Checking your baggage: leave your emotional mess behind – 2/10/2005
Play :: New Haven’s Arts & Entertainment Weekly. 2005
What if the Heartbreak Hotel that Elvis so famously sung about was a real place?
You can bet that the neighbors would be noisy, the ice machine would be perpetually broken, and there would probably be stains on the mattress that you’d be better off not investigating.
Of course, the King was speaking metaphorically, but what he really was getting at is pretty much equally unpleasant — that queasy, mopey, miserable inner place that welcomes us in every time a once-happy relationship leaves us out in the cold.
So why, after spending time there, are we often so reluctant to drag ourselves back out into the light?
"It basically boils down to fear, the fear that the new relationship is going to end up the same way the previous one did," says Lisa Altalida, a relationship expert and author of Dating Boot Camp and The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Getting Girls. "Whatever experience you had — whether the person cheated, fell through on their commitments, or even if they just weren’t there for you — there tends to be an anticipation that the new person is going to treat you the same way. You’re always waiting for that other shoe to drop."
This romantic "baggage," combined with negative outlooks ("he or she doesn’t really want me"), are what keep people wallowing in their own self-pity — or, worse, gravitating toward another harmful relationship — instead of actively looking for real love.
So, how do you clean the slate and leave the baggage behind?
Altalida says the most important thing is to look back critically on what went wrong the last time around. "You need create a plan so you’re basically not dating that same person, running up against that same wall again," she says, "It’s important to really stop after you’re in a relationship and assess what happened — a lot of times it’s easier to just be mad at the other person, and nobody wants to believe that they could have been involved [in breaking it up] too.
"It’s tough love, but you need to take that time and say, ‘Maybe I was a little demanding, maybe he or she was having problems and I didn’t see that.’ Assessment is the biggest thing, maybe writing in a journal. Basically just taking some time to quietly think about it …. it takes two to tango and it’s not always one person’s fault."
Ronnie Ann Ryan, a Connecticut-based dating coach and author of the upcoming book MANifesting Mr. Right, also sees the danger in not being able to critically analyze that traumatic past relationship.
"I’ve certainly seen it where people just choose to ignore the healing process, and then they go out and make the same mistakes again," she says. "You want to pay attention to what happened, how it happened, and what you can do differently. Ignoring it is not a good thing — sometimes you’ll want to just run right out there and start dating again, but you likely won’t attract the person you want."
Like Altalida, Ryan says finding new love requires thought and planning — in fact, the strategy she gives her clients for cleaning their romantic slate is a four-parter.
"The first thing is to clear your mind, and eliminate your limiting beliefs," she says, "If you go out there and think something like, ‘all women are rotten liars,’ you’re going to end up meeting a lot of rotten liars — we always want to be right so we’re looking for the proof." Likewise, if you approach dating with the fact that you recently got your heart broken occupying your thoughts, there’s a good chance you’ll soon be headed for the Hotel yet again.
That leads to the second step, what Ryan calls "clearing your heart." "If you’ve been really hurt or you’re still holding a torch, you’re not really free and available. Those old relationships take up emotional space in your empty drawer — you’re leaving room available, so there’s a space for something new to come in. If everything is all crowded and cluttered, it’s hard to bring anything new in."
And, finally, to complete the process, you need to find a little space on your calendar — "People are often so busy-busy-busy, it’s important to make time to meet somebody new."
All of that reflection and planning should be enough to stow your own baggage and get going on an uninhibited search for Mr. or Ms. Right. But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot — maybe you’ve already found that person, but what if it’s their baggage that’s holding things back?
Both Altadina and Ryan feel that the communication is key in this situation, but they also warn that this partner’s unwillingness or inability to let go of their baggage should be a red flag for your relationship.
"You can’t make anybody do anything, you can’t fix anything for anybody else," Ryan says, "but I think relationships always work best when you communicate and tell people what works for you and what doesn’t work for you — in a nice way, of course. If it’s clear that something needs to happen, you both need to know about it."
Altadina encourages asking direct, distinct questions ("Are you still in love with another person? Are you ready to move on?") that "really assess what’s going on." But even if there is a good chance that your significant other can overcome their baggage and maintain a healthy relationship, it’s not your place to intervene — "In the long run you end up hurting yourself because you’re covering up another person’s pain and they have to work through that themselves."
Being mindful of your own feelings, as well as theirs, is extremely important, according to Ryan. "The important thing to remember is, you can’t do it for them. The Florence Nightingale routine is not good, because you’re gonna end up being the person who sets them up for the next person — usually if you play nursemaid, you lose."
That may sound a bit discouraging, but communication, openness, overcoming past experience, and acknowledging your own feelings and your partner’s are simply part of the process of developing a good relationship — one that, if you give it the attention and awareness that it needs, won’t end up causing more baggage later on.
"I think almost anything can work if both people want it to," Ryan says, "But just because you’ve found somebody that you love doesn’t mean the work is done" — so you might as well get started.
Oh, and as for the Heartbreak Hotel, tell them not to leave the light on for you.
©Play :: New Haven’s Arts & Entertainment Weekly. 2005