Carolyn Hax: Dealing with the baggage of past relationships

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 14, 2012

Adapted from recent online discussions, and continued from yesterday.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I have a horrible view of men’s attitudes toward women after having three-plus boyfriends who lied, manipulated and criticized me. My lack of trust in my new boyfriend and lack of self-esteem are the only problems he and I have in our relationship.

Sometimes I get paranoid and voice my insecurities, and he feels hurt that I think he’s going to suddenly start lying to me or start criticizing my body like the others. He is incredibly patient with me. I’ve been seeing a counselor at school, and I’m going to continue.

Traumatized, again


I’m glad to hear you’re taking concrete steps toward dealing with this.

One flag: When you get “paranoid and voice my insecurities,” he actually doesn’t respond with incredible patience. He responds by taking it personally. And when he gets defensive, that forces you to shift your focus from expressing and addressing your own feelings to soothing his. By putting you to work that way, he also — possibly without realizing it — subtly deters you from telling that kind of truth about yourself again.

He might well be a wonderful person, just an immature one; certainly it takes a lot of emotional strength to recognize that the doubts of a traumatized loved one aren’t personal.

But it is fair for you to ask him for that strength, by saying explicitly, “This is baggage I brought to this relationship from old ones. I’m working hard to deal with it, and not take it out on you. When I do slip, please at least consider that I’m not accusing you, I’m accusing the ghosts.”

This isn’t to say your ghosts have a lifetime membership in your relationship. If you find your distrust persists, then please seriously consider tending to your emotional health without a boyfriend in tow.

Dear Carolyn:

Some family and friends believe I am “settling” for my (serious, long-term, etc.) boyfriend. While the relationship is solid and healthy, they think he’s not attractive enough for me, not social enough, and that I could “do better.” How do I handle this, and/or tell them to buzz off?

Anonymous

Why bother?

If they’re raising questions that expose your own discomfort with your choice, then certainly think about your choice carefully. But if you disagree and you feel confident that you’re doing what’s right for you, then just keep doing what you’re doing without comment. Either way, whether you rethink or stand pat, there’s no need to discuss it with any of the naysayers unless you want to.

If they’re getting in your face — and if you’re not comfortable blowing them off completely — then just say a simple, “Thanks for your concern, but I feel good about this.” As many times as you need to say it.

Now, there is an in-between answer here, where you’re not sure they’re right or sure they’re wrong. In that case, it’s okay to explore their concerns a bit. A good question to ask them: “Are you noticing a change in me that doesn’t seem happy or healthy?” Because how you feel is paramount, and how they feel about him and his shortcomings is relevant only in the way those shortcomings are reflected in your emotional state.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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