Emotional Baggage: How to Handle Your Lover’s Past

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73104114It’s a fact of life: unless you marry your high school sweetheart, the older you get, the more relationships you’ve had. And so has your significant other. Not only are there more relationships, but they are more meaningful. There are shared pets, friends that knew ‘them’, ex-apartments, ex-fiances, ex-spouses, even children.

Before I entered the world of adult dating, I didn’t really understand the importance of these factors in forming a new relationship. My lovely older sister used to lose her mind when her boyfriend (now husband)’s ex was mentioned, and I couldn’t understand why. She was history, why was the mention of her name so upsetting? I didn’t care about any of MY boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends. Of course not, they’d dated as teenagers or college students (when they were drunk most of the time, I’m sure), and topped out at a year, two at the most.

Once I joined the grown-ups, I had a new appreciation for ‘the ex’, as she became a more significant being. My boyfriend was with his ex for 8 years, and when I first found that out, the thought of her made me INSANE. Totally irrational, I know, but I’m working through it. It’s far from complete, and I’m sure it will evolve, as all things do, as I age. But for the time being, here are a few things I’ve found that help deal with this relationship reality in a healthy way.

1. Start Fresh (or, Hide The Evidence)
In any relationship, but especially long-termers, and those involving co-habitation, things accumulate. There is just…stuff. It happens, and it’s okay. Kitchen gadgets, furniture purchased together, all these need not disappear just because the co-puchaser is no longer around. But personal things? You don’t want to stumble upon a pair of women’s shoes in the back of the closet, knowing full well they’re not yours. That’s a little too much. It is certainly within your rights to ask your partner to wipe the slate clean, and make an effort to remove things directly (and obviously) connected to an ex.

But be forgiving. There was a time where I would find a book that my boyfriend had received from the aforementioned long-term ex-girlfriend, and see her name written inside with a date and sweet note, and my head would explode. It didn’t bother me because it made me think about her, it bothered me because I assumed it made HIM think about her. But was it OK for me to ask him to get rid of his favorite book just because she happened to give it to him? No. Yes, her clothes have to go, but his books do not. Pretending he or she never existed will help nothing.

2. Know What You Must – And Nothing More
The question of exes always comes up, be it as a side note in conversation or the topic itself. It’s only natural, in the process of getting to know one another. That said, learn what you must, but be careful what you ask for, and make sure you are ready to hear it. I was dying to know the details of a breakup once, because I was certain that he wasn’t telling me the whole story. It took a very, very good friend to ask me, as I agonized about whether to bring it up: “but…why?” And she was right. I didn’t need to know when she moved out, where she went, and so on, mostly because it has NOTHING to do with me and my relationship. So, lesson learned. Don’t over-pry. This ABSOLUTELY includes internet stalking. Don’t hunt them down on MySpace and Facebook! Stop it! Right now! It it a seductive prospect, and far too many people fall prey to the temptation. If you can’t ask it in person, you know it’s not a healthy activity.

3. Don’t Compare!
When dealing with a long term ex, women especially seem to have a hard time distancing themselves from certain information. Was she taller, shorter, fatter, thinner? Am I prettier than she is? Are there pictures of them on a beach in a part of the world you have always longed to go? These are not things you really need to know, nor, I imagine, do you really want to. What you want is validation that you are the best, loveliest thing that has ever entered his world. When the urge strikes for that validation, remember that you are. He’s not with her anymore – he’s with you!

4. Remember: You have Baggage Too
I have photos of old boyfriends. I have letters, and postcards, and mementos (carefully stashed away, of course). And I have friendships, many of them, with ex-boyfriends, and I am happy to have them. None of these things mean I am still in love with someone in my past. We all have exes, and they are all exes for a reason. Simple though it may seem, remembering it is the quickest way I have found to jar myself back to emotional equilibrium.

Whatever your past, whatever your partner’s past, the truth is you are together now. Appreciate your relationship for its own unique beauty, and respect the experiences that made you who you are and brought you where you are. Don’t ignore the past, but don’t live in it. My parents have been married for 30 years, and frankly, they’ve set the bar pretty high. They make jokes and kissy faces, and seem to still genuinely like each other.  And yet, over a glass of wine, as my sister and I ranted about the women who still haunted us from time to time, my mother narrowed her eyes and said “Jane Raymond.” Seems the sting never quite wears off, but it also never gets in the way.

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