“What should I do when my girlfriend talks about her past?”

Many male readers write to me asking what they should do “when my girlfriend talks about her past.”

Today’s email comes from Dylan, who writes:

My girlfriend talks about her past… The thing that gets my jealousy going the most is when my girlfriend casually mentions having had sex with someone else or a sexual thing that once happened to her, generally in a group setting when that sort of topic is brought up. This is confusing for me because I don’t want to control what she can and can’t say and honestly if it wasn’t for this, I’d find the anecdotes funny too. But it just makes me feel so awful when it comes up and I just don’t want to hear about it.

Where is the line between exhibiting damaging controlling behavior and putting reasonable steps in place to avoid these feelings?

Transcript below

Zachary Stockill: Thanks for your message, Dylan. And there’s a lot going on in this email, but I’m going to try to address each point you raise one by one.

irst thing I want to mention is to sort of tease apart the last sentence of your email, or rather the question you asked me. You write: “Where’s the line between exhibiting damaging, controlling behavior and putting reasonable steps in place to avoid these feelings?”

So no one can ever make you feel anything.

And this is not a cop-out here, and this is not to excuse your girlfriend’s behavior or anyone else’s behavior, but just a nice kind of mental reset is just to always remember that, that no one can make you feel anything.

There’s an event and then there’s your reaction to the event. And those two things aren’t necessarily connected. In fact, they’re not connected at all, they’re are two separate processes.

And just realizing our own power and control over our feelings, realizing our own power and control over the meaning we make of certain events and people and interactions and situations can be really helpful.

So I would try to move away from this idea of people making you feel certain things.

Secondly, I completely understand why this would bug you.

I think it would bug a lot of guys.

You’re in a social setting and your girlfriend talks about her past, or mentions having sex with someone else or something like that. I mean, even non-retroactive jealousy suffers, I think most people don’t really want to hear that about their partner.

But you raise a really important question, which is what’s the difference between damaging, controlling behavior and more or less putting some boundaries in place?

What’s a better way to handle these situations when your girlfriend talks about her past?

So on the one hand you could say, “Listen, I don’t want to ever talk about your past. Don’t talk about your past!” And obviously that’s a kind of damaging controlling behavior, and it’s also pretty unattractive from your girlfriend’s point of view.

There’s a big difference between doing that and just expressing your feeling about the situation in private when you’re away from the social situation, when you have your girlfriend alone.

Don’t make a big deal out of it, please don’t blame her for your feelings. Again, coming back to the point I raised earlier, don’t blame your girlfriend for anything you’re feeling.

But at a certain point, it might be worth mentioning to her, “Listen, when you talk about X, it makes me feel Y.” “When you bring up this guy, it’s kind of a turnoff, I’d just rather not hear about that. Maybe we can talk about something else.”

So just be honest with her about your reaction to this stuff.

Again, don’t push this too far, don’t blame her for your feelings, but be honest about the fact that maybe you don’t love talking about certain topics or certain stories or certain situations. Tell her: “Let’s focus on the present, let’s focus on the future. I don’t need to hear all of these nitty gritty details about your past.”

Another time tested trick, if you want to call it that, is in those situations, just changing the subject, ask someone else a question or redirect the subject slightly.

You can get creative with this. But if you’re in a social situation where you feel like something might trigger your retroactive jealousy, if you’re in the early stages of healing where you kind of need more of these bandaid solutions, it’s worthwhile to sort of change the subject, kind of get things on a path that’s a little more, for lack of a better word, “safe.”

But I think it’s probably worthwhile at this point to talk about the idea of boundaries a little bit as it applies to when your girlfriend talks about her past.

So boundaries mean different things to different people.

You can definitely take boundaries too far, laying down all these rules and regulations and stuff in your relationship. But if you talk to your girlfriend and you explain to her, “Listen, it doesn’t make me feel great when you talk about X.” or “I’d rather not discuss Y.”

And if she continues to talk about this stuff and she doesn’t care about your feelings, then that says to me that you’re probably in the wrong relationship.

And you could try setting all these boundaries and doing all these things but if you’re clear with her that a certain topic or a certain idea or a certain type of behavior is unacceptable to you, and she continues to poke that wound and continues to act or speak or behave in a way that isn’t okay with you, then it might be worth evaluating whether or not this is the right relationship for you.

Because I believe if you’re in a healthy, happy, functional relationship, if you express to your partner that certain things are not okay, or you’d rather not do certain things, hopefully if that person cares about you and they have a brain, they’ll respect you and they’ll treat you with the respect and the consideration that you deserve.

And if you’re not receiving that respect and consideration, it might be worth considering whether or not you’re in the right relationship.

Click here to learn more about getting past your girlfriend’s past, and overcoming retroactive jealousy.

Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.