Old Relationship Baggage

Q. Having been a widow for a number of years I am out of practice in meeting men. I'm worried about my discernment and would like to know how I can identify early on whether or not a potential partner is carrying around potentially damaging emotional baggage from previous relationships .

A. It's probably safe to say that everyone is carrying some 'unresolved' emotions that effect their intimate relating, if that is what you mean by emotional baggage. Presuming that you are looking for someone with a lighter load, here are a few questions that everyone in your position might consider:

1. How long since potential partner's previous relationship?

The shorter the time, the greater the likelihood of unresolved feelings and thus emotional 'baggage' left over from previous involvements. It's just common sense. Becoming aware of and working through feelings requires time and some intention (the greater the intention, the less the time). A relationship breakdown generates all kinds of powerful feelings and people who rush from one relationship to another are clearly not allowing their feelings to work through (or are only desiring joyful feelings, which amounts to the same thing). Not allowing feelings means they are being denied, which means that emotional baggage is present.

The shorter the time the stronger the indication that the partner doesn't have a strong sense of self. All the time we see situations where a person jumps from one relationship almost directly into another and then when the romantic juices have quieted, discovers that a lot of the underlying drive was security based. If you were to find yourself in a relationship with a man fresh out of a relationship you might very well be finding yourself with a man who just needs a woman around, who deep down, essentially is looking for a mother. In these situations you can imagine that emotional baggage is going to be pretty substantial. Not only that, these types of men often unconsciously expect their partners to feel the feelings they refuse to recognize in themselves, so be ready to carry a very heavy load indeed!

2. What happened in breakdown of the last relationship?

Beware of the person who takes no personal responsibility and is primarily focused the flaws of the ex-partner. It always takes two to crash a relationship and partners who don't know their own role in the breakdown or are unwilling to talk about it with a new intimate are blocked or masking, and highly likely to recreate the same scenario (perhaps in slightly different form but with much the same outcome)

3. What kind of effort has been made at personal growth since the last breakdown in intimacy?

No effort means a lot of baggage. It is very hard to see ourselves clearly. It takes a great deal of time and effort. Hiring someone to help us can accelerate the process hugely. Once again a person who is too busy, or unwilling to seek help, is highly likely to repeat the same underlying patterns in intimacy (patterns that lead to breakdowns in previous intimacies).

4. What are their philosophies about dealing with anger?

How a partner deals with anger will probably not be discovered until sometime into the relationship. But you can find out viewpoints early on. Be wary of partners who can't be with anger - their own or that of the people they are with. When anger can't be expressed clearly and cleanly, and no effort has been made to learn how, you can be sure that other feelings will get stuffed as well as the relationship ages.

5. How do they do with feelings in general?

As the relationship progresses a little does your partner at least show a willingness to be with difficult feelings when they do arise? Does he come back later on, willing to track them? Or does he run (either by absenting himself altogether or staying in his head only)? Without a very deliberate intent at skills training in feelings, the tendency to run away and avoid feelings becomes a habitual way of relating that is hard to change later in life. Remember the strong silent type may be attractive at first but the shadow side of this type could easily be stonewalling and avoidance.

6. What's the relationship with the opposite gender parent?

A man's relationship with his mother forms the entire foundation of his relationship with the feminine. Feelings left unresolved with his mother will have to be worked out eventually with the woman he is with. Be alert to a partner who very highly idealizes his mother or one who is extremely detached from her (or worse yet demonizes her). You can be sure this fellow has a lot of unresolved feelings about the feminine and you will be destined to experience the consequences.

These are just a few cues. At the bottom of it all you have to trust your heart. We wish you luck.