How to Deal With Someone Who Has Lots of Baggage

Six essentials to handling your partner's emotional baggage

By Caroline Presno, Ed.D., P.C.C. Updated: May 28, 2008

We all carry it, but it seems that some people have more emotional baggage than others. What's in the suitcases they've been lugging around? Ghosts of relationships past, old wounds that haven't healed, and painful memories that keep resurfacing.
What do you do if you want to date or are already in a relationship with a person who is weighed down by emotional baggage? The following are ways that you can become a better baggage handler.
1. Open the Suitcases One at a Time
Our tendency when we are in a relationship is to want to know everything about that person all at once, right away. The problem is this can lead to pushing people to talk about sensitive things before they're ready. Slow down and give them a chance to trust you and open up to you naturally. Once they start opening up, don't push them to talk about every bad relationship they have ever been in or every painful childhood memory they ever had. It's overwhelming and may cause the person to shut down completely.
2. Remember Not All Baggage Is Negative
Having emotional baggage means that you have been in relationships, loved and lost, and lived life. Only someone who lives in a bubble has nothing to carry. Help the person you care about see some of the positives that are also packed away. Maybe they were in an abusive relationship, but have come out a stronger person. Maybe they were in a loveless marriage, but have beautiful children from that relationship.
3. Be Accepting
If you are going to accept this person into your life, you are going to have to accept their baggage with them. This doesn't mean that you have to condone and agree with every action. It means that you're willing to see people for who they are and not judge them. No one can change the past, but you can make choices in the present. Are they making choices that you can accept in the present?
4. Learn From Mistakes
Help the person you are with to view mistakes as part of life and to learn from them. Do an exercise where both of you come up with life lessons you have learned from past missteps. Are there things you or your partner have done that you thought was a mistake at the time but actually turned out well?
5. Are They Using Baggage as an Excuse?
You want to be careful that you are not in a relationship with a person who is using baggage as an excuse not to commit to you. For example, if a man is divorced for 5 years, is he using the bad marriage as a reason not to be exclusive with you? The person you are in a relationship with needs to show you that he/she is working on issues and not justifying actions with the baggage excuse. Ask yourself these questions to determine if they are really working on things. Are they all words and no action? Have you seen progress? Have they sought individual counseling? Are they willing to go to couples counseling?
6. Don't Forget About Your Own Stuff
Don't get so lost in the other person's issues that you stop working on yours. Take some time to think about feelings you have been carrying over from past relationships. Has being cheated on in the past made you more of a jealous person in the present? Because you have had several relationships end badly, do you now expect that every relationship you get into is doomed? Have you become bitter when bitter isn't the real you? By dealing with your own baggage, you will be better prepared to deal with others.

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