How to Trust Again (When You Have Baggage from an Ex)

My partner, Bill, and I have been together nearly four years. We had our first fight six months into our relationship, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. During a romantic dinner, a minor comment escalated into a full-blown argument. Needing space to calm down and think, he abruptly ended our evening and put me in a cab home—a marked departure from how our dates usually ended. I returned home…and devolved into an emotional tailspin. I was falling in love with Bill and feared I would never hear from him again.

While it may seem preposterous to jump to the conclusion that a “disagreement” would lead to a “disappearance,” I entered our relationship with baggage. Five years previously, without warning or provocation, my ex-husband disappeared. Now, the closer I edged towards falling in love again, the more frightened I became. I wanted to protect myself from being hurt.

Many of us carry wounds from our past relationships. Is it possible to acknowledge a painful past without allowing it to interfere with the blessings of the present? Aimee Hartstein, LCSW (a relationship therapist) and I have been writing a 10-article series on heartbreak. Together, we offer the following tips to free yourself from the ghost of an ex:

1.    Allow yourself time to grieve.

Many people try to get over a failed relationship by immediately beginning a new one. While the lure of a fresh start is enticing, it’s usually a short-lived fix for the ache underneath.

“People need time to grieve,” said Aimee the relationship therapist. “It is nearly impossible to have a new, productive romance unless you’ve allowed yourself the necessary time to heal.”

2.    Understand your part of the story.

Each romantic “failure” provides an opportunity and a gift. If you neglect to discover where you can grow and improve, you’ve missed a chance to evolve for the better.

Take, for example, the story of Josie. She dated Tim for eighteen months. During that time, Tim regularly brought up his ex-girlfriend—their favorite restaurants, her love of hip-hop music, and their fabulous vacation in France. Although Josie tired of Tim’s nostalgic musings, she bit her tongue for fear of rocking the boat or causing strife in their relationship.

A few months after her messy breakup with Tim, Josie met Mark. On their second date, Mark casually commented that his ex-girlfriend edited a popular blog. Josie went ballistic and abruptly ended all contact with Mark. She projected her unresolved feelings of anger towards Tim onto Mark—an otherwise suitable and eligible bachelor. 

“In Josie’s case, her concerns about Tim were valid. She had a wonderful opportunity to learn how to communicate her needs and set appropriate boundaries. She not only missed a chance to become more self-empowered and a better communicator, but unnecessarily unloaded on Mark—an otherwise innocent and well-intentioned suitor,” said Aimee.

3.    Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.

It is easy to leap to conclusions, especially when you’re trying to protect a wounded heart. But, building a fortress around your heart won’t keep it safe. Instead, it will likely deter an open and available partner who has done nothing to earn your distrust. 

Sondra is a 34-year old graphic designer. Her parent’s marriage ended in divorce due to her father’s infidelity. In addition, Sondra’s last two boyfriends cheated on her. As a result, she believes that most men are cheaters. When she started dating Nick—a likeable guy with a history of monogamous relationships--she looked for “signs” that he is a cheater, too. Unbeknownst to her, her incessant questions appear controlling and paranoid. Nick—a man who is otherwise crazy about Sondra—resents having to pay the price for a crime he did not commit.

“If someone is taking you out on dates, introducing you to their friends and contacting you regularly, you must assume the best in their intentions. No one should have to drill through Fort Knox to get to know the real you. Being closed off and angry will prevent you from meeting your real soul mate,” said Aimee the relationship therapist.

4.     Speak your truth, but do so from a grounded place.

No matter how well a new relationship is going, something is going to happen—a comment, look or misstatement—that will trigger a painful memory. You will get worried.  Is this person starting to exhibit the same traits that caused the demise of your last relationship? 

“My advice is to sleep on whatever is bothering you,” said Aimee. “If you wake up with a change of heart, you can drop it. But, if you’re still feeling agitated, voice your concern. But, be open to your partner’s side of the story. Communicate constructively, so you open a dialogue, as opposed to making someone feel defensive. Fights and misunderstandings are natural. Further, they can be very healthy if each party comes to a deeper understanding of the other.” 

5.    Take proactive measures to keep your anxiety in check.

After the end of my marriage, I had significant anxiety about dating. While I deeply craved a relationship and intimacy, the prospect felt terrifying. I knew that I needed to conquer my spiraling thoughts. So, I put into place “a system” to help keep my anxiety in check.

First, I enlisted a few close friends (who had intimate knowledge of my past). When I sensed “danger” in my partner’s behavior (that would make me want to leave the relationship), I would call on them to ask for advice. More often than not, my fears were unfounded. But, their opinion and insight were an invaluable comfort.

I also recognized the “triggers” that exacerbated my anxiety. So, I worked diligently to create emotional balance. I made sure to get enough sleep. I exercised daily. I learned to meditate. I minimized my consumption of alcohol and caffeine—both of which make me more edgy.

“Many people suffer from anxiety,” said Aimee. “The good news is that simple steps--practiced daily--have a significant impact on keeping you calm and centered. Creating a healthy life and a mindfulness practice go far to keep baggage in proper perspective.”

Monica Parikh