Lisa Arends’ second husband didn’t do the work for her but he did help her heal. Here’s how.
I’ve always hated the term “baggage.”
It implies that that some people are more trouble than they’re worth because of what has happened in their pasts–That those of us who have had the misfortune of cheating exes or tumultuous divorces are somehow doomed by our experiences. It assumes that our histories are our destinies and that we carry our traumas like an anchor around the neck.
The dismissive term of “baggage” ignores the fact that those who have experienced relationship trauma can often make wonderful partners that are more attuned and adept at monitoring and using emotions. Rather than just “getting over it,” many choose to “learn from it,” becoming better and stronger than ever before.
Life is not about what happened to us. It’s about how we choose to respond to what happens.
It’s not the baggage that matters. It’s all in how you carry it.
My husband had every right to run when he first heard my story. At the time we met, I was at the tail end of a very difficult divorce and taking the first shaky steps into my new life. I was no longer shock raw from my ex’s abandonment and betrayals, but I was nowhere near healed. Triggers would lie in wait, ready to pounce when I least expected it. I was overly sensitive in some areas and still numb in others. I wanted to be healed and was making active progress, but the finish line was still far in the distance.
And yet even with all of that, he didn’t run.
Instead, he helped me heal. He didn’t take the steps for me but he cheered me. Pushed me. Rendered aide when needed. He waited patiently while I journeyed the course.
If you are in a partnership with someone who is still healing from a past relationship, you need to know the following:
Set Your Boundaries
I remember an early conversation with my husband. I was crying, upset and anxious about trying to rebuild my life. He held me for a time, soothing me as the sobs racked my frame. As my tears subsided, he vocalized his boundary. “I understand where you are right now. And I will give you the time you need. But this level of emotion about it is not okay for the long run. It’s not okay for us.”
And he was right. Not only in his assessment, but in expressing it. It can be easy to become overwhelmed by the powerful feelings of a new relationship and to discount any warning signs. Deal breakers are different for everyone. Look to see if your partner acknowledges his or her past and is actively working to heal. Insure that your partner has a support system apart from you and has healthy coping mechanisms. You want a partner not a project.
If someone is drowning, jumping in after him or her often results in even more tragedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is throw them a life preserver, call in the professionals and stay out of the way. It’s not easy to walk away from a relationship, yet sometimes it’s the right choice for both of you.
Refrain From Enabling
Before I met my husband, I met some men who wanted to rescue me. I have to admit, for a split second, it was tempting. But that’s no way to begin or sustain a relationship. I would forever remain a victim and my rescuer would forever be the one in control. I didn’t want a knight in shining armor; I wanted a man who would fight by my side.
At the end of the day, healing is an inside job. You can help your partner but he or she has to do the heavy lifting. It’s okay to be empathic. It’s okay to offer a hand. There are times you just have to step back and let the processing occur.
My husband is a master of this. One day while we were dating, I arrived at his house raging over the latest financial gutting from my ex. Before I knew it, my hands were encased in boxing gloves, heavy metal was blasting from the stereo and I was guided to the heavy bag where I was given a brief lesson before my boyfriend retreated upstairs.
Empower your partner. Trust that he or she is strong enough to make it through.
Healing doesn’t speak calendar. Just because your partner is a certain number of years out from their trauma, does not mean that it will not still influence them. When they experience setbacks, try not to overreact; a bad hour or even a bad day does not indicate that they are sliding back into the trauma. It just means that it’s sitting closer to the surface at the moment.
Don’t Take Triggers Personally
Healing is not a linear process. Months of okay can easily be undone when a trigger acts like a time warp to the past. The impact of those triggers can be intense and the emotions elicited can be dramatic.
Regardless of what it looks like, that response has nothing to do with you.
Because my ex-husband ended the marriage with no warning, I am primed for abandonment fears. There have been times when innocent actions by my husband have initiated a full-on fight or flight response in me. His actions don’t need to change; my responses do. If he reacted defensively, our attentions would be focused on the wrong offender.
If your partner is triggered, try not to respond defensively. Be kind but calm. Even a little detached. Help to identify the source of the emotion and then let your partner work to deactivate the trigger.
Avoid the “Shoulds”
Perhaps the worst thing to say to someone when they are sad or anxious about the past is, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” I promise those words will do nothing to lower the intensity of the emotion and will only serve to add anger towards you into the mix.
Trauma has a strange way of sucking the rationality out of even the most analytical people and replacing it with emotion – raw and often overwhelming. If it seems like the your partner’s response is extreme, ask questions instead of prescribing solutions. When emotions are at the helm, trying to introduce a rational conversation will only frustrate both of you. Listen and try to understand. And then talk later when the emotions have dissipated.
When someone’s reactions seem over the top, it just means that their heart needs time to catch up with their brain. Support the heart rather than chastising its cries.
Take Baby Steps
In an ideal world, we would all be completely healed from whatever damage our previous relationships inflicted before starting a new one. But that’s not a realistic expectation. Not only do relationships have a tendency to sneak up when your back is turned, there are also certain issues that may remain dormant until a new relationship is established.
If you move too quickly, the initial rush of infatuation can hide problems, much like the smoothing effect of fog tempers a harsh landscape. Triggers may be passed so swiftly that they are not seen or set off.
There is no rush. Take the relationship one step at a time. Address triggers as they arise and make sure that they can be successfully deactivated. Acclimate to each new stage of the relationship and allow time to make adjustments as needed. Make sure that your partner is not charging into a relationship to avoid being alone or to pretend to be healed.
It’s not easy being in a relationship with someone who is still working through his or her past. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Remember that they did not choose their pasts, but they are choosing you to be a part of their future. You can help make it a good one and cheer them on as they cross the finish line to healed.
Photo: Gabriel Flores Romero/Flickr