When you meet the love of your life, you feel like you’ve finally met the person you were always destined to spend the rest of your life with. For some, you may feel this way after only a few dates; for others, a few months of dating may pass before you know they are the one! Either way, that initial time of meeting someone, getting to know that person, and falling in love is like no other time in the relationship.
As you get to know each other and strengthen your relationship, there are a variety of topics that are important to discuss, such as family upbringings, views on world events, and future goals. Eventually, every couple gets to a point where they wonder, “Should we talk about our past relationships?” You may talk about that one silly date you had in college or that time you couldn’t wait to end the date. These small stories are easy to share as they don’t have much meaning or significance. Other conversations, the ones about significant past partners or events, can feel more difficult. You may be on the same page about how much to share and why, but there are times when one partner wants to know more than the other.
If you are a partner who wants to know more, it could be for a variety of reasons. You might feel that you’ll have a better understanding of how to be a supportive
partner if you know what didn’t work in the past. You might simply be a curious person who loves lots of details. Or you may find that you are anxious, insecure, or jealous of a past partner. You might wonder if your partner secretly wished they had worked out, or you might wonder if your partner treated that other person differently in some way. If your partner wants to know more about your past, it could be for these very reasons. Things get tricky when we’re unclear about why we want to know what we want to know, leading to assumptions, insecurities, and miscommunications.
Your gut reaction to the idea of talking about this subject might be one of discomfort and/or fear. If you know you have questions but are nervous to ask them, or if your partner has questions and you’re unsure how the conversation will go. There are a few factors to consider in determining whether or not, why, and how to talk about it.
Let’s clear something up and look honestly at our intention around why we want to know about our partner’s past relationships.
What are you hoping to learn?
Is there something in your current relationship that isn’t working for you, and you’re hoping that this knowledge of your partner’s past will help you to understand it?
If so, are you focusing on the past as a way to avoid having a tough conversation about your current feelings?
Is your partner forthcoming about everything except past relationships; do you feel suspicious?
If, in your case, it is not you but your partner that wants to talk about the past, ask them the same question you would ask yourself: why?
At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with discussing past relationships, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you have questions or your partner does. We sometimes avoid talking about past relationships because we feel obligated to pretend that we’ve never cared about or loved anyone else, but let’s be honest: your partner is not the only person on the planet. No matter how amazing you find him/her/them to be, each of you are allowed to have a past. Clearly, you each dated other people in the past, whether those relationships were super successful for you or not. So the problem then becomes about the “whys.” Where is this coming from? What’s the intention here? What’s the purpose of this conversation? What is the best possible outcome from having it; what is the worst?
The next thing you need to do when checking your agenda is to be clear about why you might resist answering questions or knowing information. Do you worry that your partner dated more people than you did; do you feel like that makes you less desirable to your partner? Are there unresolved emotions that you are still dealing with when it comes to your past relationship?
If you find that you or your partner may be asking or resisting for reasons involving your personal needs or worries, you may want to speak to someone like a therapist to explore those issues. This is not because “the problem is all yours” but because you deserve to feel better about the situation. If you are asking about the past relationship out of insecurity or worry that doesn’t seem directly related to the way your relationship currently operates, you may have something to heal for yourself. The same goes if you don’t want to answer any of your partner’s questions because of past concerns. Did a previous partner undermine what you said and felt? Are you worried that if you share insecurities from your past relationship, they can be used against you? Is there a way that you can put those fears behind you?
Whether you are a couple who have had tough conversations before or this topic is your first one, it is always best to create guidelines for these conversations.
These guidelines put everyone on the same page: they make clear what the goal is and put limits on commentary that isn’t productive. They should establish enough structure to create a safe environment; if one or both of you aren’t able to be honest, and respectful at the same time, the discussion will not be as productive as it could be.
To start with the basics, make a date to have the conversation. If this is a subject that has been creating some issues, it’s bound to be no surprise to either party that it needs to be talked about. Come together with your schedules so you can agree on the time and day that works for both of you where you will have the conversation. Having such conversations is best not to surprise your partner after a long day at work. It also gives you time to prepare what you want to say and select a spot in your date book where you feel you’ll be in a good place mentally and emotionally to make the most of the conversations. You may want to set an endpoint, whether at a certain time or if the conversation gets too heated and a certain number of non-productive statements are made.
Next, set some boundaries and clarify expectations. Does each of you get to ask about anything and everything? Will each person have the right to refuse to answer a question? If so, are they obligated to answer it at a later time? Are there must-share items? If so, what are they? Setting boundaries can also mean you do your best to use neutral statements. There is a big difference between “You always do this” versus “At times, I feel that…” One can be taken as accusatory and a blanket statement that states the other person’s bad intentions. The other expresses how something is received and can be taken as information and education.
Make an agreement that this conversation is between the two of you. Weighing in with others’ opinions of your relationship is a surefire way to get the other person’s back up. “I was talking to so-and-so about this…” or, “My brother said…” are not productive ways to make any points you need to make. If anything, they distract from your goal of getting to know and understand one another better.
Last but not least, agree on the fact that what is shared during this conversation will not be used against each other at any time in the future. This should be an environment in which you both feel that you can state your wants and needs without being judged or shame for them. It should also be a space where your honesty is rewarded, not filed away as future ammunition. It goes without saying that the goal should be to have your conversation thoughtfully; if you’re lashing out, using belligerent language, and creating a hostile environment, it’s unfair to ask your partner to just forget about that. But in general, if you are both doing your best to explain and articulate, you should be able to do so knowing that your words won’t come back to haunt you.
As you are mindful of your intentions when you share about your past or ask about your partner’s past, it is vital to stay compassionate towards yourself and your partner. At times when partners talk about their past, it can trigger feelings of jealousy. For example, let’s say you are in a heterosexual relationship and you learned that your boyfriend used to socialize a lot and be very social with their ex-girlfriend. This can unintentionally trigger self-doubt in you, where you start to wonder whether you “live up” to that or wonder if your partner secretly wishes you were more outgoing. In this case or in similar ones, you take what your partner is sharing with you and use it against yourself, which fuels your self-doubt and insecurity.
In addition, if your partner had an experience with their past partner that no longer aligns with them, it is important not to judge them for their past choices. We see how people evolve all the time here at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills. They probably shared it with you in the hopes that you would hold space for their past choices. As human beings, we want to feel that we are seen, understood, and accepted. These kinds of tricky conversations are great opportunities to display your acceptance to your partner and to receive that acceptance in return.
Have compassion for yourself both as someone who is sharing and someone who is listening, and do the same for your partner. It is challenging to have conversations that open up old wounds, state vulnerabilities, and provide fodder for insecurities. Allow yourself the time and space to choose your words carefully, or take breaks when you need to. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you try to find the way to express your feelings that best reflects them. We don’t always say the perfect thing at the perfect time. In fact, we rarely do. Compassion will play a key role in determining when to end the conversation, if necessary. You may have previously agreed to a time or set of circumstances, but you might feel overwhelmed and want to stop sooner, or your partner might. Realizing without judgment that what is needed is more time to reflect or to take a mental break shows great compassion for yourself and the other person. Trust that you are both doing the best you can and coming to the conversation with good intentions. Remember that you are both trying to better understand one another. Even if you have to make notes of what both your stated goals are and read them aloud when needed, that’s okay. The point is to create as much support as you can for one another so that the experience strengthens your relationship and trust in one another.
Every one of us comes with our own history. The way we feel and interact in romantic partnerships is impacted by early life experiences, other relationships we’ve had, the way our families model
communication, and so much more. It is natural to be curious about all the things that inform your partner’s point of view, just like it is natural to have your own distinct opinions. If you have had a tough time with a past partner or more than one past partner, it can be traumatic to discuss it. You may feel like you’re inviting that same energy into your current relationship. If you have had great past relationships, you may worry about creating insecurities for your current partner. The key to this issue is like any other: you can’t know until you try. We can get caught up in predicting how something will go or how it will impact our current situation and forget that the only way to know for sure is to find out. If you and your partner have a strong relationship outside of this conversation, where you display mutual respect and appreciation for one another, there is no reason to assume that this topic will go any differently. Provided you are both approaching the situation with curiosity and a desire to better understand one another, there is great potential to have a satisfying conversation that brings you even closer together.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions. We invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
If you aren’t entirely comfortable with maneuvering your way through difficult relationship conversations, reach out to us to learn more about how couples therapy can help you . Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinators.
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