Sometimes you fall in love with your best friend in fourth grade. What began as a trusting friendship evolves into full-blown romance. You might teach each other how to flirt. Maybe attend a few dances together in middle-school. You start “dating” in high school and share a first kiss. Maybe you go to college together. Maybe not, but your love continues to grow until one day, you decide to go ahead and tie the knot. You spend the rest of your days telling the story of how you married your childhood sweetheart.
Most of the time, however, you end up married to someone else’s childhood sweetheart.
It’s natural to wonder about your partner’s past experiences and the people who shaped them, but when that curiosity becomes fueled by entitlement and envy, it can take the relationship into dangerous territory. So how much is helpful to know about your partner's past romantic history and how much is harmful?
First of all, you don’t owe anyone an explanation of your story. That said, the healthiest relationships share an open transparency that builds trust and fosters secure attachment. As you and your partner plan your future, experience your present, and reflect on your past, it’s important to keep a few key questions in mind.
What do you really want to know?
Do you want to know every past relationship your partner you ever had? Does the 4th-grade girlfriend count? Or what about the girl that broke his heart after he bought her a ring? Do you want details? Even unpleasant ones? Do you want to hear about their good relationships? Bear in mind, you can’t un-hear any of these things.
As a relationship therapist, I actually don't think details are all that important unless they speak to a bigger theme. Rather, when it comes to past relationships, I believe patterns are more relevant to people. What consistent struggles did your partner have? What did they learn about their own conflict style? What do they know about the difference between the relationships that work and the ones that didn’t?
Essentially, how do their past experiences impact the way they will be in a relationship with you? What aspects of a romantic relationship will make them defensive? What parts will make them thrive? This is all vital information. And when you investigate with a generous curiosity, with the good of the other in mind, it can grow the relationship for the good.
Why do you want to know?
I will never forget the young couple who came into my office to prepare for their wedding. He was a virgin. She was not. I knew this because he told me. He had collected a full inventory of her sexual history. I asked him why he had collected that information. He said, “So I can forgive her.” She sat there embarrassed and ashamed. I said, “For what? She didn’t do anything to you.” He didn’t like that very much and they never came back. They also never got married.
It’s worth exploring why you want to know about your partner’s past relationships. Is it because you want to do some sort of score-keeping? Is it to maintain an upper hand? Is it to judge? To forgive? To know? To care? The only truly valid reason to want to know about your partner's past is because you want to nurture their future. You can only do this with generous curiosity designed to grow the relationship for good.
What do you want to share?
When it comes to the question of how much your partner needs to know about your past relationships, the answer is complicated, but should never be filtered primarily through the partner’s alleged need. After all, there is also an important consideration of what you want to share. Again, you don’t owe anyone anything, but the best relationships do include a healthy transparency and openness.
But what if there’s trauma or shame? Or what if sharing could cause embarrassment or pain?
Remember, you are the narrator of your story. I hope you will tell it because you want to and not because you feel that you need to. And I hope you will tell the story you want to tell. Perhaps you may be figuring that out still. But if you want to move the relationship forward, I would encourage you to be as transparent as you can about past relationships, but not at the expense of feeling uncomfortable. Again, share only within the context of generous curiosity, it will again grow the relationship for the good.
Why do you want to share?
The other side of this question is just as delicate. When you're discerning what to share, you also need to think about why. Do you want to share to boast? Or do you want to share to compare?
This is where the territory becomes particularly dangerous. Comparing your current partner to a past relationship is almost never a good idea. Not only is it unfair, but our memories are actually designed to deceive us and any comparison is based on a false reality.
Perhaps your goal in sharing is to serve the relationship. Walking through past mistakes can certainly help you draw closer to your current partner, and reflecting on things that went well will help your partner get to know you better. And certainly, speaking about painful experiences can help you release and heal them.
It won’t surprise you to hear, this can only happen within the context of generous curiosity. If and when you share about your past relationships, be clear that your goal is only and always to grow the relationship for good.
Whether you end up with your childhood sweetheart, or someone else’s, the way you share your story with one another matters. It’s never helpful to use information as ammunition. And, indeed, certain things are better left unsaid. But always remember, you are the narrator of your story and any sharing about past relationships should be rooted in a desire to move into the future together rather than justify the past.