Diana and Elliot were stuck. Every time conflict arose, they became paralyzed with fear and withdrew from each other. They could not face their differences. We coached Diana on ways to express her feelings to Elliot when she was angry and we modeled how Elliot could listen and respond to her empathetically. No matter what Lori and I suggested to open up the way they communicated, they seemed to stay shut down.
When we meet with such overwhelming roadblocks, we know we are dealing with more than what ostensibly appears before us. We have to dig deeper.
Lori and I realized there were not just four of us in the room. Past relationships likely created fears that kept them from being vulnerable and being emotionally close. Their fear fed upon each other and created a powerful dynamic keeping logic and reason just beyond reach.
Diana was aware she controlled her responses to Elliot. She was afraid if she pushed too hard, Elliot would abandon her. This is precisely what her mom did when Diana expressed her genuine feelings as a child. If her mother didn’t like what Diana said, she would give Diana the silent treatment. With her Dad having abandoned the family, mom was all she had. No wonder she was gun shy to put herself out there. The powerful experiences of her childhood literally controlled much of her interaction with Elliot.
Elliot, on the other hand, had baggage from a more recent relationship. He considered himself a failure. Two serious relationships before his marriage to Diana ended when each woman left him for another man. After marrying Diana, he felt relatively secure, but still harbored an underlying, unconscious fear that it would happen again. It was only a matter of time before Diana would leave him.
The issues Diana and Elliot brought to the relationship interfered with their ability to be close. When Diana tried to express her feelings to Elliot, he responded like a “deer in the headlights.” He felt unable to engage in the conversation, and felt trapped by the fear.
His withdrawal felt like the silent treatment Diana’s mother gave her in response to Diana’s expression of genuine feelings.
Their “interlocking pasts” unconsciously conspired to keep them from taking on conflict during those most critical times. They couldn’t share each other’s worlds or challenge each other’s perspectives because the fear within their respective baggage shut them down.
As we helped Diana and Elliot understand (claim) their baggage in their present relationship, they became more open and were able to work as a team, and collaborate to achieve greater connection.
The key to claiming your unclaimed baggage is to be aware of it. Ask yourself, “What hidden fears am I lugging around today that don’t belong to my current relationship?”