Three Ways to Break Free of Your Past Relationship Baggage

Letting go of the past and moving on to a healthy relationship.

Posted Jun 09, 2017

Have you been disappointed or emotionally hurt by a relationship that went south?  Do you feel weighed down by your past, negative relationship baggage? Maybe this "baggage" weighs in as trust issues? Or, you feel cynical, believing that any new love that comes your way is just a ticking time bomb. Perhaps you even doubt your own ability to sustain a healthy relationship?

If you can identify with these anxieties, you are not alone. Who out there really likes feeling vulnerable and wants to feel disappointed or hurt again? But the problem is that your negative feelings from past failed relationships won't go away unless you deal with them.

Once a relationship has ended, you need time to move through your feelings and come to peace with them. Negative feelings need to be expressed in a healthy way. I often advise clients to write letters to their ex-partner. These letters are not meant to be mailed, but are for purging the thoughts and feelings that still remain. 

Unfortunately, most people blow off this process of healthily letting go of their soured experiences from past relationships. Hurting and wanting to feel better, like Tarzan swinging from one vine to the next, they rush into new relationships too quickly. Unfortunately, they often don't realize that the emotional quicksand traps of their past, that lurk below, are not easily avoided.  

The issue is not about having past relationship baggage. Most everyone does! What needs to be in place, though, is the willingness to examine and work through emotional hurts and difficulties. To succeed in a new relationship, both partners must be willing to get beyond any past hurts. If this does not happen, then one day a new partner seems to do something uncannily similar to an ex, triggering a chain of emotional reactions. Even though this is a new relationship partner, the feelings are the same, and usually the reactions are as well.

Picture the following scenario: Antonio began being overly critical of his wife Barbara's spending habits. He very much respected Barbara, but still replayed memories of his old girlfriend Janet, who had told him he was a "tightwad." Tim carried around this ghost of feeling inadequate as a provider ever since. The ghost appeared in the form of disdainful thoughts each time including Barbara made a purchase. Antonio and I took a closer look at the damage he had suffered from Janet’s negative comments, which he worked through and let go

Or consider this example: Jane's father was an alcoholic. Her former husband, Kevin, also drank heavily and would often arrive home drunk. This led to many upsetting nights, usually ending with an argument and Kevin passing out. Later, he would be defensive, and resentment on both sides escalated until the marriage ended.

Now Jane is seeing Steve, who rarely drinks and then only in small quantities. One night, he entertained clients from work at dinner, had a drink with them, and then went to Jane’s. The minute she saw him, Jane smelled the alcohol on his breath and was immediately flooded with panic, fear, and anger: “He’s going to end up like Kevin.“ “He should know I can’t stand him drinking." Even though Jane knows this is a different relationship, her unconscious mind has already registered the trigger, and the feelings from her past relationships come flooding back. If she’s not careful, she will find herself picking a fight with Steve, reacting to him as she used to react to Kevin.

Purging Your Emotional Ghosts

Stop dreading that you have no control over your emotional baggage—because you absolutely do. Following are three tips to help you move beyond your past relationship ghosts:

1. Accept responsibility for your past.

Say to yourself (or the other person, if appropriate), “I allowed myself to fall prey to your negative ideas and toxic thoughts about me. But I will not allow you to control me anymore.“ We can all move on and grow. An ex may have told that you were not good enough, but that does not mean you have to imagine your current partner is impossible to please. Just because you were ostracized as a teen by classmates when you came out as gay does not mean that you cannot find acceptance and love as an adult. You can overcome your ghosts, no matter what baggage they use to haunt you.

2. Acknowledge your emotional ghosts.

This is not about blaming your parents, girlfriend, boyfriend, ex-husband, old friends, or anyone else. And it is not that these individuals necessarily actually abused you. Whatever the extent of the dysfunctional behaviors and patterns you have been exposed to, you must remember that you are the one in control—not the ghost. Indeed, either you control the emotional ghost or it controls you. No one else can help you with this. Blaming another person for doing something to you can make you feel like a victim. But if you stay a victim, you could be doomed to repeat negative behaviors or perpetuate negative attitudes indefinitely.

3. Differentiate yourself from your ghosts by listing how you are different from them.

Embrace the qualities that others value in you. Was your mother angry? Take note of how you are different. Remind yourself that she was angry because her father died and her family had few financial resources, so she ended up caring for her seven siblings. Your life is different—your partner lost his job and you were supportive, not angry; or your daughter spilled soda on the couch and you started to get angry but caught yourself in a way your mother would not have been capable of.  

Romantic love inspires powerful, warm feelings when things are going well, and painful, horrible ones when things aren’t as I write in my relationship book, Why Can't You Read My Mind? This happens because we are emotionally vulnerable with an intimate partner: We put our hearts and egos on the line. Yet intimate relationships don’t always go the way we want, which can leave us with complicated feelings like sadness, grief, anger, guilt, and resentment. We often find ourselves replaying old conversations and scenes with an ex-lover, or our family members, while wishing we could have a second chance—and a new outcome. Anger is usually the most identifiable and pronounced emotion when a relationship ends. You must keep in mind that underneath anger are usually feelings of hurt, fear, sadness, and shame. Once the anger has passed, sadness may dominate, and these feelings need to be dealt with as well. Feelings of regret also need to be worked through so that you don’t cling to the hope that your partner will magically return, all new and improved. In most cases, with the passage of time and some emotional work, you are left with the sense that your relationship happened as it should have, that you learned from the experience, and that you’re ready to move on, hopeful that a better partner and relationship will soon come along.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 28 years’ experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany. For more, visit