How To Tell A Potential Partner About Your Past

Psychotherapist & Author By Esther Perel
Psychotherapist & Author
Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views and she is also the host of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?

A dilemma we all grapple with, to one degree or another, is telling a potential partner about our past. And we all enter relationships with a past.

That history can include cancer, an STD, a gambling habit, sexual or physical abuse, an alcoholic parent, less common sexual preferences ... ­­ the list goes on.

We yearn to be accepted and loved, and we’re told we need to be open and authentic in our relationships for that to happen. But we also fear rejection. Our darker side often carries a degree of shame, which can make us feel tainted and unworthy of being loved, being touched, being chosen. So, how can we reveal our secrets, and when?

This depends on how you feel about who you are, and how comfortable you are with the secret. First of all, think about the difference between explaining something from a place of victimization vs. from a place of heroism. If you emphasize how you overcame a situation, how you grew from it, how it became a resource in your life, then you turn shame into strength.

Also, keep in mind that information may affect the other person in different ways. For example, telling a potential sexual partner that you have an STD casts a different spell than if you tell him or her about your alcoholic father.

There's no gold standard for when to discuss challenging issues of your past. If you disclose too soon, you’re likely to be judged because your date may not want to deal with the complications that your history carries. But if you wait too long to disclose, you risk your date feeling that you're not being honest, that you've withheld important information.

Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Use your intuition and consider the other person.

How mature is he or she? How will he or she take news that takes away the easy ride of the romantic story?

2. Talk about the process itself.

Ask your date, “How do you decide when and what you share?” “Have you ever said anything you regretted?” “Did you wish, at times, you had been more forthcoming?”

This will lead you into the conversation about the conversation. It’s a way of entering into the arena and navigating openness and privacy. You’re touching the walls, seeing where they’re hollow, and finding entry points where it’s more inviting.

You’ll sense very quickly if this secret frightens your date, or instead, if their curiosity is heightened. Be patient: they may be silent and unsettled at first, pull away initially, but become less reticent later. Don’t immediately react or regret opening your mouth.

Accept that some people will find this grounds for not wanting to continue. That’s a blessing in disguise. If they tell you that they are not interested upfront, you don’t have to spend time wondering and living in doubt.

And while you contemplate when and what to say, remember that they are probably doing the same, for they too may have secrets to reveal. When we are invested in our own dark side, we don’t always realize that others have a dark side, as well.

Esther Perel
Esther Perel
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices...
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