Emotional Baggage: How to Handle Your Lover’s Past

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.



  1. Keightee says:

    Gemma, I really enjoyed this article. When I was dating in college, I would sometimes ask my then boyfriend about his ex-gfs – especially comparisons (who doesn't like their ego stroked once-in-awhile?!). But, now that I am in an "adult" relationship, I've found that those details really are unimportant. You can ask about past relationships, but I think your example said it best – "but, why?"

    I know that for me personally, I sometimes let minor information fester in my mind until it eventually causes problems that wouldn't have existed if I didn't bring it up in the first place. So now, as an 'adult', I can see that knowing that facts and nothing more really is the best bet. Nice job.

  2. Positively Present says:

    oh man oh man… heavy subject… but a GREAT post on the topic. dealing with a lover's past isn't easy (and, as you get older, it only gets worse because there's more of a past) but if readers follow this advice they will have a much easier time of dealing with it. i especially like #3 — don't compare. it's SO important not to do this. remember: you are you. you are never going to be the ex. you are awesome. the person is with YOU right now. be confident in yourself and avoid jealousy (it's NEVER productive, especially when it involves someone from the past). try your best to focus on the present moment because, really, that's all you and your lover have. thanks for this great advice. :)

  3. Jon Ray says:

    I've had ex-girlfriends that took the new social media fad to the max, adding my new girlfriends as friends and then flooding their news feed with status messages to inadvertently drive them crazy. It's amazing how when someone breaks up with someone, it seems their status message usage goes from once a week to 10 times a day. I guess, this is the new media world's way of saying, "We might be broken up, but I'm still here!"

    It gets annoying. Another great post!


  4. Meg says:

    I loved this article. I've been having a hard time with this with my boyfriend. He's my first real relationship, so I'm pretty much baggageless and he knows it. But he, being six years older and an ex manwhore has a lot of baggage. Talking fondly about the ex love of his life or about some of the girls he's fucked really upsets me, but remembering that he's with me, not any of them usually keeps me from getting too worked up over it. Plus I did break #2 and found out I'm waaaaay hotter than his last ex.

    Regardless, real relationships are hard. There's no point in making them even more difficult by chasing ghosts.

    Thanks for the wonderful article :)

  5. Jes says:

    Now we need an article about how to deal when ex hook-ups, etc. come back into the picture, i.e. his best friend starts bringing them back around!! Grr…. LOL

  6. my2cents says:

    I agree! Ex-hookups that meander “innocently” back into a man’s life when he is taken – now THAT is a hard one! For some reason, it almost bothers me more than an ex. Exes are with someone long enough that the person LEARNS reasons for not being with them. Whereas to me, hookups don’t seem to run their course which is a more scary idea.

  7. Sam says:

    Thank you a lot for this information. I know I'm not the only girl that feels this way out in this world. I feel bad for searching for her on facebook and reading what she's up to. I'm trying to let all his past go but everyday I just sit and think about it and its driving me insane. Not like jealous, more like mad at them both and afraid to bump into her -_-

  8. Katharine says:

    thank you so much for this, not only the article but everyone who commented as well. recently i've found myself in a relationship where my significant other has had plenty of hookups and one night stands – things that i can't wrap my mind around. reading this really helped me remember that it doesn't really matter in the end.

  9. Mary says:

    My boyfriend gives me no attention. I had nothing from him this christmas and the only excuse he gave was that the best thing I could have for christmas is love. He hasn’t called me for 4 days, even in this festive season, any time I say I love you he says he loves me too but he doesn’t act like it. He even blocked me on facebook because I keep complaining about funny comments and stuffs that goes on there. My ex broke up with me this May and it scares me when I think he might do same too. I tired and fed up of hurting and worrying.:-(

  10. "Emotional Baggage: How to Handle Your Lover’s Past".

    Before YOU EVEN, think of carrying on with someone, either a woman OR, a man in either dating, or a relationship, who ARE, constantly carrying around with them a bunch of built up emotional baggage.

    DO them a MAJOR favor, FIRST, and FOREMOST, by suggesting to them that THEY get some professional help, to help them effectively DEAL with ALL of their EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE from their PAST.

    Otherwise, YOUR dating and relationship with THEM, WILL BE, NOTHING but a living H*LL.

  11. empty says:

    I rummaged on the old photographs my husband took and saw a bunch of nude photos of his ex. I burned them all but when checking on some CDs they were copied twice on separate discs. I know it's a thing of the past but shouldn't he be discarding them?

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