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Why can't I let go of his past?

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Audrey asks:

I am 21 years old and have been with my boyfriend for eight months. This is the first relationship I have ever been in; we had sex only a couple of days after we met and I have been with him since. Obviously I trust him and love him and we have a very healthy relationship, but I have known for a while now that prior to meeting me, he slept with 15 other girls. I have a history of depression and ever since he has told me I have started to feel really horrible about it all - I never thought it was something that would ever bother me, as I have friends both male and female who are promiscuous, but I feel so much differently about it now that he has told me. I feel that it upsets me a lot and I don't know why and I can't understand it. I have tried to talk to him about it a lot but he won't open up to me and I don't know what else I can do.

Heather Corinna replies:

It sounds to me like this is really about you more than it is about him. The person having trouble with his history right now appears to be you, and that's the person who I think needs to work through this.

In other words, you say he won't open up about this, but I'm not sure I can envision what you'd expect him to open up about. It's not as if there is some special reason a person might have fifteen -- or any number, be it two, five, twenty or fifty -- partners, nor like something must be wrong in order for a person to choose to have sex with any given number of previous partners or to choose to be sexual with a partner soon after meeting them. As well, it's his past. He can't undo or change it (and may not even wish he could, as he may have enjoyed being with those partners and found those experiences positive), and unless he has things to work out with it for himself which he wants your support for, there may not be anything for him to really say, save to listen to how you're feeling about it and to try and support you in what you need that he really can help with in the present day.

What I'd suggest for you is perhaps starting by writing down, over a few days or weeks, how you're feeling so you can better understand what has you so bothered about this. Write knowing no one needs to see anything you write but you: this is for you. Does it make you feel insecure or less special? If so, why? Does it make you worry about his desire or ability to be monogamous? If so, how would his having partners besides you in the past be a better indicator of that than what he expresses he wants right now? Does it bother you that you had sex very shortly after meeting him, in the respect that you're feeling like you might have been seen as only casual sex? If so, it might be helpful to ask why you made the choice to have sex early on yourself, and if you were seeing him that way yourself. Even if one or both of you were, that doesn't mean that wasn't whatever level of important it was to you, nor that your relationship since and now is in any way lesser. Might you have any shame or guilt tied up in the choice you made about that first sex? Might you be envious that he had experiences before you and you (as I understand it) did not? If not envious, how about concerned that he might somehow be judging you based on experiences he had before, and you might perhaps be worried you don't measure up? You say you love and trust him: do you feel like he feels the same about you? Might you maybe just want to know more about his previous relationships? If so, is that about knowing him more deeply, or is that coming from a place where you want to try to compete with his past partners?

You might want to write what this whole relationship has been like for you, what you feel like being in it on good days and bad ones, how it makes you feel about yourself, who you feel like in it. You may even want to write out how you think things would be different, for real, were his past and yours different to give yourself a bit of a reality check.

Once you get some of these feelings written down, you can get a look at them and should have a clearer sense of what you're hung up on. Then, I'd suggest you talk to a trusted friend about all of this to help you process your feelings and discover what, if anything, you need to accept your partner's past and your own choices and to move forward. That's not to say talking to your boyfriend can't be part of that process, but since it's his past you're hung up on, talking all of this through might be something best first done with someone whose feelings aren't likely to get hurt by things you may need to say to work this out for yourself. Then you can also feel free to say things you might need to which would not be so kind to say directly to him.

When you get to a point with a friend or two were you can really articulate how you feel, and also know what you want his help and support with, that's a better time to bring this to the table with him, and ask him anything else you need to to come to some resolution, within reason. You may just need to voice this one last time, you may need to ask that you two come up with some unique experiences or rituals that feel like they're just yours, you may need some extra affirmation right now that you're special: you may need none of those things. At the point you talk to him about this again, I'd hope you already feel a lot better, and also have a better idea of what's fair to ask of him and what he can and cannot actually do to help you with this. Again, my sense is that this is really about what you need to do and work out for yourself, largely by yourself. For the most part, it's our part as partners to just accept a partner's life before us: it's not their job to try and make us okay with it, it's ours.

I've got a few things to say on this issue which I hope might help you out.

Part of the trouble with the whole term "promiscuous" is that it implies there is a certain number of partners for everyone that is the right amount, a number above which is too many, not unlike words like "prude" which imply not having enough partners -- by some arbitrary standard -- or having a given interest in sex isn't right or normal, either. (And FYI, the definition for the word promiscuous is largely about being being indiscriminate -- which he may or may not have been, since a person can choose fifteen or more partners just as discriminately as they can choose one. We can have had fifteen friends and have chosen them selectively, right? Same goes with sexual partners.) There is no one right amount of partners for everyone, nor a number which is either too little or too many for everyone: our personalities and lives tend to differ a lot from person to person, therefore our sex lives tend to vary a lot that way as well. But overall, most people in the world will tend to have several sex partners in their lives, and it's not at all atypical for people in their teens and twenties to have multiple partners, especially when you consider that young adult relationships tend to last for shorter periods of time than older adult relationships do and that the teens and twenties are a big time for sexual experimentation for many people.

What you're feeling is something I've seen plenty of with young people from time to time, so do know you're not alone in feeling this way. In fact, I'd say this kind of adjustment is just one part of coming into adulthood when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships. Plenty of people really wish they could have been a given partner's first (but to be perfectly honest, I think a lot of the time those wishes are based in some selective memory or misunderstanding that first times are often not best times). What I like to remind people who are having this kind of issue of is that when we meet someone, and grow to care for them and like who they are, who that person is has a lot to do with their collective life experiences. Without the life they lived before they met you, they may well not be the person you like so much (and the same would be true of you). That doesn't mean any given person has to be 100% okay with their partner's past, with choices they have made or things that happened to them. For example, sometimes very traumatic events are part of who we are, and no doubt, people who care for us would rather those things hadn't happened to us. But they happened, the past is in the past, and again, they're part of us, good, bad or otherwise.

As you get older, if you keep dating, you're going to find that most people you date will have had other partners before, and some may have had far more than fifteen. Some may have had one who was a huge love of their life, and who knew them even better than you'll know them in the first few years. Later on, you may be entering into relationships with people who have had spouses and whole families before they met you. Things like that may make you feel less important or intimidated, but I earnestly think it's only sage to try to live in the present, and if you're not trying to live in his past -- or presuming the life any partner lived before you is somehow about you -- you shouldn't be feeling that way very often. If you live in the present, it's easy to have what you have now be what's biggest and most important. One thing you learn more and more the older you get is that things don't become less important just because they're not first-times. In fact, a lot of the time, things we experience later in life overshadow our earlier experiences substantially.

Too, how important you are has nothing to do with the fact that you two met and got together only recently -- you couldn't control the fates, gal -- nor with the fact that it seems your boyfriend is comfortable with casual sex (and ostensibly, so are you given that you did choose to have sex so shortly after meeting), so you two had sex early in your relationship. You wound up having a relationship that continued and, it seems, didn't stay casual and there's nothing wrong with that. Plenty of sexual and romantic relationships that go on over time start that way: in love and sex, we do tend to frequently find ourselves surprised, and it's often pretty hard to tell from day one who we are and are not going to want to have more lasting relationships and who will also want the same with us. If you do wind up feeling like that was too soon for you, then next time you enter a new relationship, you can hold off longer and see if that isn't better for you.

Your boyfriend is choosing to be with you right now, to stay with you over this time, because you're where he wants to be, and you're probably making that same choice for that same reason. That -- all by itself -- makes you important and special as far as he is concerned. (You should be important and special as far as you are concerned all by yourself, and based on things you do and are, not on someone else's life or on when you chose to have wanted sex with someone.) The idea that things like love and sexual desire or experience exist in some sort of scarcity economy -- where we run out if we use them too much or too often -- is, in my book, a pretty damaging one. We don't run out of love unless we stop loving, and we don't run out of sex or sexual experiences unless we choose not to have them anymore. And how our relationships start when it comes to sex and how soon we have it isn't an indicator of if they're healthy or important. What indicates that is how the whole of our relationships are throughout and how we all feel in them.

Okay? So, I'd just do some thinking on all of this, try writing it out like I suggested, talking it out with supportive people, then trying to resolve this once and for all and let that be the end of it. If your depression seems to be getting worse lately, I'd have a chat with your therapist or physician about that: if you're on medication for it, it may be time to try something different or a different approach. Don't forget that depression can often really color how we view things and skew our perception of them. And if you find in all this it's really your own esteem that needs a boost, try some new things just for yourself to bump that up, like setting new goals, taking some risks in study, an art, volunteer work of a hobby.

Above all else? If you're experiencing love, recognize that's a splendid thing and not something you want to diminish by focusing on the past and not the present. Revel in it, relish it while you've got it, and don't sweat the small stuff.

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