How Emotional Baggage Can Improve Your Marriage

Everybody comes into a relationship dragging along issues from their past, but - if handled well - those lingering issues can actually bring you closer together. Here's how to make those skeletons work for you. By Holly Corbett, REDBOOK.

The conflict: His jealous streak is making you shut down
He once confided that his father was a womanizer, and he thinks he may have cheated on his mother. It seems like he's moved past it, but some recent behavior is making you feel otherwise. "Lingering insecurity can show up in seemingly unconnected ways," explains Dr. Tammy Nelson, a couples psychotherapist and author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity. "He may put you in situations that feel like a test. For example, he asks you to meet him out after work, but then shows up later than expected to see if you get lured in to talking to another man while you're waiting." To keep the peace, you may find yourself shutting down or rearranging your schedule to spend more time with your husband just because it's easier than another fight. "Feeling like you have to change your personality is a clue that it's probably not about you, but your husband's unresolved issues," Dr. Nelson explains.

How to handle it
Focus on how his actions make you feel. Broad statements like, "you're always so jealous" will just put him on the defensive. Instead, simply state the results of his recent actions, phrasing it as a " did this" clause, like: "When you came into the restaurant and immediately questioned whether I'd been talking to another man, it made me feel like you don't trust me." Setting up the statement this way helps him see how he could be causing the behavior he's so afraid of, and how he could do things differently. "Keeping the focus on our universal feelings helps your partner remember you're still on his side; and he'll be more likely to see what happened from your perspective, because you're talking in a shared language." While dealing with the jealousy head-on may be uncomfortable in the moment, working through something so loaded is great communication practice. "Ultimately, you'll start to feel like there's nothing you can't talk about, since you'll trust that you and your partner can work through it," says Dr. Nelson.

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The conflict: His ex-wife won't butt out
With today's Modern Family as the new normal, the rules are still being re-written and it's often difficult to know exactly what type of lingering relationship is justified, especially if kids are involved. When it comes to the mother of your husband's children, it's best to focus on a way to maintain a working relationship - rather than cut her out of the picture (as tempting as it can sound in some of the more exasperating moments of Step-Momdom, like being judged for the ways you've stepped in as a third co-parent.) "It's a lot more work than marrying someone without this type of previous relationship," states Dr. Nelson, "but the good news is that having navigated some of life's more difficult experiences - child-raising and divorce - you can know that he may take on a new level of appreciation for the love that you have between you."

How to handle it

Don't take any battles with this other woman personally; they have nothing to do with you. "It's hard not to get involved or have an opinion, but you have to step back and give the relationship between your husband and his ex-wife some space," says Dr. Nelson. It may be tempting to want to control things, but voicing your discontent to your partner will just make him feel torn, and like he can't make you happy. "Instead, see it as an opportunity to be a source of support - and then do the venting to a trusted friend or sister." When your husband notices your adult-take, he'll feel safe to fully express himself, which will make your bond that much stronger.

The conflict: One of your husband's old girlfriends "shows up" on Facebook
Now that sites like Facebook have been around for a while, exes have a funny way of resurfacing. "It's a natural inclination to find out how people from your past are doing by reaching out with a quick Facebook message," says Dr. Nelson. Still, while taking a look through an ex's pictures to keep up-to-date can be harmless, staying "friends" with all your exes once you've gotten married might not be such a great idea. "Even if you feel like you're done with that part of your life, seeing regular status updates and pictures keeps you emotionally invested so you never have to really close the door and have the experience of ending it," explains Dr. Nelson.

How to handle it
Express your fears once, then drop it. "People often hide things not because they're doing anything wrong, but because they're afraid of making the other person upset," says Dr. Nelson. If you come across as curious rather than accusatory, you're more likely to get the real answers you're seeking - most likely that it's a non-issue. Let him know that your Facebook page - and password - are always open to him, too, and that if an ex does reach out in a more suggestive way, that you're open to talking about it.

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The conflict: He hasn't fully dealt with a traumatic experience in his past

Whether it is PTSD related to military service, a death in the family at a young age, or even childhood abuse, these issues can come up in marriages long after the events have occurred, causing turbulence in seemingly unrelated ways. Signals that this old set of wounds has reopenned include random bouts of anger, jumping at mundane noises like police sirens, having flashbacks, or not being present, especially during intimate moments like sex.

How to handle it

First, know that while you can support him, his issues aren't your responsibility to solve. "It can help for him to talk about his experiences with you," says Dr. Nelson, "but he needs to see a professional who can fully diagnose and treat what he's going through." People in crises often have a hard time thinking logically enough to find a therapist on their own, so you can help by researching options and providing a list of three counselors he can call. "It's important that he find a good fit, so he can fully explore the root of his issues and feel comfortable getting vulnerable," explains Dr. Nelson. Often times, though, it can be difficult for men to admit what they might see as a weakness, so if he won't seek help, you might want to reach out to a resource such as a veterans association or Al-Anon, or your own therapist for ways you can deal with the problem.

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The conflict: He's stuck in a rut and won't do anything about it
If his favorite expression is "I'm gonna," but that day never comes, he could be struggling with low-grade anxiety. Some signs are wearing the same shirt from college, repeating stories about his glory days, or complaining about issues at his job, but never doing anything about them. "Most of the time, people don't take risks or make necessary changes in their lives, because of fear of failure," says Dr. Nelson. "Anxiousness is fear of the future over things that haven't happened yet."

How to handle it
Sometimes anxiety hangs over us like a fog, and it can be hard to see what the next steps are. So, if you're partner can't seem to move forward in life, help him do just that in a literal way - by beginning the habit of daily walks outside. "The simple act of moving may make it easier to access parts of his brain that involve processing feelings, which will help him open up and get flashes of insight," says Dr. Nelson. Plus, exercise and nature are known serotonin-boosters, which improve mood instantly. "Spending healthy alone-time together may also act as a silent way you're showing up to support him, giving him the courage he needs to get unstuck," she adds. However, sometimes the root of chronic anxiety is chemical and persistent. In that case, again, ask him to seek professional help, like psychotherapy, which will help him work through the complex web of issues on his own.

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