If you are single and dating actively, having to break up if things don’t work out is becoming the par for the course. Often, people go through multiple serious relationships. In a way it is good. You get to explore in real-time the kind of ‘relationship person’ you are. This knowledge about yourself helps you get clarity on the kind of partner you should be with and the kind of relationship you will be happy in. The flip side though, that I see emerging with this trend is the issue of relationship baggage. The reason why the break up happened tends to turn into a fear of having a similar experience in your next relationship.
M, a 42-year-old client of mine says he is scarred by his last two relationships. He describes himself as a romantic and a generous individual. In his first relationship he was madly in love with the woman. They had been together for over a year when M realised that he was paying for everything. From her credit card bills and phone bills to taking care of all their entertainment and traveling expenses. It hit M hard when his girlfriend asked him one day to pay her rent as well. Things went south when he started pulling back on his generosity. M was of course heartbroken.
It took M two years to gather himself and have the courage to even start dating again. This time he wanted to take things slow to ensure his emotional well-being. M also decided that he would hold back on taking his credit card out every time and follow a more equitable spending pattern on his dates. After exclusively dating R for a couple of months, he felt comfortable to get into a committed relationship with her. According to M, he had done very well in keeping the balance of expenditure between them. They took turns to pick up the tab. It was working very well, and they were both getting more and more invested in their relationship. Yet, M admits that the underlying fear — that R might turn out to be like his previous girlfriend and ‘use’ him and his money — never disappeared.
A year and a half later, he broke up with R when she asked him to loan her money for a down payment on an apartment. His fear got the worse of him. For the next five years after their break up, he dated only casually.
M is now exclusively dating a girl he is keen to take things forward with. Here’s the incident that brought him to me: M and this girl decided to go for a long drive. He needed to fuel up his car, and when at the petrol station he’d asked her to split the bill, she got furious. She accused him of being too money-minded. Since the girl did not know much about M’s fears from his past relationships, such an incident coloured her perception of him as a stingy individual. This is the exact opposite of the generous person he identifies himself as.
M and I agree that his first relationship was dysfunctional. We evaluate his relationship with R and conclude things could have been talked through.
At an intellectual level, M understands that no two people are the same. Emotionally, he needs to heal from his experience with his first girlfriend. Just having that awareness, is the start of the healing process. What should follow is a constant course correction whenever an old fear resurfaces. We tend to remember the previous unpleasantness in relationship because we get deeply hurt and would not want to feel that way again. However, it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that you are with a new individual when you get into a new relationship. You must view it with a different lens.
The newly released season 2 of the Netflix series Love is Blind is an experiment where men and women get to know each other only by talking to each other through “pods” that are separated by a wall. They don’t see each other, and they have no access to their gadgets. For ten days they interact with each other and if they fall in love with each other, they must get engaged, which is when they first get to see each other and eventually get married. One of the participants is a 28-year-old Danielle. She recalls how when she was younger, in grade six, she overheard the boy she had a crush on and was flirting with, call her a fat girl. Even though Danielle looks different now, she has not recovered from this scarring experience and says that when she looks in the mirror, she still sees a fat little girl stare back at her.
Danielle says, that even years after that incident, in every interaction with a man, she felt that he might be thinking of her as a fat girl. Danielle agreed to participate in this experiment as she feels that, in the way that this program has been set up, she will be seen for who she really is, and people will like her regardless of what her weight might be.
If the hurt of a previous relationship is not addressed and healed, the wounds fester. These wounds cloud judgment and though one might think that they are protecting themselves by being cautious, it can play out in ways that can be detrimental to a new relationship.
The most common baggage people tend to carry is when they were cheated on by an ex. They find it hard to trust someone again and are unable to get rid of that suspicious feeling. Even if their new partner might not have done anything to warrant that suspicion. In M’s case, when one feels like they’ve been taken for granted or used, they can try to deal with this by setting firm boundaries, to match the tone of the relationship. Sometimes a few sessions with a counsellor can help unblock your thinking and get you back on track to a healthy relationship.
In time, people reveal their true selves in a relationship. Instead of anticipating their behaviour to be similar to a partner’s from a past relationship, focus on seeing them in the different light that they deserve.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org