Learning all the interesting, hidden things about a new partner is part of the fun of getting into a fresh relationship. And the next step, after discussing the normal hopes, fears, and family stuff, is often an inventory of your past love lives. But is finding out everything about a partner’s romantic past really necessary for love? Let’s think about what little confessional moments early on in a relationship actually mean.
The subjects of these disclosures, whether having a fear of clowns, divorced parents, or a high number of sex partners, are part of what makes you you, right? And those experiences have brought you to where you are today, so talking about them builds intimacy between you and your partner. So, how do you know how much, or how little, to disclose about yourself to a romantic partner? How do you set those boundaries?
First, let’s talk about those of you who have a hard time opening up about yourself. I would challenge you to at least open up about your sexual history, and be willing to be tested for STIs. Then you and your new love can get it on safely, but beyond that, it’s really a question of your comfort level combined with your partner’s desire to know.
Relationships are about compromise. If your partner starts asking you questions about your past sex life, and that makes you uncomfortable, let them know that you aren’t quite ready to talk about that yet. But, you can try again later. Don’t shut them down like they’ve done something wrong — they just want to know more about you. Tell them that you take a little longer to open up about certain things. Maybe dole out a fun, embarrassing story you do feel comfortable sharing as a consolation prize. See how your partner handles that little morsel of information, and, if they are receptive and supportive, consider divulging a slightly larger one. And pay attention when it never feels safe to disclose your past. If you consistently feel that squirmy "What are you going to do with this information?" sensation in your gut, it may be a sign that your relationship isn’t as healthy as you want it to be.
If it’s your partner who is incredibly closed off about their past, even after you’ve revealed some things about yourself, be patient and understand that not everyone moves at the same rate. Let your partner know that you are here if they want to talk about anything, without judgment, and with possible back rubs. And then back off. If this pattern continues across multiple months, ask your partner what would need to change in order for disclosure to feel safe. If you go many months with none of that fun, confessional stuff that rom coms are made of, that might influence your decision whether to stay in a relationship that isn’t growing, emotionally.
For the rest of you who love dishing about the past, here are a few examples of things that might come up in a conversation with a new paramour — along with whether they’re necessary to share, a little squirmy to disclose, or absolutely torturous, and not necessary to tell your partner.
Disclosure: How many people you’ve slept with.
Somewhat necessary. But that doesn’t mean you need to speak in exact numbers. In this day and age, we need to be able to talk about sex in a frank manner. The result of this conversation (unless you’re both virgins) should be going to get tested, and keeping it above the belt until the results are back.
Disclosure: How many times you’ve been in love.
A little squirmy. I have been married almost eight years now, and I still get a little uneasy and bummed out when my husband talks about women he cared about before me. I wanted him to have experienced love, sure, but it just feels a little wonky. So, I get it if this is something you might not want to disclose. Maybe keep it to whether or not you think you’ve experienced a deep, selfless feeling of love.
Disclosure: How your sexual experiences felt to you.
Necessary. To me this is much more important than number of partners. What has your sex life been like? Healthy? Tentative? Fraught with anxiety? Uncomfortable? Messy? Steeped in guilt? Unsafe? Your relationship with sex is a relationship your new partner will have to take on as well, it’s a good thing to be honest with them.
Disclosure: Why past relationships have dissolved.
A little uncomfortable, but maybe necessary. I think it’s important to talk with a current partner about why past relationships went wrong, without blaming the other person. It helps you get a sense of how the person you are newly dating deals with upsetting things. Plus there's a bonus, as my pal always said: Listen to how they talk about their exes. That’s how they might be talking about you at some point.
Disclosure: People you have crushes on now.
Torturous. What on Earth do either of you get out of disclosing this? My husband and I can admit when we find other people attractive. But the next step of being attracted enough to another person that you consider it a crush is something that, unless you are concerned it may break up the relationship, isn’t necessary. It just adds jealousy to a relationship for a crush that will most likely go away.
Disclosure: If you still have feelings for an ex.
Necessary. The person who is attempting to build intimacy with needs to know if you are not done pining for someone else. Bonus: Don’t be in a relationship with someone who still has active feelings for an ex, unless they are working to rid themselves of those feelings, rather than waiting around for that ex to come to their senses.
Disclosure: Cheating history.
Squirmy, but possibly necessary. Being cheated on, or cheating, can affect you in future relationships. Unless you want all that to be happening to someone who has no idea what’s going on, disclosure might be the best tack to take here.
Disclosure: How to make you feel special.
Necessary. People don’t come with owner’s manuals, and even if they did, you wouldn’t want anyone to own you! But, you do have to teach people how to treat you, rather than expecting that they will just know that you like back rubs and ramen on bad days. Love doesn’t automatically fill people in on that information. That’s your job.
Overall, when it comes to both disclosing your own stuff, and asking for some juicy disclosures, I try to remember to ask myself, “Would I want to know this about my partner?” before I proceed. Your partner knowing every single thing about your history, romantic or otherwise, doesn’t automatically make you two a better couple. Healthy, intimate relationships involve a lot of honesty and disclosure, but you can’t just honestly disclose everything you’ve got, and expect a good relationship to follow. The best disclosures happen because you trust the other person with the sensitive information you’re about to give them. You also trust that they won’t freak out, shut down, or make fun of you.
Intimacy isn’t about the disclosures as much as the trust that should come with them. Accept that both you and your partner have lived entire lives before you met, and that within those lives were good experiences, bad experiences, hot sex, and bummer breakups. And the next time you're in love, accept that just as you don’t have to or even want to know about all of it, you don’t have to tell it either.