Did you keep up with the Royal Wedding back in May? If you did, you’ll remember the drama that surrounded Meghan Markle’s family – her half-sister who badmouthed her to the press, her dad who was caught staging paparazzi photos. The buzz surrounding her family came very close to overshadowing her special day.
As someone who comes from an equally colourful family, I admire the grace with which she handled the situation.
Family baggage isn’t just about having to put up with annoying members though. It can mean deep-rooted anger and resentment. Feelings that rear their ugly head in your relationships.
Take Melissa, who’s in her early 30s. Growing up with an alcoholic father who was often unemployed and abusive, she watched as her mother stood by him despite his behaviour.
She has since settled down in a long term, loving relationship. Still, from time to time she finds herself blowing up at him over the most trivial inconveniences. After she has had time to cool down, she admits that she’s simply afraid of turning out like her mother – a passive woman who stayed with someone who didn’t treat her well.
Having to shoulder these feelings can be tough, but here are some lessons I’ve learned from my own experiences and from talking to others.
Acknowledge your baggage
Yes, there’s an elephant in the room. The best thing to do is address it.
Jo was the kind of person who fell hard and fast for a person, but often got bored after a few months, just in time for her to fall for someone new.
She put it down to her fun, flirtatious personality. However, as time went by, she realised that some part of her was ‘using’ people to fill a void in her life, caused by her parents. By acknowledging this, she learned to see the post-honeymoon period as a different kind of love, and not an absence that needed to be filled with someone new.
Unpack your baggage at your own pace
You don’t have to reveal every single detail of your past in your first Tinder message – or ever. ‘Unpacking’ is for you, not your significant other. You can talk to your friends or a therapist about your feelings or write them down in a journal or private blog.
Unpacking involves a lot of reflection and introspection and can be painful. Personally, it helps to ask myself questions when I find myself reacting strongly to something:
How do I feel?
Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction proportionate to what happened?
Or is this feeling triggered by something in my past?
You can work through these feelings in the way that suits you best, even if that means doing it by yourself.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
I know I said you don’t have to open up about everything, and that’s still true. But relationships are all about trust; let your partner help you with the parts of yourself that you’re willing to share. That said, give them time to understand and react.
At first, it may come as a shock – different people have different backgrounds, and your experiences may be wildly different from theirs.
I’ve often found myself telling someone something about myself, only to be met by awkwardness. When I was younger, this made me think opening up was a mistake, so I dealt with it in the only way I knew how: repression!
However, I’ve since realised that most people just need a second to take it in before they respond with compassion and love.
Talk to your partner about your feelings. Let them know how best to recognise and support you when you’re going through a tough time.
Sometimes family drama means taking care of a bedridden parent or supporting a sibling through debt. This isn’t the kind of baggage you can just unpack and put away. They are painfully real and weigh even heavier when you try to be the happy, positive person you think you should be in a relationship.
Trust me, it’s better to be you – even if it’s a sadder version of you – than to put on a fake personality.
Be mindful of your bad habits
I know that I tend to have a ‘scorch the earth’ reaction when things go bad. I say hurtful things I often regret. While most of my partners have understood that they shouldn’t take these reactions personally, I’m also aware of how hurtful it can be.
It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that I’ve taken active steps to check: I know that it’s an irrational reaction, so I take a breather and calm myself down. Lean on your partner, yes, but don’t take that as a license to treat them as a crutch or punching bag. It can quickly turn a relationship toxic.
Stay active and positive
Working through your baggage is hard, even if you know that it’s worth it. But don’t dwell on it – go for a run, lie on the floor and listen to your favourite happy music, or visit a cat café with a friend. Even better, do them all with your partner!
You are more than just your baggage. Going out and living your life is the best reminder of that.
Take care of yourself
In an ideal world, all partners react sympathetically and supportively to our issues. The reality is that sometimes our issues are a deal breaker, or you might find that your significant other is using your vulnerabilities against you. Or you might just feel overwhelmed and need some time apart to get better.
If you need a break or outside help, that’s okay. Be good to yourself.
Dealing with family baggage is a lifelong affair. I’ve spent a lifetime pretending that mine doesn’t exist, but that left me feeling emptier as a person: we’re the sum of all our experiences, good or bad. I’ve chosen to face my baggage head on, and it’s turned out to be a great filter for potential partners!
For more articles like this, read Staying Under One Roof with the In-Laws. Pros and Cons? and My Husband Was in an Inter-Racial Relationship Before He Met Me. Here’s Why It Didn’t Work Out.