I had a slightly excruciating conversation with a Chinese friend a few nights ago, about whether you should know your significant other’s romantic past.
First, the back story: My friend has had a pretty standard dating history for a Shanghai guy in his mid-20s — a few flings in college, one long-term relationship that ended a few months ago. Recently, he set his sights on a new girl, one who excites him with her charm and intelligence, and exasperates him because, unlike previous girlfriends, she has not volunteered much information about her previous relationships. He can’t quite decide whether he respects that, or needs to know something, anything in order to strengthen their relationship, deepen their bond, etc. Part of our conversation the other night:
Him: I know nothing about her past.
Me: Nothing at all?
Him: Well, I know she dated a basketball player in high school. She dumped him because he had no brain.
Me: That’s something.
Him: I don’t know anything recent.
Me: Then ask her.
Him: I don’t need to know. It’s in the past.
Me: Good attitude.
Him: Actually… I already asked, and she won’t tell me.
Me: You… [eye roll]
Him: I know she was with someone when she was overseas.
Me: A foreigner?
Him: I don’t know.
Me: So ask her.
Him: I don’t care. It’s in the past. She doesn’t ask me anything about my ex-girlfriends.
Me: Then concentrate on the present and future. You said you like her.
Him: But how can I get to know her and understand her if I know nothing at all?
Me: Ai-ya. You’re so damn mafan (troublesome). Ask her!
Him: It’s in the past. Guoqu de.
When our throats got too dry to keep talking in circles, he concluded that: 1) He wouldn’t ask her anything because past romances should stay in the past, and respectable Chinese guys don’t want to know about their girlfriend’s past (which I read about on the excellent Speaking of China); 2) Of course, if she suddenly decided to share her past of her own accord, he wouldn’t be opposed to listening.
Last night, I spoke to him again. He was in a foul mood — curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he’d once again prodded the girl for her history. This time she opened up — but what she shared had upset him and made him feel inadequate. So you regret asking her? I wondered. “No,” he said. “It’s much better I learn now than be surprised later.” He likes her enough that nothing she disclosed is a deal breaker, but fully accepting it will take time.
As much as I’d like to berate my friend, I can’t judge him for asking about his significant other’s past and then being stung/bothered by what he so desperately wanted to know. I’ve been there, done the same, obsessed about the same thing, and so have many others around the world, judging from what comes up when I Google “girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other’s past.” Most search results are attached to these words: jealous, insecure, driving myself crazy, haunted, intimidated.
The advice I gave my friend is the same advice given to me, the same advice spread on these Internet forums: It’s in the past. It happened before she/he met you. Focus on your relationship now, don’t let what happened before dictate present and future. *repeat*
The harsher comments out there, which I don’t wish to lay onto anybody feeling insecure, are: Why the hell are you bothered by the past, it means something is wrong with you! You must be an untrusting jerk/biatch! Grow up! Your girlfriend/boyfriend deserves better! If you really love someone, you wouldn’t care! Get over it, LoSerZ! They should dump your arse!
Before assuming that something is pathologically wrong with you and falling into the depths of despair, be clear about why you feel the way you do about your partner’s past. Why the jealousy? Why the insecurity? In my friend’s case, and for many others, the answer seems to lie in contrasting romantic pasts: one partner may have a higher “number”/sexual score, or worse — only one partner has been involved in meaningful, serious relationships that deeply affected them. For someone who hasn’t experienced such relationships, the fact that your significant other has already been in something so intense can be haunting. Not everybody has a past.
Let’s say you’ve identified the reason behind your discomfort; your awesome partner is understanding instead of indignant, and you decide to give the relationship a chance. How exactly do you “deal with it” and start moving forward? This is where the forums and advice columns kinda trail off and say nothing beyond “talk to your partner,” “be patient,” “have self-awareness,” and blah blah blah. Useless.
Here’s a suggested list of What To Do To Deal With Those Feelings. I might or might not have done some of these. They might or might not work for you. But hey, anything is better than sitting there stewing over something you can’t change.
So, what to do if your beloved girlfriend or boyfriend’s romantic past lingers over you (and do take some of these as tongue-in-cheek):
- Stalk the heck out of the ex(es). Does the mere idea of the ex bug you? The fact that your beloved has loved/slept with/cohabited with/married/divorced this other person? Don’t let some abstract idea of the “other person” hang over your head! Find out who he/she is. Thanks to the joys of Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., stalking from a relatively safe distance is rather easy. More often that not you’ll find out this other person is an unremarkable bore, and no wonder the relationship didn’t work out. (Note: If you are unlucky and your stalking reveals that the ex is absolutely stunning and fabulous, well, I don’t know what to say, except… time to stop stalking.)
- Turn the ex(es) into fiction. This works even if you aren’t a particularly skilled writer. Everyone can make believe. Change the names and write your own story of what happened. Not only can it be therapeutic, but once you get caught up in your tale and your imagination starts to run wild, the characters you’ve created will be more interesting than their real-life equivalents. Real-life ex? What real-life ex? (Note: Of course, if writing your story only makes you more frustrated… time to stop writing. And maybe delete that Word file.)
- Get a job/hobby. This is obvious. My friend is obsessing over his girlfriend’s past partly because he has too much time on his hands. Get busy and productive, and when you only have two hours of free time a day, you won’t want to waste time thinking about a past not yours. (Note: If you are a professional slacker, sorry, can’t help you there.)
- Watch Korean/Japanese TV dramas. Once you watch enough of these, you’ll realize that love is the most important thing in the whole wide world, and it’s so easy to lose love to external forces like fatal illnesses, being switched at birth, etc. Exes will come and go in these dramas, always threatening to keep the attractive main characters apart, but true love always triumphs! (Note: If you watch these dramas and identify with “villains” instead of the hero/heroine… stop watching.)
- Start drinking. Actually, bad idea, scratch that.
- Spend more time with your girlfriend/boyfriend, especially if it’s still early in the relationship. It’s usually when you’re apart that the past haunts you, no? Right now, my friend is only able to see his girlfriend about once a week, because of her work commitments. Too much time apart, not enough communicating, too much obsessing (on his part).
- Go online and look up posts like this one, so you don’t feel alone in your worries. Or, find a patient friend (like me) and talk her ear off. And then she’ll go write a blog post that you can read when you start worrying.