How To Talk To Your Partner About Past Relationships
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3 years ago
By the time Renée and I got engaged, we’d known each other for over 10 years. We first met at high school, had dated a couple of times during that period and we remained in varying degrees of contact in the years after.
Renée’s past wasn’t a mystery to me. I knew about most of her past relationships, I knew there were times in that 10 years where she hadn’t been living her faith and there had been a couple of relationships where she moved in with her boyfriend.
Renée knew that I had been in several past relationships as well. While I hadn’t walked away from my faith at any point, I definitely wasn’t perfect, and there were things I’d done in the past that I regretted.
You’d think that all that background knowledge would have made our conversation about past relationships easier – I certainly did. But I was wrong. Talking through our past relationships was, without a doubt, the hardest conversation we’ve ever had.
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If this can be such a painful topic, why talk about it at all? If we recognise that what we’ve done in the past is wrong and we’ve sought God’s mercy, then we’re forgiven for it, right? Our past doesn’t define who we are today, so why share it?
There are a couple of reasons why it’s important to talk about past relationships. The first is simply that the person you’re going to marry is entitled to the truth. Going into marriage, there shouldn’t be any skeletons left in the closest, whether they concern things like mental health issues, debt or past relationships.
The second reason is that while our past doesn’t define us, it does continue to affect us. Counsellor Debra Fileta writes, “Ask any Christ-centered married couple in which one or both partners have dabbled in the world of sexuality outside of marriage and they will be able to point to the consequences of that behaviour somewhere in their relationship.”
Whether you like it or not, your past relationships have shaped your understanding of relationships, intimacy and sex. Maybe those past relationships have made you reluctant to be vulnerable with your partner, maybe they’ve created unhealthy sexual expectations or bad habits around things like communication.
These are all important things you’ll need to address as a couple. Being honest about the impact of past relationships is a part of that process.
Wait until you’re engaged or definitely heading in that direction. Renée and I had this conversation after we had been dating for a year-and-a-half, about a month before we got engaged.
This conversation is emotionally intense. It spanned a couple of hours and a lot of tears from both of us.
Afterwards, there was an almost tangible difference in the emotional intimacy of our relationship. It felt like we had stepped from the shallow end of a swimming pool into the deep end.
In the days that followed, there were so many times when I felt grateful that we had waited to have this conversation until we did. I knew that this level of emotional depth wasn’t somewhere we should have been swimming in the first few months of our relationship.
The best thing I did prior to having this conversation was to get some advice from an older, wiser married couple. They shared with me some principles that were essential for navigating this tricky conversation.
If you and your partner both made a commitment from an early age to save sexual intimacy until marriage, and you maintained good physical boundaries in in any past relationships, this conversation might be really easy.
But it probably won’t be. One study found that 80% of unmarried evangelical young adults (18 to 29) said they have had sex, so changes are at least one of you falls into that category or has at least experienced sexual acts short of intercourse.
That’s a tough thing to navigate, and it can be especially tough if one of you has had sex and the other hasn’t.
That’s the boat that Renée and I were in. Prior to coming back to her faith, Renée had been in several sexual relationships. I was a virgin, having made a commitment to save sex until marriage when I was fifteen.
That said, there were still past relationships where I’d gone further than I should have, and we’d done sexual stuff short of intercourse.
Each of us was coming to this conversation with our own baggage and insecurities. These principles helped us to communicate all of that in a way that didn’t cause unnecessary hurt, and ultimately ensured this conversation had a positive outcome.
Don’t blindside your partner with a “so, tell me about your past relationships” one day at brunch. Because of the emotionally intense subject matter of this conversation, it’s important to give your partner a heads up at least a couple of days in advance.
You might want to say something like “Hey, with the direction our relationship is heading in [marriage], I think it’s important that we have a conversation about our past relationships” and then pencil the conversation in a few days later.
Don’t do what Renée and I did, which was talk about having this conversation and then loosely plan it weeks in advance. While this can be a really positive conversation overall, it’s not one most people look forward to, so you don’t want it looming over you for longer than necessary.
Every person’s relationship history is different, and every person will feel differently about the information they need to share and the level of detail they need to hear from the other person.
Sharing too much detail can be unnecessary and hurtful, so it’s critical that you go slowly. Remember, if there’s more clarification needed, you can always share more. But if you make the mistake of sharing too much initially, your partner can’t “unhear” that information.
To give an example, if you’ve had sex, you might start by saying “I’ve been in a/some sexual relationship(s) previously.” That’s a statement that clearly communicates part of your relationship history, but in a general way. For some people, that’s all they’ll need to know. Others might want more detail about the relationships and that’s okay as well.
One benefit of giving your partner a heads up is that you have time to prepare what you’re going to say, so you can tell your partner what they need to know, while avoiding unnecessary details.
First and foremost, be gentle with yourself. There can be a temptation to want to know everything about your partner’s relationship history. But as Jason Evert points out, the details of past relationships can be a source of “feelings of pain, inferiority, or resentment in the other partner.”
For me, being gentle with myself meant recognising that it was enough to know that Renée had been in past sexual relationships, to understand how those relationships had impacted her life, and how she thought about those relationships now. Any further information of a sexual nature about her past would have only hurt me, so we didn’t go there.
Second, be gentle with the other person. Debra Fileta reminds us “Our sexual past is a symptom of who we were and is not necessarily a reflection of who we are.”
If your partner has regrets from past relationships, it’s going to be hard to share those with you. You might be hurt, or upset or surprised, and that’s completely valid. But remember that this isn’t who your partner is today, be mindful of your love for him/her, and respond accordingly.
While it’s important not to over-share in this conversation, don’t let that become an excuse to talk about the past in a way that is misleading or leaves out important details. The whole point of this conversation is openness, love and healing. None of that can happen if you aren’t honest.
For example, if you’ve been in a relationship where you’ve had sex, it wouldn’t be totally honest to just say “I was in a relationship that got physical” or “I was in a relationship where we went further than we should.”
If you’ve been in a past sexual relationship, share that you’ve been in a past sexual relationship.
Similarly, if you’ve been in past relationships where you’ve experienced things like unfaithfulness, manipulation, or being emotionally or physically abused, don’t cover those things up.
Be honest also about how you feel about what your significant other shares. For me, knowing that Renée had been in past sexual relationships and we wouldn’t be each other’s “firsts” on our wedding night was really hard.
It felt “unfair” that I had waited while she hadn’t, it hurt to think about her being intimate with other guys, and I felt insecure knowing that I would be coming to our marriage less “experienced” than Renée was.
For Renée, it hurt to know that while I was a virgin, there were still relationships in my past where I had gone too far physically. This wasn’t something she was aware of prior to the conversation, and it created insecurity that in our marriage, I would be comparing her to past girlfriends.
This level of honesty requires deep vulnerability, and it’s definitely one of the things that makes this conversation so hard. However, if you’re willing to be radically honest, this is what opens the door for the conversation to bring a lot of healing.
In a great article on this topic, Cole Zick highlights the importance of bringing this conversation to a place of closure.
Throughout this conversation and especially at its conclusion, there was one truth that Renée and I kept repeating to each other – the past didn’t change our love for each other.
To share some of your biggest mistakes and regrets and be told “none of that changes my love for you” is incredibly healing. To share your hurts, fears, and vulnerabilities and hear “I still love you” brings a lot of peace.
Closure doesn’t mean that the information shared during this conversation stops hurting. It doesn’t mean that you move on and never speak of this stuff again. All it means that you end the conversation both knowing that the past isn’t a roadblock preventing your relationship from moving forward.
Out of a well-meaning desire to forgive your partner, you may feel like you should move on as quickly as possible without dwelling on their past. But it’s ok to grieve.
Sex is the most powerful way that we can physically communicate our love to another person. During sex, our bodies speak a language of self-giving and commitment. Sex doesn’t just say “I take you for a little while” or I just like your body.” Sex says, “I totally give myself to you.”
The idea of your partner sharing that deepest form of intimacy with someone else rightly hurts.
Feeling hurt or sorrow at your partner’s past isn’t necessarily a sign that you haven’t forgiven him/her. As Jason Evert reminds us, “Forgiving someone is not about numbness. It’s about no longer holding something against that person. It’s a decision.”
It’s okay to grieve your own past as well. When Renée and I had this conversation, it made us acutely aware of how things could have been different in our own lives.
We could have both been coming to our marriage without this baggage, without our understanding of sexual intimacy coloured by past relationships or porn use, but we weren’t. That was something we both needed to come to terms with.
This conversation will likely leave you both with a lot to process. Especially in the two weeks afterwards, everything that Renée and I had talked about continued to affect us in a big way. There were new things we thought about, questions we wanted to ask, and feelings we wanted to share.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from that older married couple was to intentionally create a bit of space in the weeks after the conversation for processing and follow up. Don’t fill all your days with commitments and group social events. Give yourself plenty of down time and one-on-one opportunities to keep talking.
Revisiting the conversation can be as simple as asking, a few days after, “How are you feeling about that conversation we had?”
Recognise that in the future, these topics will naturally re-surface from time to time. In our marriage, Renée and I sometimes need to share about how a past relationship or experience affects our behaviour or the way that we understand a part of our relationship.
One of the benefits of having this intentional conversation about past relationships is that it allows you to talk about this stuff in a less emotionally charged way further down the track.
Re-addressing past relationship stuff can still sometimes hurt, but you feel better equipped to navigate it in an open and loving way.
There have been a handful of times in my life where I felt like God’s grace was almost tangible; like God was right there next to me, giving me everything I needed to navigate that moment. This conversation was one of them.
‘Excitement’ probably isn’t the emotion many would associate with this conversation, but what is so exciting about it is that we receive an invitation to love as God loves.
We get to look at our partner, after hearing about their past, and say “I love you still. Even though this hurts me, even though I wish it never happened, it does not change my love for you.” Saying those words to Renée and hearing them back remains one of the most grace-filled moments of my life.
Our experience of sexual intimacy in marriage has been a great source of healing as well. Even if your partner has been sexually active in the past, be assured that marital intimacy will be unique for him or her. The experience of pure intimacy within the love and commitment of marriage is incomparable.
While our conversation about past relationships is that hardest conversation we’ve ever had, it was also a catalyst for so much healing in our lives. It has made us stronger as a couple and so incredibly grateful for the love we experience in marriage.
Stay hopeful. The best is yet to come.