Can You Be An Expert Baggage Handler?

When it comes to dealing with someone else’s emotional baggage in a relationship, you have to know where to draw the line. Here’s one expert’s advice on handling it gracefully.

By Mike Hammer

ating somebody who requires a Sherpa to handle his or her piles of personal issues can be a challenge that not everyone has the heart or the back strength to take on. “You not only have to be familiar with a person’s problems, but you also need to know who YOU are and how much you are willing to either take on or sacrifice before you can make a commitment,” says JoAnn Magdoff, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York. “People with baggage present unique challenges that you need to fully comprehend before you simply accept them as part of a relationship.”

Baggage can be routed from anywhere on the emotional landscape. “There are all kinds of challenges or
Baggage can be routed from anywhere on the emotional landscape.
issues someone can bring into a relationship that can impact its potential success,” says Amy Owens, a singles coach and the author of The Itty Bitty Breakup Book. “Some are temporary problems that can be fixed, and some are forever issues that can be controlled, but only with constant attention,” she says. “Your ability to deal with a person who has ‘forever’ issues will depend on how he or she deals with them. You can’t carry someone’s bags if that person doesn’t want to do any of the heavy lifting.”

Here are some cases in which individuals picked up someone else’s emotional cargo and how they handled the challenge:

The Marriage Trap
Susan, a 40-year-old divorcee, had been good friends with John since college. They never dreamed their relationship could be anything more. John was in the midst of an unhappy marriage, and one night at a concert, they discovered passion and much more in each other. “We quite unexpectedly fell in love,” she says. “It wasn’t just the hots. We knew what we were getting into and felt it was worth the risk.” But John’s commitment to his family soon proved too big an obstacle. “He couldn’t say and do what was in his heart. I couldn’t call him or see him when I wanted to. When his wife discovered our relationship, he went back to his family, and I had to move on.” While she says she valued the experience, Susan insists that she would never date another married man. The experts support her decision.

Doctors’ Orders: “Don’t do it,” says Owens. “If a person is married, that means they’re not REALLY available. Even if that person is destined for divorce, there is still a transition he or she must go through. There is grieving that comes with letting go of that life and THEN there’s the process of getting established psychologically as a single person. If you’re dating a person who’s married, they’re far from ready for you… and you need to be prepared for it to end painfully.”

The Habitual Offender
Sharon is a 35-year-old career woman who began to date Stu, a 50-year-old with deep conflicts about his relationship with his parents. He claimed to love his mother and hate his father because he had cheated on her many times. Stu had been married and then divorced, because he too had cheated on his wife… more than once. He was dating someone else when he asked Sharon out… something he didn’t tell her till later. “This man thought he hated his father, when in reality he idolized his father and was following his lead,” Sharon says. “He was conflicted about his cheating and that it mirrored his dad’s behavior. He was in therapy… but he never stopped.” Sharon eventually left him, a decision Owens endorses.

Doctor’s Orders: “You need to know a person’s track record before you enter into a relationship with them. Chronically destructive behavior is a bad sign,” she says. “Whether it’s cheating or drugs or drinking, you can almost count on it happening again. That person will likely let you down.”

A Partner with a Serious Illness
Sloane is a 45-year-old editor who met
“I didn’t want to ‘abandon’ him, so I chose to stick it out.”
and fell in love with Alexi, a 26-year-old engineer. Their relationship was exciting and blossoming when after just four months of dating, he was diagnosed with cancer. “I felt compromised,” Sloane says. “I didn’t feel like I could set the same boundaries or expectations that I normally would. I didn’t want to ‘abandon’ him, so I chose to stick it out.” But the illness took its toll and the relationship ended when Alexi decided he didn’t want to further expose her to his suffering. Sloane’s advice? “Be loving, compassionate, giving, open, supportive… but know you’re not a doctor, a nurse or an angel of mercy.”

Doctor’s Orders: “She is a wise woman,” says Magdoff. “People have an unrealistic assessment of the toll illness can be take. It’s as though you’re taking on the other person’s life — or death — and for many people that’s not something they can handle. Ask yourself ahead of time whether you are the kind of person who can respond to a challenge this immense. If not, you shouldn’t try. You’ll only end up abandoning the person who has come to rely on you.”

The Bipolar Partner
Matt was 40 when he emerged from a difficult marriage and started dating again. He fell hard for Danni, a 38-year-old career woman who had never been married. “She seemed perfect for me,” he says. “She was smart, cute, funny, and we shared the same interests.” A couple of months into the relationship, she told him that there was something he needed to know: She was clinically bipolar and on medication. “It scared me because I had just gotten out of one relationship with an unstable woman,” he says. But he decided to stick it out and they have been together for more than six months without incident because they have an open dialogue about her condition and he takes an active role in helping her keep on track.

Doctor’s Orders: “Once again, this is a question of knowing the person you are committing to,” says Magdoff. “You have to look at the history. Is he or she vigilant about taking meds? If not, what does that show? If the person does take the proper measures, that means he or she cares… and this should be worth your time.”

Dating Someone With Unique Sexual Desires
Bobbi, 40, is an attractive woman with a demanding job and a full social life. She met Artie, who is the same age and is similarly attractive and popular. Together they seemed the perfect couple. After dating a few weeks, Artie announced to Bobbi that he enjoyed cross-dressing and wanted to integrate it into their lovemaking. “At first, I thought he was either gay or not attracted to me,” Bobbi says. “It hurt my self-esteem. But then he explained that it only heightened his desire for me and I thought I’d give it a try.” The openness has helped their relationship and amped up their sex life, making them happier than ever.

Doctor’s Orders: “Everybody’s different. You have to decide what you’re OK with,” says Magdoff. “It takes a lot of affection, commitment and willingness to try things that may not be your favorite. If you’re adventurous, it might be great. If not, you need to set your parameters from the beginning and find out if your partner can live with them. Then you both will know where you each stand and whether you can go on together.”

What Can You Carry?
The secret to a successful relationship with anyone comes through meaningful communication that will allow you to understand each other fully. Ask each other substantial questions without making judgments so that you can understand each other’s personality and interests, as well as individual challenges or desires. It’s only then that you can decide whether you can or want to take on someone else’s baggage.

Mike Hammer is the former editor of Stuff and Shock and is a freelance writer for a wide range of national publications.
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