My family and I recently returned from a vacation to Mexico. It was wonderful—except for the airports. If you think about it, an airport is the one place on earth where every single person wants to be somewhere else. Even the people who work there would rather be in a tropical pool with a margarita. The other thing that everyone has in common at the airport—at least all the travelers—is baggage.
Everyone has baggage. Some people have just a small carry-on and some have oversize and odd-size bags. The same is true with the journey of life. We collect stuff throughout our years, and we put that stuff in bags. These bags hold our memories, our experiences, our traumas, our celebrations, and all of the stuff that makes us, us. They hold the great conversations we had and the ones that wounded us. In some cases these bags are full of things that are useful to us on our journey. In other cases, they do little more than weigh us down.
What happens then when two people come together with all their emotional baggage? How do they navigate the complexities of moving through life as a unit—with all their stuff? More importantly, how do they ensure that it doesn’t ruin their future marriage? Here are a few ideas that have helped my clients.
01. Unpack It
When you meet and get to know someone, it’s natural to try and present the best version of yourself. It’s also natural to try to stay quiet about some of the more troubling aspects of your story. Initially, this is OK. In fact, it’s irresponsible and unhealthy to tell your whole story before it’s safe and respectful. But as you become more connected and more intimate, and as it becomes clearer that you’re interested in traveling together, it’s appropriate and important to go a little deeper into the challenges and fears that have shaped you.
You might start with a personal therapist or trusted mentor, but eventually you and your partner will want to peel away the layers of your story together, even if it means going to painful places. This is literally called “unpacking.” (It’s a favorite therapist word.) It basically means opening it up and gently pulling out the things that create anxiety and fear, as well as excitement and joy. It’s not quite time to do anything with it yet, it’s just time to pull it out, get a good look at it, and begin to make some assessments about how it might impact your future relationship.
02. Take What You Need
Your story is your story. There’s no use ignoring or denying that you have baggage and that some of your baggage is really heavy. Even some of that heavy baggage, however, has helped you become who you are. Your challenges have sharpened you. Your fears have motivated you. Your wounds have left scars that remind you. The things that have hurt . . . they haven’t only harmed. They’ve also shaped you by making you wiser and stronger.
As you do the work of unpacking your baggage, it’s time to also gain some perspective about what your experiences have to teach you about your future. Some fear, for example, is appropriate. But most fear is neurotic. Most fear is designed to keep us from living in the future because of something that happened in the past.
As you navigate your relationships, bring with you the learnings that have shaped and are shaping you. Even the things that are “unresolved” deserve your attention and care. Keep those things top of mind. Bring them with you so that you can continue to work on them, and who knows, they may prove useful.
03. Store the Rest
“Store the rest” doesn’t mean “stuff the rest.” It means put the baggage that doesn’t serve you in its proper place until you can pull it out at the proper time. If you want to ensure that your baggage doesn’t harm your future relationship, don’t shove it in the closet. That is, don’t just ignore it or shove it into your unconscious.
Note it. Take notes on it. Schedule a time or a season to explore it. One of my clients lost her son many years ago, about six weeks before his twentieth birthday. Those six weeks between the anniversary of his death and his birthday haunt her every year. Each year at that time, she examines her grief, her pain, her struggle to parent her other children. But she does it with intention and integrity. That baggage has a place.
If you want to ensure that your baggage doesn’t harm your future marriage, find its place. This requires intention and integrity. Without those, you’re likely to be surprised when your ghosts sneak up on you. Again, this may be where you enlist a therapist, a mentor, or, eventually and ideally, your partner.
04. Carry It Together
The beauty of a healthy relationship is that you’re working together toward the same goal. Creating shared meaning. Pursuing life dreams. You can only do this together. This means that you have to share the load. He may have to be especially sensitive to her childhood abuse. She might need to be uniquely understanding of his fear of failure. You’ll both have to pay attention to the triggers that spur one another to doubt and fear.
It’s really cool when couples take care of each other in this way. When they have the maturity and the grace to carry the other’s baggage when it’s clearly too heavy. That’s what partnership is. That’s what teamwork is. That’s what moving through life together looks like.
Everyone has baggage. It’s actually necessary for the journey. If you can do the work of unpacking, choosing what’s useful, storing what’s not (for now), and carrying it together, you’ll stand a much greater chance of success in your current and future relationships.
Photo Credit: Vine and Light