Unpack Your Relationship Baggage
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Unpack Your Relationship Baggage

Break the cycle of carrying around negative experiences with past lovers. Here's how to start clean with your next romantic bond.

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When Ruby found out her husband was having an affair, she was completely blindsided. "My husband was such an accomplished liar, that everyone, me included, thought we had a great marriage," says Ruby. Now divorced, Ruby has worked through much of that trauma, but she still has a hard time trusting men. "Now I'm suspicious of men in general," says Ruby, 54, from Madison, Wisconsin.

Lynn Harris, co-creator of Breakupgirl.net, says many of us cart around excess baggage from bad relationships, and if we don't deal with it, it can hinder our ability to develop healthy news ones. Fortunately, she has a solution. "You know that question that they ask you at the airport -- did you pack your own bags? Well, we all pack our own bags, but the good news is that you can unpack them," says Harris. This starts with reversing the relationship "hexes" your ex may have placed on you -- without your even being aware of it.

Four Ex Hexes You Can Break

Ex Hex 1: "I'm not attractive enough." Beth, 35, from Los Angeles, recalls the brutal fight she and her boyfriend John had after he cracked a joke to the beauty working at their local wine shop. "I was fuming, and as soon as we got to the car I suggested he go back and get her number. That's when John exploded."

John had had enough of Beth's round-the-clock jealousy. And he said that if she was going to be like this, he didn't think it was going to work. Fortunately, Beth realized that the real problem was her ex, Gordon, who made Beth feel like a bag lady with his constant appraisals of other women's beauty.

How can you bring your self-image back into the babe zone? Acting coach Elizabeth Browning, creator of the video Acting Techniques for Life (Joy Light Productions), has a remarkably simple answer: act beautiful. Browning explains that there is a strong connection between the body and the mind -- that's why you get a knot in your stomach when you hear your ex's favorite song, or when your shoulders tense when you see the neighbor he used to flirt with. "Our bodies carry around a lot of life experience, so if you want to change the way you feel, you need to get your whole self involved -- physically, mentally, and emotionally," says Browning. To do this, ask yourself how a character who was really beautiful would behave. Then start to walk, move, and even dance like that. Once you start acting like a beautiful woman, you'll realize that you are one.

More Ex Hexes

Ex Hex 2: "He's bound to cheat on me." Lonnie Barbach, PhD, a psychologist and author of Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love (Plume, 1993), says that most of us have good instincts about our partners' fidelity. The great exception: People who've been cheated on. "Someone who has been burned might not be able to trust their instinct," says Barbach. "They see affairs everywhere and they are not able to clearly judge."

Instead of jumping to conclusions about your new man, Harris says that you need to look at your bad experience as just that: experience. "You need to store it in your mind not as baggage, but as data. So instead of this big bulging suitcase you have a little laptop bag." Ask yourself: What did I learn? What could I have done better? What were the things I never could have predicted in a million years? Then do a sober analysis of the current situation. Are there unexplainable hang-ups? Mysterious receipts from romantic restaurants? Weird excuses as to why he can only see you on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays between 7 and 11 p.m.?

If not, then chances are your man is faithful and should be treated that way. After all, if he's constantly being punished for a crime he didn't commit, he might figure he may as well do the deed.

Ex Hex 3: "I don't satisfy him in bed." Christine, 38, from Kansas City, Missouri, grew up with very strict parents and never started dating until college. This left her feeling insecure about sex, and her tepid relationship with her first boyfriend, Marcus, didn't help. "He told me that I was the kind of girl you marry, not the kind you have hot sex with," she said.

So after she met her husband, Christine tried to overcompensate by trying every sex act in the book. "At first he loved it," says Christine. "But the problem was I was still not enjoying it myself, and eventually he figured that out." But things did improve dramatically when she told her husband where all this ambition was coming from. "He was floored that any man wouldn't think I was sexy, and I realized that I was assuming that Marcus had the last word on my sex appeal. Once I realized that wasn't true, things changed dramatically," says Christine.

Lou Paget, author of The Great Lover Play Book (Gotham, 2005), says there are other ways to keep old lovers from haunting the bedroom. First and foremost: Get rid of the bed, along with any old sheets or lingerie. "Treat the whole thing like it's new and you're both beginners," says Paget. "Because you are."

Ex Hex 4: "I'm doomed to get dumped." Anna, 39, from Brooklyn, New York, had had a crush on Howard for years. So when he asked her out, she was thrilled -- and terrified. "I was constantly fretting that he would dump me, and surprise-surprise -- he did," she says.

After she was jilted, Anna engaged in a lot of negative self-talk about why she didn't measure up. "I decided that he thought I was really selfish. Howard was really politically active and so I imagined he met some beautiful 25-year-old at a clear-air rally. Then it finally hit me: If I felt bad about myself because I didn't do any kind of volunteer work, then I should do volunteer work," she says. After that, Anna organized a small fund-raiser for her favorite charity. When the event was over, she realized she no longer felt bad about herself.

Anna discovered life's best defense against low self-worth -- be the kind of person that you admire. "I always tell my patients, it's called self-esteem, not Kevin-esteem," says Lise Van Susteren, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.

Learning to unpack your personal Samsonite won't just help your own psyche; it'll also help you empathize with your new man. "Because guess what?" says Harris. "That guy you're dating? He's standing there with a suitcase and garment bag, too."