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Emotional Baggage in Relationships – An Archaeological Dig Into Your Past


When it seems like you and your partner should be able to resolve an issue easily, but you can’t, it’s time for an Archaeological Dig.

“Archaeology is our voyage to the past, where we discover who we were and therefore who we are.” Camille Paglia

Why does man (and woman) look back?

When an archaeologist locates a previously unknown settlement, he/she may spend years excavating, collecting, studying and analyzing artifacts and relics to glimpse a reasonable picture of the past. The study of history helps us see how societies sustained themselves, why some survived and others collapsed. It helps us avoid the mistakes of our ancestors and emulate their successes.

The Archaeological Dig in Therapy

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” David Mccullough

Why do therapists look back? How could your past – especially your far away past – possibly influence your current relationship? Some would say, “Ridiculous.”

Take the example of Joan and Steve:

Joan: You never spend time with me. After work, you come home, eat dinner and then head to the basement to watch ESPN. I ask you to come upstairs when I go to sleep and you say, “Be there in a minute,” but I am usually asleep before you get into bed. I feel so alone every night.

Steve: Don’t you get it that after working all day and managing 15 women, I need downtime and alone time. I need to escape the stress from the day?

Joan: Why can’t you do that with me? I’m not on your staff, I’m your wife.

Steve: I don’t know. Your feelings are so intense and I feel smothered. It’s not about you; I just need some “me” time. Alone.

Joan: It’s always about you. I feel abandoned every night; doesn’t that matter to you?

In counseling, the therapist learns that Joan grew up in a family where her parents were always in conflict. After a fight, her father would walk out. Each time this happened she felt more and more anxious and worried that he wouldn’t come back. When she was 11, her worst fear came true.

The therapist also learns that when Steve was eight years old, his father left for another woman. His father divorced his mother and a year later married the “other woman.” When his father and new wife had children, Steve’s father stopped coming around. He had “another family.”

Joan and Steve’s current relationship issue is actually rooted in the past – and deeply.

The Power of Then

Thornton Wilder believed that “the Past is not dead,” in fact, he wrote, “the Past isn’t even Past.”

Our past, if you think about it, is who we are. Who or what else can we really be – a person is reflective of the compilation and intertwining of all the events of that person’s life – beginning even before “Day One” of our life.

We are often lying to ourselves if we think we can just “get over it and move on.” According to the burgeoning field of Brain Science and the new uses of interventions such as functional MRIs and PET scans, past events and life experiences are not only carefully and exhaustively inventoried in our feelings, but remain active. They are physiologically alive and well, and forever asserting themselves in feelings, thinking and decision making. Even more so when we try to repress them. And what makes us even more vulnerable, is that we are substantially unaware that this process is even going on.

Our only real choice here is to bring this material up to consciousness, painful and fearful though it may be, and not to “move on” from it, but to chose to move into and through it with courage and expanded awareness, lest our unconscious past control us.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Maya Angelou

Your Choice

Will you choose to be courageous enough to confront your fears, your sadness and your pain and bring your history to consciousness, so you can work with it to fashion the journey you want take in your life, and in your relationship? If you answered “yes,” you are ready to undertake your “Archaeological Dig.”

Your Archaeological Dig

Here is our way of conducting an archaeological dig so you will not have to repeat your past:

1) Unearth – Dig up your past with conscious intention and embrace it.

2) Under-stand – Or “stand under” it and observe the information you learn about your family history.

3) Unravel – Undo the knots; think about and analyze the meaning of what you found and in what ways it blocks you.

4) Unlock – Free yourself from the past; take turns telling your story, explore as partners, and help each other carry your respective baggage.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana

Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, is a licensed counselor and co-founder of Relationships Work. Along with her husband and co-therapist, Bob Hollander, LCSW-C, JD, Lori encourages couples to consciously co-create their relationships and achieve a deeper connection. Dive deeper into the topic of Emotional Baggage with Lori and Bob’s audio programs An Archaeological Dig Into Your Past and The Parallel Journey.