This article is part of a series in which I examine the top ten things that I learned during our tumultuous Forming and Storming stage earlier on in our relationship. We all carry some sort of baggage, recognizing what yours is will save your relationship. In this article, I discuss how my childhood experiences may have affected my approach to conflict.
What is Baggage? The Answer is Very Freudian
I have heard the word “baggage” often used in the relationship context, but I never actually analyzed its meaning. For example, a single parent with three children would be seen as having baggage, or maybe a love interest who has a controlling family. That’s what I looked at as baggage, something tangible, that made you question your intent to proceed forward with somebody. I remember once saying, “Guurrrlll, he has too much baggage for me!” In reference to a guy who had two baby-mamas. Well, true, that is baggage. However, the real luggage goes deeper than that. It is rooted in your subconscious, and it has a say on how you handle different situations. It has roots in your childhood, your teenage, and young adult years. Your exposure and influences as you became a fully formed adult have a lasting impact on your life. They dictate, among other things, your fetishes, coping mechanisms, and even reactions, as you will see in my case.
Tagging My Baggage
So, remember when I told y’all that John and I had a tumultuous forming and storming phase where we fought a lot? Well, it was at this time that John made me realize something very troubling about myself; I didn’t fight fairly. I remember vividly one time we fought, and I said to him, “fuck-off then!” What happened was, I had planned a romantic night in, when John received a phone call from a buddy. John excitedly agreed to go out with the caller, and I exploded. Not immediately, though. At first, I had protested mildly by saying, “I don’t want to go out.” But John’s response had eluded to the fact that he wasn’t planning to take me anyway. That’s when I went nuclear on him. We went back and forth for a while, and in the end, I had said the now immortal phrase “fuck-off then!” in defeated exasperation. John’s whole demeanor changed. He froze, stayed statuesque for what seemed like an eternity, and then turned to me. I didn’t know what I had done wrong (yet), but the look in his eyes sent shockwaves down my spine. “We don’t do that!” He said in a low, hissing voice between clenched teeth. “We do not curse at each other!”
Whispers Are Louder Than Screams
The next morning, John sat me down. I was still fuming from the previous night’s perceived betrayal and was prepared to make a good case of it. But John started by apologizing for being inconsiderate in his decision to go out. Damn! My entire case had hinged on that, with his apology, I had no armory. Well, that was not what he wanted to talk about. He needed us to talk about “the fighting.” I immediately started to list him the things that he did to make us fight, but he raised his hand dismissively. “I am not questioning the validity of the fights; I am questioning the manner,” he said. “I am not trying to tell you how you should feel, I just need you to be more responsible in how you express those feelings,” he continued. “Disappointment does not have to manifest angrily. More importantly, it should never manifest into curses or name-calling,” I heard him say as I twiddled my thumbs. He spoke in a quiet, calm, professor voice, and I felt like a student. I bookmarked the role-play possibility mentally for later. For now, the lecture continued.
I listened patiently as John presented a compelling picture. He pointed out situations where I had apparently escalated disproportionately to the situation. “Why do you go straight to yelling? he asked rhetorically. “Why do you fight, so mean? Nothing I ever do is maliciously intended to hurt you, and neither should your words,” he concluded. I recalled my past participation in fights before John, trying to figure out if I had always been this volatile. Maybe it was because I cared about him, perhaps it was fear of being hurt. Truth is, I had always been a “hot-head” as some relatives called me. I was lost in my thoughts when he said the words that sent me searching deep into myself. The words that made me realize that I had baggage for days. He stated, “You know, I never heard my Mom and Dad yelling at each other – but once.” The comment was almost like an after-thought for him. He had said it thoughtfully, more to himself than to me, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. Dumbfounded, I asked stupidly, “your whole life?” “Yes, only once in my entire childhood did I hear them fighting,” he affirmed. That was the epiphany moment. I had found my first bag.
Miseducation of Sly
Unlike John, I grew up in a house with domestic violence. I am not pointing blame here, merely venturing that my presence in such an environment had to have had an effect on me. John’s calmness and capacity to talk things through is something that I have had to learn later in life. To be fair, he had a head start on me. As a child, his voice was not only heard but encouraged. His environment validated his feelings. It’s not my parent’s fault. They worked long hours and had little to show for it. They did what they had to, to survive. I can only imagine the strain and frustration that poverty brings, coupled with three hungry mouths to feed. Unfortunately, this frustration sometimes manifested itself in the form of violence. My parent’s journey is their own. Unfortunately, it is inherently tied to mine. I shared some aspects of my childhood a while back; you can read that article here. Side note: Just to underline the incongruity of life. My parents are currently happily married (With no violence – In fact, my Dad is a model husband these days). On the other hand, John’s parents have since divorced – go figure.
Learning to Talk
Here is how I taught myself how to communicate calmly using these three simple techniques.
Wait 24-hours. Trust me, its never as big a deal the next day as it was in the moment. If we disagree on something or one of us feels hurt, we write it down and wait until the next day to share it. Most of the time, when we read what we had written the day before, it almost always seems overblown. The whole “never go to bed angry” may work for some, but once you are emotional, the fight can escalate needlessly. Wait till tomorrow, if you are still upset by whatever it is, at least you are calmer.
Choose the right time and place. Deciding to talk about an issue after your second glass of wine during a football game at your friend’s house is not going to go well. Your wine-induced feelings and his irritation from having to miss the game will only fuel the embers. This rule ties into the first rule, wait for the ideal moment. Let the game end, sober up, sleep on it, and when you wake up, talk about it calmly over breakfast. Try and pick a moment where neither of you is distracted, and won’t be interrupted. I prefer to talk it out at home, wait staff seem to always check-in on us at the most inopportune time.
Using “I feel” to express myself. This sounds simple, but you would be surprised. When couples fight, it is because one of them did something that made the other feel a certain way; sad, hurt, neglected, etc. Most of the time, those emotions manifest as anger towards the perpetrator, and a fight ensues. Recognizing how something makes you feel is not necessarily how it was intended, is critical. When somebody who loves you does something that aggravates you, chances are they aren’t trying to piss you off intentionally (unless they are assholes, in which case you should dump them). So I learned to communicate with “I feel” phrases. So here is how I phrase it; “When you do (whatever action upset you), I feel like you don’t care/don’t value our time/etc and this upsets me.” Or “When you do (whatever action upset you), you make me feel unappreciated/ insecure/belittled/unwanted/etc and this makes me moody/upset/angry.” This mode of communication clearly explains which action you didn’t like and how it made you feel, intended, or not. Try it, you will fight less!
Can you think of some baggage that you may be carrying around? Have you done anything to overcome it? Share your thoughts in the comments section, we love hearing from you.