Check Your Baggage: How to Start Fresh in a New Romance
Research reveals the value of unloading the past to enjoy the future.
Posted Aug 29, 2019
You've heard the comments. “He reminds me of your ex-boyfriend.” “Do you remember when your last girlfriend did that?” And then there's the catch-all bit of advice poorly masquerading as a question from concerned friends and family: “Are you sure you are ready to risk another heartbreak?”
Wouldn't it be nice if we could approach each new relationship as if it were the first? No preconceived notions, doubts, or attitudes? Research reveals how understanding our tendency to drag our past into our future may help us understand and improve our attitude towards new romance.
Checking Your Bags
New relationships are filled with enjoyment and anticipation. They are experienced as both fulfilling and thrilling, as prospective paramours become acquainted.
As fulfilling as they are, however, romantic relationships come with baggage. You bring a few; so does your partner. What´s in the bags? Emotional residue from past relationships. Adventure, excitement, disappointment, and heartbreak. Some bags are carry-ons—stemming from casual, brief relationships. Some are oversized suitcases, representing serious, long-term unions that involved cohabitation, marriage, and children.
Although logically we recognize the psychology involved, in the heat of passion, filled with optimism, we can downplay the significance of our romantic history. After all, everyone has a past; we live in the present. But research indicates that past relationships do indeed impact current ones.
The Art of Unpacking
Dean M. Busby et al. (2019) explored the impact of past relationships on current relationship functioning.[i] They define a romantic relationship as “an exclusive relationship where individuals share feelings and expressions of love and affection.”
They sampled 4,264 individuals who were in a serious relationship—either exclusively dating a partner, engaged, or married. The sample was 37% male and 63% female, ranging in age from 18 to 79 years, with a mean age of 31.
Their study explored the existing impact of three types of prior relationships: sexual relationships, romantic relationships, and cohabiting relationships. The results? They found that all three types of prior relationships had a significant negative, shared influence on current relationships in terms of commitment, attitudes, sexual satisfaction, and stability.
Interestingly, Busby et al. noted that beyond shared influence, prior sexual and cohabiting relationships had a unique negative impact on the stability of present relationships. These effects were similar for both men and women.
Baggage Claim: Owning and Learning from the Past
Most people will describe at least one of their last relationships as a learning experience. Whether they learned more about what they are looking for in a partner, what type of lifestyle they prefer—as opposed to what they can tolerate, and whether it was a good idea to get involved with a single parent raising five young children.
But do failed relationships generally help or hurt subsequent relationships? Do we “live and learn?” Busby et al., commenting on their research findings, noted that on average, “the positive lessons that are learned from previous relationship experiences are likely being overwhelmed by the negative carryover, especially in regard to relationship attitudes and relationship stability.”
Busby et al. note that prior research shows that past relational difficulties or breakups can negatively impact future romantic relationships. They also suggest that multiple past relational difficulties may cause prospective partners to take a more cautious approach to future relationships. In some cases, as many people have experienced in their own relationships, some people may carry negative emotions into a new relationship, particularly when they are still recovering emotionally from ending a previous long-term relationship.
Traveling Toward a Happy Ending: Lightening Your Load
But there is hope. The question is how to ensure that past relational baggage is discarded or stored safely out of sight in a current relationship. Busby et al. suggest several ways to accomplish this.
They recommend that young people should be informed about the consequences of casual relationships, including the fact that having numerous partners does not always bode well for long-term relational success. They also note the value of couples taking the time to discuss and realistically evaluate the impact of prior relationships.
In addition, they note that professionals may be able to successfully enhance current relationships by helping couples identify negative relational expectations and develop strategies for success.
The bottom line is that everyone has a relational past, but that past does not have to define our future. Understanding how and why emotional baggage colors our approach and attitude towards new relationships can inspire us to travel lighter.
[i]Busby, Dean M., Brian J. Willoughby, and Melissa L. McDonald. 2019. “Is It the Sex, the Romance, or the Living Together? The Differential Impact of Past Sexual, Romantic, and Cohabitation Histories on Current Relationship Functioning.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 8 (2): 90–104.