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I remember when my son fell in love for the first time at the tender age of 17.
He had met her the previous year and pursued her like she was the antidote to his life-threatening illness. They were inseparable from the minute they started dating.
When I saw them together, my heart was full and my eyes glazed over remembering my own first love many years ago. They were both all in—full of hope and sure of their future together. They gave themselves openly and wholly to each other—nothing held back, nothing to hide. They had no fears, no past.
It was magical, it was pure innocence, and it was short-lived.
The breakup was sudden, hurtful, and ugly. I think I grieved more than he did at the time. Not because of that girl, but because I knew his innocence was gone forever. I knew he would carry a scar from that relationship.
I knew this would be his first piece of relationship “baggage.”
Now in my 50s, I find myself in the world of online dating. The pattern is the same. I see someone I feel has similar interests, we email through the site, if that goes well we exchange numbers, text a bit, then talk on the phone. Finally, we meet in person to see if there’s a connection.
At our age, we’re sitting there full of smiles and hope, ignoring for as long as we can the big elephant in the room that is our past. Our long, unchangeable past that we are embarrassed and ashamed of. The very past that has made us the wonderful and interesting individuals we are today, yet we are reluctant to share the details.
This is our baggage.
It will come out. It has to come out—some pieces sooner than others:
“How long were your married?”
“Why did it end?”
“Was there an affair?”
“How many children do you have?”
“How is your relationship with your ex/children/parents/siblings?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“What is your sexual history?”
We are afraid to reveal the details too soon. We are afraid of being judged. We are afraid that our past is “too much” for a potential partner to handle. We are afraid of rejection. And what about the part of our past that is still prevalent today, like a sexually transmitted disease, a physical limitation from an old injury or illness, or PTSD? How can we ever talk about that? Everyone has baggage, some more than others, and some baggage is heavier—but we all have it.
Let’s first take inventory of our baggage. Is there anything we can do to lighten our load? Something that we can work through and let go of? An example would be issues of insecurity stemming from infidelity. We took it personal, we internalized it, and we think our former partner cheated because we weren’t good enough.
We can use this as an opportunity to grow. It really wasn’t about us at all—it was about them and it’s on them. We can decide to look at the proverbial bright side and grow from the experience. We can start believing that this opens the door for us to find a more compatible partner, a soulmate, someone who inspires us or loves us unconditionally; we can believe that this is an opportunity for forgiveness.
Other baggage just stays with us, like a sexually transmitted disease with no cure, the fact that we’ve been married more than the social “norm,” a prior arrest or conviction, or an addiction that we struggle with. I call this “stigmatized baggage.”
Let’s make peace with this baggage. Forgive yourself and forgive others for the role they played in it. Be gentle and kind with yourself, and at the same time—own it. Realize that what we’ve gone through in our lives has shaped our very souls. And be honest about your baggage, when the time comes.
The truth is that most people accept our baggage easier than we accept it ourselves. And in the end, if they don’t accept our past, they are not accepting all of us—and that really isn’t the kind of relationship we’re looking for anyway, is it?