There’s nothing more exciting than the start of a new romance — after all, they don’t call it “the honeymoon phase” for nothing! Butterflies in your stomach, glowing every time you get a text, getting to know your SO (significant other) over late-night pillow talk, flaunting your new arm candy all over campus... it may not be as blissful as your relationship with Netflix, we know (few things are), but what’s not to like?
Unfortunately, revving up a new relationship can also mean rehashing old ones. At some point, your and your partner need to decide if you’re going to share about exes, old feelings and sexual history, just so you know all the facts. It can be uncomfortable, awkward and just plain hard (“Because I love hearing about my SO’s former flames,” said no one ever). Check out our tips before having the talk to save the situation!
Decide if it’s the right time for “the talk”
Come on, you know you’re curious! It can be super tempting to ask for all the details of his or her past exploits so that there are no surprises down the line. Plus, having that open, honest line of communication is one of the best ways to build up trust in your relationship. Sometimes, though, ignorance is bliss, so you’ll want to be prepared.
So how do you know it’s time to have the talk? If you find yourself wanting to know more about his past, worrying what to share (or what not to share) about your own or deciding that you’re ready to move things further physically with your SO, it’s probably time to chat. Make sure to talk in a quiet, private place and give yourself a large window of time; you don’t want to cut it short because you have to rush off to class!
But what if your partner isn’t as excited about having the conversation? He or she might not want to hear about your history (we get it, jealousy sucks), or might be worried about sharing his or her own (cue embarrassment). Psychotherapist Tristan Coopersmith says that fear is probably to blame. “Whenever there is resistance, there is fear,” she says. “Talk with your partner about their fear of having the talk and use that info to build vulnerability and trust… Which in and of itself may create a safer space to have the talk.”
Dale Lavine, our resident Real Live College Guy, explains that fear played a role in his own hesitation to have the talk with his then-girlfriend. “With my ex, I was pretty reluctant to have the ‘numbers’ talk simply because as far as I knew, she was more experienced than myself,” he says. “That's kind of a weird thing for guys to deal with because—at least for me—it was normal for guys to get around more than girls. So when your number isn't as high as hers, a few things go through your mind.”
Luckily, even though Dale was “shocked and slightly turned off” at first after talking, he appreciated the honesty and got through it just fine.
At the end of the day, you have to decide together whether the two of you want to dig up old exes and sex—touchy stuff—so making sure you’re both on board before launching into all the gory details is key. The last thing you want is to do is sabotage the relationship by making him listen to stories he doesn’t want to hear, and vice versa!
Establish ground rules
When you’re telling your SO how experienced (or not) you are, you’re talking about your ex or you’re even explaining that you were once in love (or once thought you would be together forever), it’s almost impossible to know what’s relevant info and what’s plain old TMI. To avoid hurting each other’s feelings, establish ground rules about how the convo will go. “During sensitive conversations like this one, couples need to feel safe,” Coopersmith says. “Setting up boundaries helps create a safe arena for protected communication.”
Michelle*, a sophomore at NYU, set ground rules: “My ex-boyfriend and I decided after a month of so of dating that it was time to have ‘that conversation,’” she says. “But the rules were this: we'd get it all out now, talk about it all just that once, but then not talk about it again after that. It was awkward, most definitely, but we promised for that one time, we'd be totally honest and answer each other's every question.”
So before you go down the rabbit hole, sit down with your partner and agree on some limits. Take Coopersmith’s suggestions:
- “No sharing of numbers… There is NO good that comes from this!” You can still talk about relationships and sexual history without sharing precise numbers, which automatically lead to comparison.
- “Be kind! Be empathetic. Be who you would want them to be for you… supportive and loving.”
- “Don’t ask questions you aren’t prepared to hear the answers to.”
- “Remember that someone’s past isn’t always an indicator of who/where they are now.”
Obviously, you don’t need to state the rules like you’re laying down the law. To avoid making the talk seem way more dramatic than it needs to be, remind your SO that you just want to get it out of the way so you can go back to having your usual fun!
While it can be hard to open up about your past—or say something you’re worried might make him or her see you differently—you should stick to the Golden Rule and treat your SO the way you’d want to be treated (because the Golden Rule always rules!). Would you want to be lied to? Probably not, which means you shouldn’t lie to your partner, as tempting as it may be to fudge the less-than-flattering details.
Besides, Coopersmith says that lying won’t get you far, anyway. “If the truth doesn’t reveal itself in this conversation, it will eventually, and when it does, it will come with a challenging overlay of why you weren’t honest the first time,” she says. “If you find yourself unwilling to be forthcoming, dig deep to uncover why. Are you not resolved with your past relationship? Do you carry shame? Is there regret?”
Figure out what it is that’s holding you back from telling the truth, and then ask yourself if it’s really worth risking your brand-new, totally exciting, super-hot relationship (We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s not...).
After establishing her honesty-only policy with her man, Michelle learned a lot: some good, some bad. “For me, it was a hard thing to do because he was actually the first person I'd had sex with, but I hadn't told him before we'd had sex. But it turns out he'd had sex with a LOT of women,” she says. “While, yes, it was kind of weird, it was very cathartic and nice to know that there weren't going to be any surprises later in our relationship.”
Like Michelle, you can take the big reveals in stride; you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into when you continue dating him or her, and down the line, you’ll be thrilled that your SO won’t be dropping any big bombshells on you anytime soon.
...But don’t overshare
Once you get started talking about a particularly evil ex or a hilarious hook-up story (remember that one time in the library?), it can be hard to stop. First of all, the guys of your past probably gave you a lot of scintillating stories to tell. Second, it’s tempting to share every detail so you don’t feel like you’re withholding info from your current boyfriend. Still, it’s important to know where to draw the line, for his sake. There are some things your boyfriend should never know.
Dale advises, “I wouldn't suggest lying about [your number], but unless it absolutely has to come up, I don't know that I'd suggest talking about it.” The same rule applies for other past details you would rather not revisit—something that still hurts to talk about, or something you’re worried will make your current partner feel inadequate. A good way to go about this is to answer truthfully if he asks about a touchy subject, but don’t offer up the info yourself if you’re sure it’ll cause tension (and you didn’t think it was relevant enough to share in the first place). If you really don’t want to share something, explain exactly why to your SO, and make sure it’s clear that you’re not trying to hide anything; you’re just not taking the conversation to a painful place.
Coopersmith agrees. “A good rule of thumb is to only share what would be HELPful, which usually eliminates what may be HURTful,” she says. Don’t get carried away with the details, and go back to your ground rules to know how far is too far. For instance, does your SO seem like he or she really hates hearing about you with other people? In that case, maybe don’t go into too much detail about your past sexual encounters (like how your previous lover made you feel, if he or she was good in bed, and of course, never, ever comparing size!) or talk too long about what it was like to be in love. Instead, state the essential facts and move on.
“Also, make sure to never mention faking it with guys [or girls] in the past!” says Erica*, a senior at the University of San Diego. “Then they’ll worry that you’re doing it with them, too.” Even if you think it might make your SO feel a bit better—hey, who doesn’t like to hear that their SO’s ex wasn’t great in the sack?—you should stay away from touchy topics like these, as they can easily lead to comparison.
On the other hand, if your new arm candy understands that it’s hard not to overshare a bit sometimes, feel free to say whatever you need to get off your chest. That’s exactly what happened to Chelsea*, a junior at Vassar College. “My current boyfriend and I started dating after we had both gotten out of five-year relationships with our high school sweethearts,” she says. “Basically, we both grew up with our exes. So it's really hard not to bring them up! The most important thing to remember is to not make the other person feel compared to your ex.”
Decide if you can revisit the conversation
While you probably worked hard to sit down with your SO and get this conversation out of the way, you probably didn’t say everything you needed to say (or hear everything you need to hear). That’s the problem with limited time (thank you, pile of homework waiting on the desk), plus it can be difficult to know in the moment what you’ll later wish you’d asked. So the question remains: can you bring it up again?
Your decision will pretty much depend on your relationship. If the two of you love to share and don’t mind hearing about each other’s pasts too much, you’ll probably want to leave the topic open for conversation.
Coopersmith offers her own suggestion: “Healthy relationships depend on open communication, so this topic is no different than any other. Keep it open.” Still, there’s no perfect way to do this, and every collegiette (and couple) is different! While an open conversation worked for Chelsea and her boyfriend, Michelle and her ex opted to not bring up the convo again after their talk.
As you’re wrapping up your talk, make sure to ask your SO how he or she feels about revisiting it. As long as the two of you are on the same page about it, whatever you decide, you’re in the clear!
Talking about exes can be hard for any collegiette, but it can get even harder when you have to talk about them in front of your awesome new boy toy or lovely lady (whom you would rather be kissing than having a heavy talk like this with, obviously). Establish your rules, be open and honest and then reward yourselves with something fun and out of the ordinary, like indulging in dessert at a local café or snuggling up for a funny movie. At the end of the day, you’ll feel closer than ever.
*Name has been changed.