There are no rules about sharing one’s sexual history or past relationships with a present partner, but the topic does come up. Whether or not to disclose is a personal choice, but it’s not always an easy one.
Emily and Dave came in to my office because they were in a blow out fight. They had been dating for almost a year, and one night over dinner they started to talk about past relationships. Emily, feeling no reason to hide anything from Dave, proceeded to share her sexual history and past relationships openly. Dave had an adverse reaction and was overcome with jealousy and insecurity about these past boyfriends. Emily felt this was ridiculous because they were all in the past, but Dave was having the kind of response you might experience if you were betrayed or cheated on.
Working through the feelings and helping this couple resolve this fight wasn’t the hard part. What became more challenging was the issue of disclosure when it comes to past partners. Does it make sense to share this information? Is it the right of a partner to know about the past sexual relationships of their lover? When (if ever) is it the right time to tell a partner about past relationships and sexual histories?
If you try and find research around this issue you’ll come up with many articles on HIV and the disclosure of sexual history as it relates to STDs. When it’s a health issue disclosure is necessary, but when it comes to past loves and romantic relationships things get a bit trickier. No one really wants to believe that there partner has ever been with someone else. While you may know in your mind that your partner is probably not a virgin, you may have this underlying need to believe that you’re the only one. This may seem silly and unrealistic, but human beings are wired to be jealous and possessive even if it doesn’t always make sense.
For the disclosing partner there’s a risk in sharing. Not knowing what the response will be, or how you’ll be perceived makes it a less appealing process. There can always be a discrepancy between what’s acceptable or not depending on each person’s ideas, values and beliefs around sexuality and love.
We are also a highly disclosing culture. We learn early on to not “keep secrets” and to be honest. Hiding your history and not fully sharing your past may invoke a sense of guilt because you’ve been conditioned and may have even promised to share everything with your partner. Withholding information is often frowned upon leaving you feeling like there is no other choice but to share even if you do it reluctantly.
Pros and Cons
Intimacy in relationships is very dependent on trust and honesty. We feel closer to a partner when we know more about them. This might make it worthwhile to share some of your past depending on how comfortable you feel. If you’re hiding past experiences remember that it’s much worse for a partner to discover something on their own than hearing if directly from you. Sometimes full transparency feels really good, and it allows for a clean slate between the couple.
The downside is obvious. Risking upsetting your partner or even worse being judged for your past can be damaging and hurtful. There is also some merit to maintaining a sense of mystery between you and your partner. Fantasy and secrets can be exciting and generate a sense of passion if no one is being hurt. Sometimes the past is the past, and can be considered the private property of the rightful owner. This can be considered a form of respect, and can be indicative of healthy boundaries.
Fit or Flop
Erring on the side of not disclosing would be a better fit. A partner’s past is only relevant if it puts the other person at risk or if there is some psycho-sexual experience that would be important, like molestation or abuse. Even then the disclosure should be made mindfully and in the right setting. The circumstances and situation for disclosing sexual history and past relationships is important. It’s not something to drop over dinner or drinks. This kind of conversation should be kept sacred and should only happen in a safe environment with full consent from both parties.