your girlfriend of your love.
The primary work in your relationship is not to diagnose and discuss, but to sit back and take your partner’s punches with a smiling face and open arms.
Trust me, unless it is an unequal relationship, she is doing the same for you.
That’s what a relationship is about.
5. Don’t Try to Fix Them
The antithesis of patience and understanding is trying to fix someone or force them to grow.
Perfectionistic and controlling men view it as their responsibility to referee their relationships. Instead of giving their partner rain and sunlight and letting them choose to grow, they wrap an iron fist around their stem and pull hard. They tear them from their roots and then blame them for not being strong enough to grow.
If you have chosen well, your woman is doing the best she can.
Talking to her won’t fix her. Reminding her of her shortcomings won’t fix her. Making her feel insufficient won’t fix her.
Relationships aren’t repair operations. People aren’t projects. If her unresolved emotional struggles become too much (as discussed in heading eight), you evaluate the situation, offer comfort, and, if needed, make the decision to leave.
I like to think of emotional baggage from a past relationship like a scab on your partner’s knee. If you pick it, it bleeds, and then the scab reforms, sometimes worse. If you pick it again, the same thing will happen. It only heals if you leave it be.
In my first relationship, I picked my girlfriend’s scabs until she was raw and bleeding, all the while believing myself to be some saint.
6. Focus as Little Energy as Possible on Their Baggage
As a child, my parents were generally pretty tough when it came to discipline. However, if I made a mistake but felt genuinely remorseful, they tended to forgo punishment.
I, of course, only learned of this from them in my older years. Had I known in my youth, I’m certain I would have mastered the art of feigning remorse.
Why did they do this?
Because what’s worse than feeling bad for something? Feeling bad and having another tell you you’re bad as well. It feels like apologizing to someone who remains angry at you even after your repentance.
Similarly, you should not focus on your girlfriend’s unresolved emotional turmoil or her struggling mental health. She already feels bad enough!
Redirecting that negative energy towards positive interactions, shared experiences, and fostering an atmosphere of understanding creates the groundwork for a resilient relationship and tells her, “You’re much more to me than the emotional baggage you carry.”
By acknowledging her past without fixating on it, you assure her that she is so much more than a burden.
One of the aims of healthy relationships is for partners to share each other’s burdens. When you enter into a relationship with a woman with emotional baggage from past relationships, you need to understand that you are willingly embracing a share of her struggles.
If you carry emotional baggage from unresolved trauma of a previous relationship, she is doing the same for you.
7. Consider Couples Therapy
One of the best, if not the best ways to help your partner who is carrying emotional baggage from past relationships and fortify your current relationship is couples therapy.
Rather than telling your partner to “go get therapy” and offsetting the relationship’s balance, say “let’s get therapy” instead.
Even if it’s mutually acknowledged that the therapy is a result of her emotional baggage or suffering mental health, the act of joint participation conveys a message of solidarity:
Essentially, you are telling her that her well-being is just as important to you as your own because without it, the relationship collapses.
When someone is dealing with emotional baggage, this support can be a lifeline. They may be so used to being judged, told they’re not enough, or abandoned, that your simple act of taking their hand and saying “We’re in this together” can be everything they need.
8. Know When It’s Too Much
Let’s face it: sometimes it’s just too much.
Sometimes, there’s nothing more you can do. You’ve been patient and understanding, put yourself in her shoes, talked and forgave, even tried couples therapy…and yet, still, you’re in pain and everything just seems too much.
Your mental health is suffering, negative emotions overwhelm you each day, and you just can’t see this getting any better.
That’s when you break up. There’s a difference between being patient and understanding and being plain stupid.
You might feel bad. It might feel wrong even. Breakups often do when you empathize with someone enough to see that their emotional baggage isn’t their fault.
Just remember that people don’t only break up because of breaches in moral judgment like cheating or abuse. People sometimes break up because there’s nothing more they can do and they feel their relationship is at the end of the road.
Another’s emotional baggage from a previous partner can turn into your own emotional baggage that you carry into future relationships.
Remember this, because sometimes, leaving someone despite your shared history and profound empathy for their situation is the only way to preserve the chance at a happy relationship in the future.
One of the most startling revelations to me as a young man entering the romantic world was just how unfair life was.
At first, it seemed to me that emotional baggage was distributed without rhyme or reason, with no consideration for who deserved it the least or the most.
As I delved into relationships of my own, however, I realized that it was worse than without rhyme or reason; it was flat-out unfair. Emotional burdens seemed to rest upon the shoulders of the BEST people. Those who loved the most, gave the most, and hurt the most often ended up getting hurt the most.
So no, just because the person you’re with has a hefty load on their shoulders, does not mean that they’re not right for you.
As long as you can figure out where they are hurting, practice patience and understanding, stay away from the instinct to fix or save, and give them a chance to heal without judgment, you’ll have a better-than-decent shot at a healthy relationship.
As long as your relationship is progressing, it may be worth sticking around.
If you are desperate to save your relationship but are stuck on a disaster course and feel my writing has spoken to your heart or put some wind in your slacking sails, I have more for you.
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