Forgive the unpleasant reminder, but chances are your partner has an ex or two or 20. And, chances are, at some point your conversation will turn to past relationships, sending you through a minefield of old flames and broken hearts.
To emerge unscathed, it helps to embrace a few principles.
For the person doing the talking: Be honest and reassuring.
For the person doing the asking: Know your motivations.
“There are healthy and unhealthy ways people deal with this," said Dr. Diane Rudolph, co-head, with her husband, Dr. Phillip Lee, of the marital therapy program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Rudolph and Lee, who are psychiatrists, say people sometimes obsessively dig for gory details about their partner’s exes because they are jealous or insecure and want to see how they stack up against them. Other unhealthy agendas stem from wanting to come clean about their own past, or, for the partners delivering the information, hoping stories about prior conquests show how desirable they are.
Having too great an interest in a partner’s past relationships, or in sharing your own, can be counterproductive or a sign that there are other underlying problems.
“The more you scratch, the more it itches," Lee said. “It’s like having mold in your house, and it spreads."
But there is value in having a sense of your partner’s romantic rèsumè, or at least the major events, Rudolph and Lee say, because it gives you insight into the forces that shaped him or her.
The details about the exes themselves aren’t as important as what was learned from the relationship or the breakup.
For Rudolph and Lee, who have been “happily married" for 23 years, their personal conversation on the topic followed a typical healthy course: not too much information too soon, gradually reveal more, no terrible surprises.
“I think it is important for when you’re picking a partner to know about the kinds of relationships they’ve been in," Rudolph said. “You’re choosing a whole package, and who they are in relationships previously is a piece of the puzzle."
Learning from the past
That’s not to say that couples who prefer to remain mum and ignorant about previous lovers are necessarily missing out.
Reginald Richardson, vice president for evaluation and clinical services at the Family Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said he doesn’t care to know his wife’s romantic history, or to discuss his own, because “the woman I met and fell in love with was good enough."
Richardson doesn’t think it’s appropriate for people to talk about exes, because usually they just want to compare themselves and confirm they are loved the best. If they need that reassurance, he said, rather than analyze old lovers, it’s better to ask: Why did you choose me?
The only time there’s benefit to knowing about a partner’s wild streak in college is if the person still struggles with destructive behaviors, Richardson said. Otherwise, digging into a person’s past can set them up to be judged unfairly on actions that are no longer relevant.
Emily Morse, host of the radio show and podcast “Sex With Emily" (sexwithemily.com), said she believes curiosity about a partner’s past relationships is helpful if the intention is to understand the person’s emotional growth. It’s best if those conversations lead to some positive conclusions about the current relationship.
If you reveal you have cheated, for example, emphasize what you learned and why you would never do it again, Morse said. Giving just a string of anecdotes without redemption or self-reflection allows people’s imaginations to run wild.
“We’re like detectives, especially women," said Morse, who is based in San Francisco. “We remember; we take notes. You start to think, ‘He’s on vacation, and he hasn’t called me, so he must be cheating on me.’ We tell ourselves stories."
Descriptions of former flames should be kept short and sweet, avoiding examples that might make your current partner feel inferior, Morse said. Never compare, she warned, or use exes manipulatively.
“No ‘Well, my ex always came with me to my work functions, why won’t you?’" she said. “That just makes a person feel bad."
Any talk of exes, except in the most general terms, should be avoided in the first several dates, Morse said, as people are most insecure in those early stages, and it should be a time to set a foundation for the budding couple.
Morse has been on plenty of dates that have violated that basic wisdom.
One guy picked her up for a first date and started bashing his ex-girlfriend while they were still in the car on the way to the sushi restaurant.
Another guy told her, on date two, that he used to have a lot of threesomes with his ex-girlfriend, who then left him for his best friend.
“My mind goes into, ‘Why are you telling me this? Are you into threesomes?’" Morse said. She ended the relationship after a few more dates because, she said, “I would always think about it."
Morse advises against discussing sexual history at all, except to confirm sexual health such as STDs. People have a masochistic proclivity to ask how many previous sexual partners there have been, almost always to see how they measure up, but “you cannot win with this conversation," said Morse, so she recommends keeping numbers out of it.
If faced with that question, Morse suggests you say it’s not relevant and gently steer the talk to what you love about your current sex life.
Navigating conversations about past relationships gets trickier when one partner is particularly curious and the other particularly private.