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How Emotional Baggage From Your Past is Affecting Your Marriage Today

Emotional Baggage Begins with Emotionally charged Events

I remember a scene from my mothers 50th birthday, when an old friend of my mother, famous for being both very rich and very rude, chastised me for not looking after my mother well enough.

I had worked for weeks putting the party together, including decorations, food and planning the invitation list, and here stood this woman in front of me; eating food I had prepared, holding a drink I had bought and served, criticising me that I was not doing enough to help!

I was shocked and angry and went and told my sister how this woman’s comment had upset me. Unsympathetic, my sister just laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it, you know what Susan is like!”

Not 5 minutes later, my sister came back fuming, saying Susan had just criticised her for not looking after her dog!

At this time, I had no idea that years later I would become a student and author of Emotional Intelligence. But I remember this story giving me the first inkling that everything is not quite as straightforward as it may appear when you start dealing with logic and emotion.

Two minds

Before my sister became angry, her rational mind knew it was foolish that I had let a nasty and rude person’s judgement upset me. Only minutes later however, when her own amygdala (emotional brain) had fired, not only did she forget what she had just said, but suddenly she was just as upset as I had been about something quite similar.

When we are calm it is nearly impossible for us to remember the way we were thinking and feeling at a time when we were upset. 

(And if this is hard to remember within ourselves, how much harder is it for us to genuinely have empathy for someone else when they are in an emotional state and we are not?)

Just as we think differently when we are emotional, emotional baggage is formed because we also remember emotionally charged situations in a different way than we remember other events.

Your Memory is Not All in Your Head

Thinking back on an emotional event later, our upper cortex doesn’t work the same way our amygdala does, and so once our rational mind is back in the driver’s seat (once our amygdala ‘switches off’) it will often feel ashamed or depressed about how we behaved when we were upset.

Our amygdala’s way of recording memories is also different – instead of storing memories as words or ideas like our upper cortex does  – we may store the memory of an emotional event as a knot in our stomach, a pain in our neck or a vague sense of fear or anxiety.

As strange as it may sound, not only do we store memories in our bodies, but we store them in the space around us as well!

How emotional baggage is stored

Because of this emotional baggage is rarely logical and instead may be stored as a picture we see in front of us, a sensation in our body or a dialogue we run in our head. Do vague apprehensions and fears mould your life? I wonder how much of this is rational and how much stored up emotional baggage?

Forget What You Are Sure You Remember

Emotional Baggage Doesn’t Care about Facts!

Recent research also shows that when it comes to events that are emotionally charged, our memories are extremely unreliable. A few years down the track, even details we are certain we have correct will turn out to be mistaken.

This is significant.

It is one thing to know you have forgotten something and quite another to be certain you have remembered the facts – when you are wrong!

Emotional baggage is not intelligent it is instinctive. It nearly always has some kind of bias that doesn’t care about the facts!

What this means if we want to bring peace to our lives and our homes . . .

As the name of this blog (End the Blame Game) suggests, rather than judging other people (especially when they are emotional), first and foremost it is much easier and wiser to work on our own reactivity and emotional baggage instead.

What emotional baggage do you carry in terms of emotionally charged memories from the past, that are causing you to react in irrational and unproductive ways now?

  • If you have abandonment issues from being neglected in some way when you were young . . . how is this emotional baggage affecting your marriage today?
  • If you were teased or criticised as a child . . . Does this emotional baggage make you over react and get testy when people joke with you?
  • Or worse, maybe no one feels they can be light hearted with you – because you take things too seriously and are defensive because emotional baggage from your past has made you scared of being wrong?
  • Or maybe because you have been betrayed in the past, that fear has been stored as emotional baggage that is causing you to say or do stupid things to someone who truly cares for you.

Whatever your past, I bet you have some emotional baggage that it is holding you back in your life.

To help you with this Steve and I have brought in our good friend (and behavioural scientist) Dallas Fell to help . . .

Baggage Dumper

If you sign up this month to a Baggage Dumper membership, your subscription will include The Love Boat Tour of the Emotions as a bonus.

I cannot even begin to share what the Baggage Dumper program has done in clearing the emotional baggage from our lives personally, but I will get Steve to share more about that on camera in the next week or two!

What I can say is that clearing your emotional baggage has never been easier and with Dallas to help it has even become fun! 🙂


Kim Cooper

Kim is the author of seven books on the topic of relationships and emotional intelligence.

A prolific multi-media content innovator, Kim has created and shared a library of articles and multi-media educational tools including radio shows,
movies and poetry on 'The NC Marriage', and 'The Love Safety Net'.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Kim – I somehow don’t get it. This website specializes on narcissism, and narcissists are known to be experts at blaming others. Being someone who always tends to question herself before blaming the other, I find it hard enough not to accept all that blame they’re trying to hand me. It seems to me that by ecouraging your readers to examine in how far they “react in irrational and unproductive ways” (which I’m sure they have been doing plenty, because otherwise their narcissists would not have latched on to them!), you are setting them up to become even more willing vicitms of the narcissists in their lives. My gut feeling just cringes over that – big time!

    1. Hi Karin, I understand how you feel, but in real life it is actually the opposite. Narcissists take advantage of their partners over reacting. They say, “Of course I do this, or of course I do that – look at what a nutcase he/she is!” They also rely on being able to start and argument to create a smokescreen when their misdeeds are at risk of coming to the surface.

      By learning to not let your partner push your buttons, you become better at making better choices. The steps in Back From the Looking Glass and the Love Safety Net Workbook lay this out more clearly. Over reacting in the moment makes you and easy scapegoat. Learning how to keep your balance and self soothe and set real boundaries after you have calmed down ends the dysfunctional cycle.

      Say for instance you partner uses money from your joint account for expenses you think are selfish. Yelling and screaming about it will only make you part of the problem. Instead learning to not get pulled into fights or confabulation makes it easier to keep your balance. Then later when the time is right you walk into the bank and separate bank accounts.

      Most people don’t do that until they are ready to get divorced. I say doing it early may save your marriage.

      The other side of this is that the emotional manipulation codependents practice is also abusive. Working at overcoming our past emotional wounds and not using them as a means of trying to get sympathy or attention is the path of healing a person’s codependency.

  2. This is interesting and now that I am far along in re-newing my mind, I can see this in others very clearly. I think the world calls it confabulation in regards to the partners we all deal with here? For me keeping a journal and notes have helped me a lot. I no longer am with my partner, but I kept notes for years all through the relationship and some time after the break up. I was able to go through them and find my spots where I was lying or exaggerating to myself to save face which accelerated my healing because I then would remember back better. I used to get so darn mad at my partner because he would just keep re-living an event that I know the information coming out of his mouth was just not true. No amount of giving facts makes them stop to be accountable either. Im to the point that I just am setting boundaries around certain topics because Im not going to listen to the lies anymore. But Im not certain that this idea in your article is %100 in that I think this happens but I also know people have selective memory. They remember what they want if they dont want to be accountable for their own mistakes. With my son if I talk to him in a certain way and have him answer the questions he will come to the realization that it is his fault or he did fib because he did not want to admit anything. I then just validate that being accountable is hard to learn and it takes a while to get comfortable doing it. I model the heck out of it. He now is actually following my lead. Our fellowship practices accountability twice a week by standing up in a group and expressing it. So he gets role models there too. The teens are also involved in this. You can tell he is a little ticked about it but it gets better over time. When he does it I tell him I appreciate his honesty and then I will sit down and do something fun with him for a few minutes or hug him if I cant sit. His entire attitude changes. However I do notice that the more calm I get I am remembering much better all the way back to by child hood. Remembering the feelings as well. It used to hurt me to do that, but now its welcome.

    1. Hi Just a Woman and welcome 🙂

      It is great that you have come to see that arguing or trying to make people admit they are wrong is usually pointless. Setting boundaries is certainly a much better option 🙂

      I think the point here is that our memories are unreliable (for many reasons) and so trying to hold others accountable usually ends in arguments and hurt feelings. An effective boundary should be something that really stops what set your alarm bells off happening again. Like separating bank accounts, a comeback that discourages them trying the same put down again or in a child’s case perhaps a talk with their teacher or removing access to the phone/computer etc. until the child demonstrates they are responsible. In more extreme cases a boundary may involve police or other authorities.

      As you have realised, trying to make a person admit they have lied is probably only going to breed resentment. If they are lying and know it to try and shift blame, using a comeback that shows you are not playing into their game and setting the boundary should be enough to end that cycle. Getting into an argument only strengthens their position by showing you take what they have said seriously.

      On the other hand if the person believes what they are saying and you both disagree on what happened, trying to get them to admit they are wrong is only going to make them angry. More important is to ask yourself why are they saying what they are saying? Is it to try and get away with exploiting you? If so stop talking and set a boundary and protect your assets better! Are they lying to themselves because they feel bad about themselves? If so rubbing their face in it will probably just make things worse.

      Sometimes there also may be another message we need to be sensitive to. Like if a friend says they are busy when we ask them out and we find out it is a lie. Is trying to hold them accountable going to help or should we stop and wonder why it is they don’t feel like spending time with us instead?

      This is what End the Blame Game is all about. We end the blame game when we stop blaming and stop keeping score and instead learn how to listen and react in a way that is more positive for everyone.

      One thing I have noticed is that while admitting we are embarrassed or wrong can be powerful medicine, forcing kids (or adults) to do this at church or AA meetings sometimes has the opposite effect.

      I have seen kids at church get up on stage and put on academy award winning performances of humility in their testimony. Only to see the same kids sit outside with their noses stuck in the air, refusing to even look at other kids they think beneath their social status.

      Likewise AA meetings can be real NPD vipers dens with clicks and mutual fan clubs with people who might as well still be hanging out at bars the way they feed each others egos and use the group as an excuse to not spend time at home.

      Instead I think people learn to be honest with us when we stop making our happiness dependent on their behaviour and also stop having unrealistic expectations on them.

      For instance if I am going to freak out about every decision my kids make, soon they are not going to talk to me at all. Instead if I learn to draw their ideas out in conversation, see what motivates them and acknowledge that while also offering challenges that will help their progress towards goals I have sensed are already important to them – the kids suddenly open up and want to share everything.

      This doesn’t mean I am a pushover.

      For instance yesterday my son tried to get his way with me on a subject that we have argued about before and when he became frustrated about me saying no he became rude and aggressive.

      I said, “Ok not only are you not getting what you want but because you tried to use aggression to get your way you have also lost ground. You are grounded until you make an effort to learn better negotiation skills and you also need to give dad your phone.”

      He was tempted then to really go off at me and I said, “One more word and I will be calling a meeting about this with your teachers.” Well my son has worked hard this year to get in the good books with his teachers at a new school. He knows I am good to my word when I give warnings like that and so he stopped arguing and handed over the phone.

      Today Steve (who has just got over being very sick and even spent a few days in hospital last week) got our son to help with jobs he (Steve) needed to catch up with. We made it a game where he got points every time he put an idea across without putting Steve’s Point of view down. This was the gap we decided he needed to work on and where the conversation went wrong yesterday.

      My son was happy to play along with this because a. He got paid according to the points he earned and b. After I explained it he understood that him learning to negotiate better was going to help him get his way more about things he felt were worth fighting for.

      This morning I said, “Your attempt to negotiate didn’t turn out so good yesterday?”

      He said, “No.”

      I said, “You not only didn’t get what you wanted you also lost stuff you already had.” Can you see how getting angry and trying to force you opinion on others by being rude or aggressive is a bad way to negotiate?”

      He showed he understood and also saw that learning to fill in the gap we had isolated was probably the only way he was going to get what he wants.

      I didn’t make him admit he had been wrong or bad, he just needed to agree to learn something that was a. Going to earn him a few dollars, b. Help him get what he wants when we talk about it again.

      That made it pretty easy for him to give it his best and by this evening there is a whole lot of situations that arose today (he earned 35 points) that we can discuss over dinner that will help him consolidate the progress he made.

      I may still not agree to what he asked me for yesterday, but we are much closer to having a discussion where we can come up with options and move past a subject that usually starts fights.

      So that was my day and I hope that it helps. These days I am working more with kids than adults and so I thought I would share!

  3. I have been studying your articles and reading Looking Through the Looking Glass and studying it. I am so excited at the strength I am finding. I actually stood up to my husband last week and told him he could do what he felt he needed to do but I was not doing it. I would be finding a better more peaceful life. I also informed him I was retiring in order to be able to do what I felt necessary to find some peace in my life. He just said okay. I thought he would explode but he didn’t. After a few minutes he ask questions trying to start a fight but I just turned and walked away leaving him to argue with himself. He has been really quiet since but he has not tried to start a fight. He knew I meant what I said. I prayed all day for strength to say what I need to say and with the things I have learned from your program I was confident I could get my point across. Thanks for all of your expertise. It is a blessing to many and will bless many others in the future.

    1. Wow – good for you!! Interesting that he didn’t blow up – that’s the scary part for me. Maybe it’s still simmering inside him & he’ll blow up soon enough but that’ll be his problem. You go girl!! Best of luck!

  4. My husband of 23 years who I believe suffers from NPD (actually I do most of the suffering ) & is a workaholic, will inevitably criticize me mercilessly whenever he doesn’t get his way. It’s a constant stream of verbal abuse when I disagree or contradict or have different preferences than his. I have been trying to set boundaries for the past few years like refusing to sleep with him, not spending much time with him at all lately because he’s usually so unpleasant & more & more unappealing to me with his grand ego! My staying away from him only seems to make him angrier & more abusive towards me so I don’t see much hope for us. He is not learning to correct his behavior & I find it nearly impossible to be loving towards him although I’m still friendly, I take care of things for him around the house, I cook for him, do his laundry, pay the bills plus do accounting for his business – it’s more like a business relationship than a marriage. I try to remain calm & mostly silent during the verbal abuse because I’ve learned that when I react strongly, he “points the finger” at me accusing me of creating the problem because of my anger. Does it sound like it’s time to throw in the towel? I’m feeling that it may be time. My kids are grown & I have nothing to look forward to with this man. He doesn’t enjoy things that I enjoy like vacations or dinners out. He works 7 days a week! He never takes responsibility when something goes wrong that clearly is his fault & refuses to be accountable for his bad behavior – only blames me for ruining our relationship because I’m now “rejecting” him. The relationship was never great. The problem is, I’m so afraid to break our family apart – I’m worried I may have regrets. I’m also worried that he may snap from the devastating loss (this would be divorce #2 for him) He is a very smart & capable man who I do respect in many ways but I don’t feel loved by him (only needed for his selfish reasons)& I’m not sure I love him – I mostly feel sorry for him. I’m so sick of living in this limbo not knowing if I should stay or go & I end up just staying because we’re so dependent on each other for business reasons, it would be so difficult & painful to split up – just grueling for both of us so I put it off. But I may end up having regrets after having stayed in this go-nowhere relationship & missing out on true love & happiness!! I need to talk to someone who is not friend or family!

    1. Hi Daring Greatly and Welcome 🙂

      It is great that you have found the strength to get on with your life and not let his bad behaviour throw you off course as much as it might have in the past.

      There are a few things I want to offer that I hope may help you in this journey.

      First is that refusing to sleep with him etc. might be seen more as punishment than setting a boundary. By all means don’t sleep with him unless you really want to – but don’t expect that refusing him will help you change his behaviour.

      Our Silver Levels members area has a whole series of articles on dealing with verbal abuse.

      No one except you can decide if it you should leave or stay.

      Personally I would first try setting some real boundaries around the verbal abuse.

      I wonder how he would feel about other people hearing how he talks to you? My guess is he only continues with this behaviour because he thinks he can can continue getting away with it!

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