As we travel through life, we begin collecting memories and experiences that influence who we are, for better or worse. These celebrations, conversations and struggles travel with us from our childhood and developmental years into young adulthood, careers and relationships; they become the filter through which we view the world and new experiences. So when we start making plans to join our lives with another person’s, it’s important to recognize that our partner had different experiences influencing them, and not all those experiences and filters will mesh perfectly with our own.
When partners move in together, whether before or after the wedding, each person has an assortment of furniture and personal possessions that they want to bring into the new home. Taking inventory of all the furniture, appliances, and electronics takes time, and some of those things won’t be able to make it into the home – otherwise, there will be no space left to walk between the multitude of couches and no place to cook when two microwaves are crowding the counters. The same is true when evaluating the emotional baggage we are bringing into the relationship. The first step is to identify the baggage, and then we have to figure out, individually and as a couple, what belongs in the new life being built.
Types of Baggage
Society has labeled emotional baggage as a negative thing, even though our baggage is the culmination of all our memories and experiences, good and bad. The positive baggage, however, is often renamed as strong personality traits – “she’s such a positive person,” “he’s so family-oriented,” “they’re so successful.” These filters often manifest in our daily lives, and so we never feel the need to “unpack” them, because they’re already open for the world to see. It’s the negative baggage, the hidden truths we’re less likely to share with others, that gets dubbed as emotion baggage, and these are the experiences we have to come to terms with and share with our future spouse to make sure they don’t spill open and cause problems down the road.
Thinking and talking about our negative baggage can’t be difficult at times, and if this topic makes you uncomfortable or you don’t feel ready to share with your partner, we strongly encourage you to seek out a family counselor who will walk with you through this process of identifying your baggage.
Family of Origin Our family of origin – the immediate people we grew up with – play a large role in defining how we see ourselves as adults. Individuals who grew up in a loving, encouraging family often go through life with a positive attitude and a nurturing spirit, but even the best families often leave scars. Some had a more difficult childhood, and these deep-rooted scars may become more obvious in a marriage relationship, or be more deeply hidden as a coping mechanism. Whether your biggest family baggage comes from dealing with overbearingly protective parents or abusive situations, all baggage is very real to the person carrying it, and at no time should partners compare their baggage in a way that says what one dealt with was worse or more real.
Take some time individually to think about your family of origin and the way it influenced your outlook on and expectations of marriage. Is there any unforgiveness that needs to be resolved? Are there any areas of your baggage that you are afraid may negatively affect your marriage? What positive baggage are you hoping will be a part of the foundation for your relationship?
Past Relationships Many people don’t carry every major type of baggage, but one that every person brings into the marriage is the baggage of past relationships. Even if your partner is the only person you’ve dated, the lack of past relationships may lead you to over-romanticize your partner and your marriage, which can lead to difficult feelings when the marriage goes through a rough patch. For those who have had a few serious relationships or a long list of short ones, it’s important to recognize that each relationship left its mark, for better or for worse. While we don’t encourage you to deeply dwell on each relationship you’ve ever had, it’s good to notice general trends, major scars that can affect you moving forward, and the way the baggage influences your current view on relationships.
Individually, consider how you may have been hurt in past relationships, and consider if you’re carrying around scars of betrayal, rejection or a fear of loneliness. Do you ever worry that your fiancé is doing something wrong because someone did something wrong to you in the past? Do you ever feel the need to control a situation for fear of that hurt repeating itself? Do you find yourself regularly comparing your fiancé with the best and worst traits from past relationships or your expectation of a perfect relationship?
Depression and Mental Health It’s important to recognize that when you are living with and sharing your life with another person, they will ultimately find out about your emotions and mood swings, and this is especially true for individuals dealing with mental health concerns. This topic is never fun to talk about, particularly in the context of a dating relationship, and if you’ve suffered with mental health concerns, you may have tried to hide them from your partner. But as you draw near to the wedding day, it’s best to have a clear field on which to lay the foundation, and making sure your partner is aware of your mental health concerns allows for conversations about how best to communicate during seasons when your emotions and mental state aren’t under your control.
Think about how your depression and mental health has influenced the decisions you’ve made in the past. Consider the impact it’s had on previous relationships, and how those situations could have been improved. Is there a certain way your partner can help when you experience a downswing or are in an uncomfortable emotional state? What situations do you prefer to avoid? Do you go to appointments or take medication that your partner should be aware of?
Stress, Worry and Fear Our lives are full of stress, between work, family, and social life; that stress often feels like a constant and normal part of our lives, but it can quickly lead to burnout. Worry and anxiety can also fill our lives, particularly as we think about the future and our expectations. And fear, especially paralyzing fear that stops us from reaching our potential, affects the filter through which we see the world. Recognizing if you’re carrying around any of this baggage is important to identify as early as possible, as it may drastically affect the way you live life and behave within your marriage.
Ask yourself, are there any major stressors, worries or fears that I may take out on my spouse? Is there anything holding me back from being the best person and spouse I can be, and how can I make this better? How can my spouse partner with me through this?
Guilt, Shame and Regret Everyone has instances in their past when things didn’t work out the way they wanted, or we may have acted in a way that we later recognized was wrong. Feeling these negative emotions is a healthy and natural reaction, but holding onto them and letting them dictate your life is not healthy. When we carry around our guilt, we are punishing ourselves and often the people closest to us – practicing positive affirmation allows us to break that mold. We feel shame when we treat ourselves as the victim of our situations, when it’s best to own our mistakes and situations and learn from them, rather than letting them break us. If you feel shame because you’ve been taken advantage of or forced into a difficult situation, a way to break the cycle of shame is to stop internalizing and talk to someone you trust. And regret may follow us around if we fantasize about what could have been better in our lives, rather than just appreciating what’s in front of us. It’s easy to see how these negative emotions can affect your marriage.
Take some time on your own to identify any situations that may bring about feelings of guilt, shame and regret. Make a game plan to work through these emotions, on your own, with your partner or with a counselor.
Dealing with Emotional Baggage
As a couple, there are four stages in dealing with emotional baggage. Perhaps through your dating relationship, you’ve already started working on some of your baggage together. If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to go through this process with your fiancé, because everything comes out after the vows are said. Your marriage will be stronger if you join together as a united front, supporting each other through all the good and bad.
Step 1. Identify Your Baggage Some individuals are more self-aware than others and can list out their major struggles and baggage, but others prefer to ignore those difficulties in the pursuit of positivity. As much as we hate to admit it, ignoring our issues doesn’t make them go away, and identifying our baggage allows more openness and honesty within ourselves and our relationships. Recognizing that you can’t change your past is the first step to acceptance and growth.
Are you holding on to sad or difficult memories that replay in your head often? Are they a point of unforgiveness? Do you find yourself overreacting to situations? Are there certain criticisms that affect you more than others? Review the list of major baggage types above to see if any stand out to you, and work through them.
Step 2: Unpack the Baggage Together Identifying our baggage may feel like a cruel and unusual punishment, and the idea of sharing that information with another soul can seem near impossible. But remember, the goal is to draw closer to the person you’re planning to spend your life with. It’s normal to put our best foot forward when getting to know someone during the dating stage, but things are about to get much more serious. Exploring the challenges, struggles, and fears that have shaped you is the best way to prepare your relationship for a healthy future.
As with other difficult conversations, set up a time and a safe space to have this conversation, and ensure that both partners come together prepared for the conversation. Hesitancy to bare one’s soul is normal, but if one partner is hesitant, gently remind them that this conversation is in the interest of growing together and learning to love every part of each other. It’s easy to love the best of someone, but true love is standing by someone in their worst times. Finding safe ways to have a conversation about the baggage we bring from our past will also become the groundwork for difficult conversations in the future.
Step 3: Figure Out What Needs to be Worked Through Disclosing your baggage to your fiancé helps ensure that the baggage doesn’t harm your marriage, so simply having a conversation about what you’re carrying isn’t enough. Figure out what has the potential to harm the relationship, and begin working through those items together. If unforgiveness is hurting one of you, support your fiancé in finding a way to forgive the person who did them wrong in the past. Explore ways to heal the hurt, break down the walls, and shine light on the ghosts. Nothing is as scary when it’s brought into the light, and with intentionality, those ghosts won’t have the opportunity to sneak up and damage the marriage.
This is a great time to bring in outside resources. If something feels too big for the two of you to handle, ask for help. Never believe the lie that you should work through everything as a couple without outside help – asking a mentor couple, close mutual friend, family member or a counselor to come beside you shows great strength and intentionality as a couple.
Step 4: Carry the Baggage Together Baggage can be heavy, but working together can lighten the burden. Strong marriages thrive when working together toward a common goal. Sometimes the goal is to throw away some of the baggage through healthy resolution, while other times, the goal is to respect the filter that the baggage has created in your spouse’s life. Being sensitive to triggers that remind your partner of their baggage is a loving way to support your spouse. Remember that if you take care of each other, you’ll rarely have to worry about yourself.