When people talk about bringing emotional baggage into a new relationship, I’ve always had the image of someone walking into their significant other’s door rolling in a carry-on packed full of block letters that spell out all the reasons the relationship didn’t work. Words like “jealousy,” “fear,” “commitment issues” and “communication” immediately come to mind, as does the scene from Friends with Benefits where Justin Timberlake says of Mila Kunis, “She’s too damaged. Magnum P.I. couldn’t solve the shit going on in her head.”
We tend to perceive the term “emotional baggage” with a negative connotation. We use it with friends when assuring them it’s not their fault when the person they are dating has fallen off the face of the Earth or exhibits red flags. “It’s not your fault. That person just comes with a lot of baggage.” We use it when talking about dating people who have been married before or who have children; in this case, we’re referring to their kids as literal baggage, but why? Why does emotional baggage always have to have a negative connotation?
Master life coach and six-time best-selling author Sharon Pope tells SheKnows, “We’ve all heard that we’re supposed to not carry our emotional baggage from past relationships into new ones. But what if it’s inevitable? What if you’re going to bring your past experiences into your relationships, and maybe that’s a good thing since our relationships always end up being our greatest teachers.”
It’s hard for many of us to look at a past relationship that might not have ended on the best terms as a learning lesson, especially when the wounds are fresh, but sometimes, the worst breakups teach us the most.
The end of my first long-term relationship was so hard and mentally exhausting I ended up sitting across from a therapist that specializes in self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Our first session consisted of me rehashing the end of my relationship in between heaving sobs and blowing my nose. Together, for the next two years, we worked on the baggage I came out of this relationship with; issues with self-esteem, being a people-pleaser and keeping my true feelings inside, fearful to rock the boat.
When I began my next relationship almost three years later, I brought all of my emotional baggage with me, but I now had the tools to avoid letting it interfere with growing this new relationship. I was able to be a better communicator, so when my new boyfriend would say to me, “What do you want to do?” My answer was no longer, “Whatever you want to do.” “Emotional baggage implies that we’re bringing all the bad stuff — the pain, the distrust, the jealousy,” says Pope. “But we also bring the growth, the lessons, the things we might do differently having hindsight and truth in our corner.”
My past emotional baggage taught me that if I didn’t speak up, I’d end up doing something I hated and grow resentful in a situation that could have easily been avoided. Was it hard to change patterns of the past? Of course. Will you still at times find yourself falling back into old emotional pitfalls at first? Probably. But as Pope says, “Our past experiences make us a better partner in future relationships. We should keep the lessons and the growth, but leave behind the pain.”