I totally identified with what my friend was saying. But the truth is, most people carry baggage on their proverbial relationship flights. And if they don’t, they likely acquire some along the way. What we call “baggage” is a part of life — a reaction to heartbreak, loss, trauma, and abuse — and it doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship journey is destined for catastrophe.
Here are four things everyone should know about “baggage”:
1. (Almost) everyone has baggage. It’s knowing you have it that makes the difference.
How many people do you know who’ve never been hurt, heartbroken, abandoned, abused, or betrayed at some point in their lives? Whose parents had a long and happy marriage, and were fully present and available in times of need; never struggled with any mental illness, or substance use; never lost someone and have never experienced trauma?
The body remembers these experiences and keeps us safe from future ones like them using our emotions. For example, if you experienced betrayal in your previous relationship, you might feel distrust or anxiety in the next one.
These sorts of reactions all come from a good place — the uncomfortable emotions want to protect us. But unfortunately they can result in unproductive behaviors in our relationship if not observed with mindfulness.
2. Both partners are responsible for one another’s baggage.
If you feel like your partner has all the baggage, it can be tempting to expect them to manage all of it. But you have responsibility, too, even if you don’t feel like your baggage is contributing to issues in the relationship.
Your job is to practice patience, understanding, and compassion, while still exercising assertiveness and boundaries around what behavior is acceptable and what is not. If your partner shares that they have baggage, don’t assume you know what that means. Be curious. Open the suitcase together. Try to unpack it.
Ask how you can support your partner in growing or gaining trust, in a way that doesn’t involve compromising their freedom or happiness in the relationship. Communicate, negotiate, and repeat.
3. Baggage is not an excuse for acting jealous, absent or demanding.
If your last partner cheated on you, it doesn’t give you an all-access pass to your current partner’s phone. If you experienced abandonment in your childhood, it doesn’t make it acceptable for you to force your partner to spend every night with you. It’s not OK to act like an asshole and then point at the suitcase and yell, “It’s the baggage’s fault!”
Knowing about your own baggage can help provide understanding for such actions. Yet what’s ultimately transformative is noticing (and not react impulsively to) the baggage. Then, ask yourself what response(s) might be serving for you, your partner, and your relationship.
4. Baggage is not necessarily a bad thing.
Awareness is the first step to growth and healing, so those who are aware of the baggage they’re carrying are likely somewhere on that transformative path. Knowing one’s triggers and weaknesses allows us to consider how such things might manifest with our partner.
For example, when I’m in a relationship, I often become aware of a fear of being left (or abandoned). Instead of reacting to that fear by putting up a guard, sabotaging or creating unrealistic demands, I try to notice that fear, make space for it, and be kind to myself. I can recognize that being left is a possibility; but rather than trying to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen (which is both exhausting and impossible), I can open up to the unknown and rest in the discomfort of that anxiety.
Plus, look at the bright side: past experiences that have caused a person to develop “baggage” can actually cause a person to develop relational strengths, such as emotional atunement, compassion, and empathy.
So the next time you consider you or your love interest undateable because of their “baggage,” consider carrying it on, at least for the first leg of your journey together. It’s not as uncommon (or destructive) as you think.