Partner's sexual past is a problem
I have been in a relationship for about 11 months and it has developed into what we both feel is a loving, enhancing, and very satisfying relationship between two very compatible people. We feel very lucky. The relationship began as a fling and in the early days, we were really just party partners to one another. We have always been honest with each other and in the beginning of our relationship she was open with me about her past sexual promiscuity. From her conversations with me, I would guess this may be partly related to a previous failed marriage and her ex-husbands infidelity.
I am at the stage now where I have deeper feelings toward her, and her past promiscuity has begun to bother me for the first time. I am jealous. I feel secure in our current relationship. I'm not envious in the sense that I'm afraid of losing her to a new acquaintance; she has made it very clear that she feels committed to me. It's just I find her past unattractive. When we are out and she talks to a male she knows, I have every confidence that she wants to be with me but I these suspicions pop up that he is probably a past fling. Ironically, her flirtatious nature and sexual confidence were elements of my initial attraction.
This is a difficult problem to resolve between us. The few conversations that we've had about it (I've never been nasty or abusive) become very emotional and potentially destructive to our relationship - she becomes sad that I would have these thoughts about her, and I feel ashamed for hurting her. She is a very level-headed person and has dealt with situations in which we have bumped into one of my old girlfriends with a maturity I admire. I understand that the past is the past, that if you feel you love someone you accept everything they are (and I'm sure she accepts things about me that wouldn't otherwise appeal to her), and that if I continue to be bothered by this, it will cost me an otherwise happy relationship. But sooner or later, my emotions seem to drown out these rational thoughts.
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with these feelings?
Thanks for your insightful letter. You're right, of course, when you say, "if I continue to be bothered by this, it will cost me an otherwise happy relationship." Yes. Your doubts have the potential to easily destroy this relationship. I suspect, though, that you have a lot more control over these doubts and fears than you believe - primarily because I think your feelings come from doubts and fears about yourself presently, rather than about your girlfriend's past. I'm basing this simply on the facts you presented. You were sexually drawn to this woman for the purpose of having a "fling". Eleven months later, you find that you are in love with her. What's this like for you - to realize that this relationship has moved along to commitment, love and (based on your age and developmental stage) the possibility of marriage? (Here's a clue - your use of this phrase, "a past fling." You do not want to become a "past fling," yourself.)
If any part of you is bothered or panicked by the intensity of the level of intimacy this development in the relationship implies, then you can (unconsciously) choose to focus on something (such as her past) which will limit or stop further movement in this direction. In other words, every time you use her present-day actions or attitudes with males to obsess about her past, you "put the brakes" on where this is (apparently) going.
A conscious awareness of needing to proceed slowly in this relationship would have probably meant dating for a few months before becoming sexual. A conscious awareness of the significance your respective pasts could play might have made you both use more discretion when discussing your sexual histories with each other. A conscious awareness of what was happening as it occurred (attraction, leading to compatibility, leading to comfort and safety, leading to sexual union and love), might have allowed you to say gently but firmly, "Let's not talk more about our sexual pasts, since we've discussed what's important. Please don't tell me more."
The more conscious choices you make in a relationship, the less there is left for your unconscious mind to try to sort through and resolve. The doubts and fears you have about this situation are the direct result of not making informed and conscious choices throughout each stage of the relationship.
There is a part of you, I think, which has rational concerns about the way your relationship grew and developed. You realize that this love did not progress methodically through the stages of attraction, companionship, intimacy and commitment. In other words, some of your fears and doubts make sense. Although you might be in the "right" place, you got there the "wrong" way (for you) and you realize this.
Also, I suspect you have rational fears about such intensity in a relationship which is this new. Eleven months is not a long time to know someone. Perhaps you are only now seeing and acknowledging aspects of your girlfriend you overlooked before. This "blindness" could easily relate to beginning this relationship as "party partners," in that your initial needs with regards to her were not the same as they are now.
I do not, in fact, see in your letter a lot of irrational fears, such as the title of your letter implies. My guess is that, if you simply acknowledge that your doubts or fears (about your present situation, not about her past) make sense, you will do a lot to diffuse their power.
It's also never too late to define the boundaries of a relationship, and you may need to do this, so that you address the issues which would have gotten worked through if your relationship had developed at a slower pace. You can read your letter (with this response) to your girlfriend for the purpose of beginning a discussion on this topic. She deserves to know that you have doubts and fears but they need to be stated in such a way that you assume responsibility for them and don't blame her. In time, with love and commitment, you can easily resolve this problem.
Ongoing therapy, of course, would help you feel better about yourself overall. This would also be a great time to participate in a few couples counseling sessions for the purpose of learning direct communication and honesty in a relationship.
Good luck with everything. It's never too late to get the things "right" which started out "wrong".
Margaret "Peg" Burr, MA, MFT
This question was answered by Margaret "Peg" Burr. She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC34374) with a private practice in Santa Clarita (near Los Angeles). She performs psychodynamic psychotherapy with individual adult clients as well as couples, teens, and families. She also runs groups for adults and adolescents. Her specialty area is Object Relations Systems Theory. This branch of psychodynamic psychotherapy uses a client's interpersonal relationships as windows into his or her intrapsychic structure.For more information visit: http://www.pegburr.com/