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The Truth and Nothing but the Truth (in Time)

March 15, 2007 By:
Adina Matusow, JE Feature
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You're dating someone and getting serious. But something he or she said about a past relationship catches your attention, and you suddenly realize you may not know as much about her history as you thought.

You're okay with knowing that the person has slept with others before you, but certain behaviors remain questionable, and you want to find out more before you move forward. How do you ask about the past?

There are two types of conversations about sexual histories. One is about safety and lifestyle. The other is about important emotional baggage carried over from a previous relationship. The safety talk is a conversation everyone must have when beginning a sexual relationship.

The other component people have when coming together is about the gritty little details. But how much do we really need to know -- or can we handle about the sexual history of another?

Readers Report
I polled my readers on this very question.

Some seem only concerned about how a partner's past can affect them in their immediate social life, and so choose to ignore the gritty little details. There are those who are not affected by their date's past and actually remain curious about it, unthreatened by the prospect of exploring someone's love history.

Others believe a "don't ask, don't tell" policy is best. Many found that knowing "the number" of past lovers is sufficient for learning a person's history; they "would rather not know too many details."

Still others found the tally to be completely extraneous. For them, that knowledge only serves as a comparison game, resulting in heartache much like the movie "Dangerous Liaisons" -- from which I have taken the liberty to name those who shared their feelings to conceal their identity.

"My boyfriend admits to having a 'slutty' phase after breaking up with his long-term college girlfriend. It bothers me sometimes," said Marie, 25. "I used to call him a slut and he would get really upset, so I don't bring it up anymore. Besides, I know how he feels about me and wouldn't cheat, so I think that's most important."

Marie clearly needed to hear a number, but would she have been better off not knowing?

When you are first trying to figure out if you can fall in love with a person is when you want to get all of the necessary information out of the way. No one wants to be surprised by serious baggage much later on.

"If we don't talk about who she's dated and who she's hooked up with, then that leaves out a huge part of who she is," said Raphael, also 25. "I like hearing her embarrassing stories about hooking up, and as our relationship progresses, sharing all the dumb things I've done, too."

He acknowledges that knowing a date's number is unnecessary because it does not explain very much about her.

"If she talks about having lots of one-night stands with random guys she met out at a bar, then I'm more likely to lose interest and think she's not for me, as opposed to if she slept with people she met through friends or that she was casually dating."

Sebastian, 28, feels that, when entering a new relationship, pertinent info must be exchanged in order for it to be successful.

"There are things you should talk about with your friends that you wouldn't talk about with your significant other," he said. "Any situation that is still affecting your life, you have to share. If you're still in contact with a person from your past regularly, then your new girlfriend should know about it. If you're totally out of touch with old girlfriends, then they are not important."

Sebastian said he expects to learn the same from anyone he dates. "I don't need all the details, because I need some emotional closure. I need to know the details that immediately affect me so I can be aware of any dudes who are going to cross our path that she's hooked up with. I want to be prepared."

When it comes to sex, you can be open with your partner about everything, but the topic will often remain touchy. It's important to understand how your partner approaches intimate moments.

A Sign of Larger Issues
"I think as the relationship matures, it's not important who, what, when and where," said Isabel, 34. "But if you truly want to know who the person your with is, why not glean as much knowledge as possible? If you're threatened by someone's sexual past, it's a sign of much larger issues."

Thirty-year-old Madame de Volanges agrees, and acknowledges that her strong confidence with previous boyfriends has allowed her to stay positive on this topic. "As long as I know at that moment I'm the only person that person would choose to be with, then I couldn't care less about previous experiences. In fact, I'm curious about it from an intellectual standpoint."

Yet if you do have a problem learning certain facts, that still doesn't mean you shouldn't ask questions. A cautious approach may begin with: "Is there anything in your relationship history -- or something that you learned in a previous relationship -- that you think would be important for me to know?"

Most importantly, talk about your safety concerns. It may be difficult, but ask when your date has been tested last for any sexually transmitted diseases. If he or she responds poorly, that person is being immature (and perhaps very irresponsible). If you avoid the question just because you're frightened to learn the answer, maybe you should think twice about what may or may not eventually transpire.

And before sharing your own background, ask yourself which segments of your past should stay in the vault. Whatever is truly important will come out in time. Although full-disclosure may seem like a good idea at first, everything that you've ever done doesn't need to be revealed in some wild act of self-exposure.

Remember: Sexual history is only a facet of a much larger picture that encompasses the world of dating. 

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