Sunday, October 30, 2011

Talking about Past Relationships

Among several other topics discussed in this thread over at the Love Shack dating forum is the issue of talking about past relationships with someone you are dating. This is an area of relationships that has few clear "rules," and has the potential to either seriously harm or seriously benefit the current situation, depending upon how things are handled.

Couples that are able to speak about their past primarily in terms of lessons learned or issues still being worked on tend to be strengthened. If you had a string of past relationships where too many things were left unspoken, speaking about that with your current partner might help lead to more honesty and openness. If you have a history of fearing your partner will vanish one day, sharing that at the right time in your current relationship might help your partner understand you better, and perhaps be able to support you to let go of some of that fear.

Obviously, the amount of this kind of information and the level of detail should depend upon the strength of your connection with each other. If you've gone on a lot of first dates like I have, you have probably experienced one or more of those first dates from hell, where a relative stranger goes on and on about their various exes, offering sometimes excruciating insights about both their former partners and also themselves. Needless to say, this kind of disclosure isn't a good idea.

Beyond a situation like that, though, I think there are an awful lot of shades of gray to be had. How to handle situations that you might feel embarrassed or ashamed about for example? Or what about the number of sexual partners you've had in the past?

This comment from a woman on the forum struck me as interesting.

He and I did not feel ANY need to discuss our prior sexual relationships, and we never have. There was no reason that was pertinent to our own relationship. There was no inherent threat there. Neither one of us really cared about it. I started to "confess" some stuff to him once that I though he could take issue with. He listened to me for a few moments and then said something like, "you know what? That really doesn't matter to me. For some reason, you are such a clean slate for me." We didn't talk about it again. I doubt we ever will.

We did, however, talk about our former marriages. We were both divorced once. There were things from each one of our prior marriages that we learned, mistakes we'd made and that we each were accountable for, as well as behavior in our former spouses that we knew we didn't want to experience again. So, talking about some of that really did have pertinence to our own relationship.

One of the things that I was struck by is that although I tend to be a person who values honesty and putting as much as possible on the table with a partner, something about the approach this couple took made sense. Certainly, the focus on lessons learned fit into how I approach things. But even the lack of a need to confess about the past, sensing that perhaps that one night stand you had at 25 which didn't result in pregnancy or getting an STD really isn't that relevant.

I have noticed in recent years that I tend to focus on patterns that have occurred in my past relationships. Some of which stretch across much of my dating history. Speaking about mistakes is usually done in that context, again focused either on lessons learned, or with more intimate, long term partners, on issues where I probably still need to grow. Given this kind of approach, most of the short term relationships and connections either become minor footnotes - like they should be - or simply never come up.

Now, one thing I will say is that I still sometimes struggle to balance the need to share with the need for good timing, and a strong enough connection with someone for that sharing. Occasionally, I have found myself blurting something out about my past which fit the context of the conversation, but that, when I stopped and thought about it, really wasn't the best decision. So, if you are single or have the opportunity to reflect on what you want to share with a current or potential partner, it's a good idea to think about what's important and what isn't, as well as how deep into details you want to go, given the level of connection.

So, those are a few thoughts about sharing past relationships. What are your thoughts and ideas?


  1. What a nice topic!I do agree with you. It's fine for me if my bf will share his past ex gf's but I will never tolerate it if they still communicating because what's the point of having me as his present if he can't let go to his past?I will really get jealous about it. We have talked it so many times and we have argued it too. Now, after the hardships of remembering the past we already accepted it for the better.

  2. I'm glad I found this blog post, because I have been struggling recently with this issue. I've seen a man I rather like just over a handful of times, and he commented on how I don't talk about my ex. He, however, has frequently talked at length about his ex, and he's clearly not over her. I want to be able to really open up and talk about my ex and the impact he had on my life with someone I'm building a serious relationship with. That is not this guy, because he's not ready for anything serious. Thank you for this article, as it helped me make up my mind about what I should say to this man about my ex: nothing much. Because it's useless discussing my past with a man who's stuck in his own.