Many of my clients who come to my office for marriage counseling complain that baggage from former relationships weighs them down and that they are easily triggered by their partner’s behaviors. As a result, they unknowingly sabotage their marriage. For instance, Amy, 38, and John, 40, have been married for ten years but their union is often rocky because Amy has difficulty dealing with conflict and threatens to leave when they disagree.
In their breakthrough book, Conscious Loving, Dr.’s Gay Hendricks and Kathlyn Hendricks describe how gaining self-awareness will help you to get out from the shadow of your past and gain awareness. They write: “A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow.”
Amy puts it like this, “It’s almost as if I’m addicted to pain. It is as if I’m so familiar with that adrenalin rush that I get from being in a bad relationship, I don’t feel comfortable when John treats me right. But I’m working on that and I’m better able to stop myself from threatening to leave him when I feel afraid. Seeing a marriage counselor has helped me work through these feelings and I know it’s okay to have disagreements. This doesn’t mean things are going to end.”
According to, Dr.’s Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, conflict can be powerfully addictive. Some of us are conflict junkies, and that addiction lasts far longer than substance abuse addictions. They explain that we might actually be attached to the drama of fights, even if we claim that we want harmony. Amy has become addicted to pain and feels uncomfortable when things are calm but fears conflict so feels like fleeing when there is even a slight amount of tension between her and John.
John reflects: “Suddenly we’ll be talking and Amy’s gestures and tone of voice changes. It’s almost as if she isn’t talking to me. She might yell, or stomp around the room. That’s when her accusations start and she might threaten to leave, or to throw me out. I’m usually feeling pretty perplexed and often just freeze, I don’t know what to say or do.”
Amy responds: “It took me a few years to trust John and to realize that he wasn’t going anywhere. As long as I am honest with him, he’ll reciprocate and be real with me. If I start making things up or blaming him – and not owning my issues, I’ll have an intense reaction to something he says or does out of the blue. When this happens, I ask John to remind me that this is past stuff and has nothing to do with us in the here and now.”
Perhaps it is because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we are confronted with wounds from our past. For instance, Amy’s fears of rejection due to her father leaving her family when she was young make it hard for her to trust John. Even when his actions were consistent with his words, she still found it difficult to trust him.
Here are 6 ways to avoid letting baggage from the past weigh you down:
- Take a risk and deal with hurt or upset feelings – especially if it’s an important issue. Don’t sweep things under the rug but avoid blowing things out of proportion.
- Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement rather than playing “The blame game.”
- Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements that tend to come across as blameful – such as “I felt hurt when you forgot to buy me a gift,” rather than “You’re so selfish, you never think about me.”
- Don’t make threats or ultimatums. Avoid saying things you’ll regret later.
- Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed. This will give you time to calm down and collect your thoughts. Be sure to have a brief “recovery conversation” when you are both calm and can process what happened more rationally. Be sure to process what happened within two days so resentment doesn’t build.
- Build trust in your partner every day by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Keep in mind that it takes time to truly trust someone when you have been betrayed in the past or felt that your partner didn’t have your best interests at heart.
Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry