Have you had the talk yet about former lovers with your partner? Are you wondering just how honest you should be? While there’s no need to crack open the little black book and recount your history in cringe-worthy detail, some disclosure is important. “Conversation about your sexual past is important for what it reveals about what you want out of this relationship, and who you are as a person,” says New York City–based sex therapist Joy Davidson, PhD. Ultimately, it’s not as much about the details of your past as about your level of honesty. Here’s what you need to know:
Early on, transparency is key
Is your relationship still new? Before you hit the sack—especially if you’re considering having sex without a condom—basic honesty is crucial. “If there’s something in your past such as having unprotected sex with partners whose own history you’re hazy about, or if you have a sexually transmitted disease such as herpes, you must share that news,” says Megan Norris, MS, LMFT, founder and director of Relationship Resolutions in Pittsburgh.
Honesty is the best policy…mostly
Here’s the inescapable fact about honesty: If you lie, you’re not showing your partner who you really are, which means that the basis of your relationship is shaky. If you dodge the truth, whether it’s by inventing a more varied history if you’re inexperienced or playing down an active past, you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. Dr. Davidson cautions that this is dangerous for any relationship. However, a detailed account is not necessary. “Be honest about the essence of your sexual past, not necessarily the details,” she advises.
Don’t get hung up on numbers
How many people you’ve slept with is one of those numbers (like your weight) that’s fraught with meaning. “Both low and high numbers come with judgments depending on your value system,” Dr. Davidson says. Test yourself: If you found out that his number was significantly smaller than yours, how would you feel? What if it were way, way higher? Be aware of what a discussion about partners can reveal. “What you ideally want to discuss is not the numbers themselves, but what it means to you,” Dr. Davidson says. “How do you feel about your own number? What might you do differently? What did you learn about yourself in those years?”
Remember, some details can be left out
“Men may get hung up on comparing themselves to your former lovers,” Dr. Davidson says. Put simply: They want to know that they are better, which is why waxing on about the amazing skills of some past love is never wise. “Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be hung up on that woman from their partner’s past with whom he was sexually obsessed,” adds Dr. Davidson. “Even if he says that the relationship was terrible, if he just had to have her, it can make even the most confident woman feel less-than.” Keep these hang-ups in mind when you’re weighing how much honesty is too much.
You’d think this would be obvious; surely, you don’t want to tell your current lover that you had it so much better with that guy you broke up with years ago. “If your past lover was fabulous, what canbe helpful is letting your current partner know what works for you so he can be a better lover for you,” Norris says. Find ways to share what knocks your socks off without listing names, dates and places.
Set ground rules for sharing
If the two of you are going to discuss your sexual past, it’s smart to agree beforehand how it’ll go down. “Ground rules are important simply because sex is such a hot-button topic,” Norris says. For example, ask each other: “How much do you really want to know? Is it just the broad outlines, or do you need to know more?”
Be sensitive to feelings
OK, so he says he wants the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But what if you’re sure that learning every dirty secret would make him uncomfortable? “Question him carefully about what he wants to know, then tell him what you think is best and what you’re comfortable sharing,” Dr. Davidson says. Try to divine whether he wants to know all about you in order to please you, or if he wants to know for his ego’s sake (hoping, for example, that you’ll say you’ve never had anyone better than him). Your goal is to be delicate and diplomatic while maintaining honesty. “Remember, when it comes to sex and our sexual performance, we’re all vulnerable to being hurt,” Dr. Davidson adds.
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