How to Talk About Your Past with Someone You’re Dating

couple chatting to each other

I’ve been married before. After my annulment came through and I started dating again, I was nervous about how to approach this topic of my past relationship. Past experiences of being probed and asked too many questions in the early stages of getting to know someone left me worried about how the story of my past would be received. But I knew that I had to know how I would authentically share my own story and how would I receive a man with grace and understanding who had his own past.

We all have a past. The person you’re getting to know in a dating relationship has a background story, and you do, too. I think any Catholic single would wonder on some level how to navigate these conversations in open, healthy ways. I’m by no means an expert in this department and surely have made my own mistakes. However, there are some helpful insights I have learned how to apply as I navigate this ongoing conversation as a Catholic single today. Here are three questions to keep in mind as you share your past with someone.

When do you say something about your past?

couple chatting to each other

One time, I began to open the discussion of my past on a third date before the dessert even came. Looking back, that wasn’t the brightest idea. Another time, the conversation flowed more organically as I got to know someone better. For me, that conversation felt much better than the third date situation.

If you were to ask this question to ten different Catholic singles, I think you’d get ten different answers. Is the third or fourth date too soon? Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. Should you wait until things become official with the other person? Maybe that feels more authentic and true for you, but for others that might not be right.

The way I answer this question has evolved in my own life. For me, it feels better to begin to open up the conversation of my previous marriage before becoming serious. You want to be authentic and truthful to the other person, but timing also is important in these conversations.

Remember, this conversation about your past is more about sharing with the other to be known than it is dumping a bunch of heavy information on them. That distinction for me has been very helpful.

What do you say? 

couple chatting to each other

Do you share all the messy, nitty-gritty details? It might feel overwhelming looking at your past life to decipher what you share and what details are left to the past.

Let me offer an example from my own life. When I got the deeper question of what happened in my marriage, I would say something like this: “After I got married, I learned many things about my husband I did not previously know. He had some addictive behavior patterns and our relationship quickly became unhealthy in many ways. Looking back I know I was not ready to get married and I have learned a lot about myself, my own issues, and relationships from that chapter in life.”

I’ve tweaked how I share my past over the last few years. However, I start with a true yet open ended statement that allows for more sharing and discussion in time.

What I have learned when talking about my past with a man (or listening openly to his own sharing) is that these are not one-time conversations. They are on-going, open, and evolving.

Are there some things you have to disclose to a partner or not?

couple chatting to each other

Because I experienced dishonesty in my previous marriage, I have a sensitivity to honesty and trustworthiness. Every strong, health relationship is built on the foundation of trust and honesty.

My therapist broke down the word intimacy for me in a very helpful way a few years ago. The word intimacy means “into-me-you-see”. Intimacy is about seeing the other person fully as he or she is. Into me you see at my best, worst, and everything in between.

If your relationship is being built on a solid foundation of trust, that implies you are sharing fully to be known and seen by the other. I think that applies so well to this particular point.

I don’t think it helps a woman to know the nitty-gritty details of her boyfriend’s struggle with pornography in college. However, if there are addictive behaviors or patterns that could be a barrier to healthy intimacy in a current relationship, then that needs to be brought into the light in non-shaming and open ways.

I don’t think it necessarily helps a man to know the details of abuse I experienced in marriage. However, it is an important conversation to share about from that experience what behaviors or actions I feel safe or unsafe with.

You need to fully share to be known and disclose the truth of who you are. How that specifically plays out for each couple will look different because each relationship is different. In my own story, I’ve gotten it right and there have been plenty of times I have royally screwed it up. Relationships are all about learning. We are constantly learning about ourselves and others.

We are all a work in progress. When showing up to have these conversations as Catholic singles, may we do so with truth, authenticity, and an abundance of grace and understanding.

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