Photo by Toa Heftiba
If you’ve spent any amount of time trawling Google for answers on how to deal with your girlfriend’s past, you’ve likely come across a lot of varied advice.
On one hand, there are the online commenters who say that any guy who struggles with any woman’s past is a hypocrite, misogynist, sexist pig who “doesn’t deserve her.”
On the other hand, there is the opposite end of the extremist crowd, whose members proclaim that any man who struggles with any woman’s past is probably justified, that women can’t be trusted, and any feeling of unease surrounding a girlfriend’s past is enough of a “red flag” that the man in question should get out of the relationship.
When you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy (ie. unease or anxiety surrounding a partner’s past relationships and/or sexual history), good advice can be hard to come by. When it comes to this particular issue, compassion, understanding, empathy is rare. I know—I’ve been there.
This article is aimed at men who are in the early stages of struggling with their girlfriend’s past. Perhaps you’re one of them. Maybe a recent conversation with your girlfriend, or a bit of social media stalking is beginning to freak you out a little about your girlfriend’s past.
So, if you’re unsure of “what to think” about your girlfriend’s past, what it says about who she is, whether or not your girlfriend shares your values, and whether or not what you’re experiencing is “normal,” I’d like to offer you a seven step plan consisting of practical steps and perspectives you can start experimenting with immediately.
After fielding thousands of emails from men concerning retroactive jealousy, this is my retroactive jealousy “starter kit” if you’re struggling with your girlfriend’s past:
It’s important to note that there is a lot more for me to cover here but, for now at least, this should give you something to get started.
(This is a bit of a lengthy one, so buckle up…)
Step 1) Acknowledge that this is your problem, not your girlfriend’s.
I’m not saying that your girlfriend’s past isn’t a “deal breaker.” I’m not saying her values are necessarily compatible with yours. And I’m certainly not saying that, no matter what, you should stay with her. That’s your call, and anyway, I have no idea.
What I am suggesting is that you need to own this problem.
This problem does not belong to your girlfriend—your girlfriend’s past is her right, it belongs to her, and she can’t change it. Either you can deal with this, and move forward, or you can’t, in which case you owe it to her to end the relationship so she can find another man who feels differently. Nothing wrong with either one of those choices.
What is not an option is for you to have one foot in, one foot out of the relationship, hanging around hesitantly, almost reluctantly, “punishing” your girlfriend for her past.
If you need a bit of time and space to reflect and process what you’re feeling, by all means take it. But don’t “punish” your girlfriend for her past while you do so. I used to do this, and it remains one of the more shameful episodes from my own past.
Your girlfriend cannot “fix” this problem for you—no one can, except you. You are your own salvation here. It just takes a bit of time, reflection, soul-searching, and vulnerability on your part. Simply put: it takes a bit of work.
Which leads us to…
Step 2) Stop talking to your girlfriend about her past (for the most part).
Which is to say, if you’re struggling with your girlfriend’s past, and you’ve already collected a host of unnecessary details about your girlfriend’s past, the last thing you need to do is collect more.
So I advise retroactive jealousy sufferers to stop talking to their partner about their past—at least for now.
(And stop the social media stalking as well. Nothing good can come from it, and it’s possible it will only send you deeper down the retroactive jealousy rabbithole.)
That said, if there is a “major question” that, in your calmest of moments, you truly feel you “need” the answer to, sit down with your girlfriend and have a calm, rational discussion about it.
For example, if there is a major “deal breaker” issue related to your girlfriend’s past that you need clarification on (ie. “Did you really cheat on three of your past four boyfriends?”) you should probably talk about it ASAP, to save you both time, and to avoid a long, drawn-out breakup.
As I mentioned above, if you know someone is not right for you, you owe it to them—and yourself—to move on as soon as possible.
And thus if you know there’s an issue related to your girlfriend’s past which would absolutely, without a doubt, constitute a “deal breaker” for you, you should approach her in a calm, non-judgmental manner, and simply ask.
However, be sure that before you proceed you…
Step 3) Get clear about your values.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, everyone on the internet has an opinion, including (obviously) yours truly.
But an important idea to consider is that you are your own master.
You can either listen to me, or not. You can listen to some men’s rights activist in an online forum, or not. You can listen to a militant feminist, or not. You can heed your best friend’s advice, or not.
You have the ability and, many would argue, the responsibility to determine for yourself which practices and perspectives work for you, and what you truly believe in. At the same time, you have the ability to reject ideas which don’t serve you.
My philosophy is simple: accept the best, leave the rest.
We live in an era of “gotcha!” cultural politics, where if a person says one thing that people deem to be inaccurate or “offensive,” many others are inclined to write them, and all of their ideas, off entirely.
What a waste.
I don’t believe everything anyone says, including myself. We all have ideas about the way the world works, and we are all—so called “experts” included—routinely proven wrong.
And even if we’re not “wrong,” we may have ideas that work for us, and not for others.
You are incredibly powerful in that you can choose how to think about the world, and which values, morals and beliefs are most important to you. You can decide how to think about women, sex, and dating—what works for you, and what doesn’t, what makes sense, and what doesn’t.
Getting clear about your values isn’t as difficult as you might think.
When you encounter something in the world that you disagree with—a thought, an idea, a suggestion—sit down with yourself, in a quiet moment, and ask: “Why? Why do I disagree with it? Which particular aspect of this idea do I reject, and what might I propose as an alternative?”
Do your own research, survey as many different perspectives, evidence, and theories as you can, and then start to make your own conclusion about what you believe. And, most importantly, always remain open-minded.
If you’re good at this exercise, you’ll emerge from it with more questions than answers. And I think that’s a good thing—one of my beliefs is that it’s better to explore, stay curious, and swim in a sea of complicated questions, than it is to defend and cling to a rocky island of static, invulnerable, iron-clad “answers.”
But that’s one of my values. It doesn’t have to be yours.
So: if you’re wondering about whether or not your girlfriend’s past actions contradict your values, ask yourself: “Why? Why do I feel this way? What evidence can I point to to confirm my general feelings on why my girlfriend’s past is “wrong?” And what counter-evidence exists to contradict it?”
Other questions you can ask yourself:
“Even if I don’t think my girlfriend’s past is necessarily “wrong,” do I think it’s a ‘red flag’ for my relationship with her? Why or why not?”
“Which specific events in my girlfriend’s past do I believe suggest that she isn’t right for me? Why?”
“If there are actions in my girlfriend’s past which I think are “wrong,” do I think it’s likely she’ll continue to act in that way moving forward? Why or why not?”
“What am I afraid of here, with regard to my girlfriend’s past? What am I really worried about? Is my worry based on logic, facts, evidence? Or not?”
“Do I think it’s OK for a single woman to have casual sex? Do I think it’s ok for men to do the same? Why or why not?”
Consider writing your ideas and answers down. Or simply pour it all out–write down everything you’re feeling and experiencing, all of the questions you have, without hesitation or judgment. Writing down our feelings about our girlfriend’s past can be enormously helpful when we’re trying to better understand how we feel.
Every man will arrive at different answers to questions about his girlfriend’s past.
And that’s completely ok.
One thing people—usually men—get wrong about me and my work is the notion that I tell men that a girlfriend’s past is never a “red flag,” or evidence of incompatibility with their boyfriend. This simply isn’t true.
Sometimes, a girlfriend’s past is a glaring red flag (the same way a man’s past can be a red flag for a woman he’s dating). Sometimes, a girlfriend’s past can serve as evidence of incompatibility with a particular man—the same way a man’s past can signal that he’s probably not right for a particular woman.
For example: if your girlfriend was a porn star, and you’re a born-again, evangelical Christian, chances are pretty good that things will fall apart, sooner or later. The difference in values is probably going to be too much to overcome.
But still—our Christian friend in this scenario has to take the time to sit down with himself and make that decision for himself, according to his own beliefs about relationships, sex, and dating.
And, whatever he decides, he isn’t “wrong.” He’s simply making a judgment based on his own values, which are (probably) different from mine and yours. Nothing wrong with that.
Above all, keep in mind that although many are screaming at you from the online rooftops about the “right” way to approach women, sex, and dating in the 21st century, it’s your world.
You can and should compile your own mix of ideas and beliefs from many different corners, consider each of them scrupulously, and arrive at your own conclusions about your girlfriend’s past.
While at the same time..
Step 4) Realize that it is, in many ways, a new world out there.
Sixty years after the emergence of the birth control pill, it is still very much a brave new world (and dating market).
The pill, and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s gave women unprecedented new freedoms, new choices, not to mention a few new headaches to deal with. The pill also liberated, confused, and frightened more than a few men.
Which is to say…
The 21st century sexual marketplace is enormously complex.
And we’re all making mistakes, learning, growing, and (hopefully) making the best possible decisions for ourselves based on what we know at the time.
So we swipe left, we swipe right, we sleep with people we shouldn’t sleep with, we reject people who might truly love us, we let ourselves down, we experience momentary triumphs, we experiment, we learn, we grow.
And hopefully, after a mix of good and bad experiences, we get closer to knowing what really works for us, what we like and what we don’t, what we value and what we don’t, and how best to navigate the manifold complexities of modern dating.
The problem is when we think we have it all figured out—not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
The problem is when we think in absolutes, and fail to acknowledge the diversity of the human experience.
For example: a common trope in male-dominated online forums is the idea that women shouldn’t have casual sex because it “damages” them for future relationships.
A lot of “experienced” women in long-lasting, “serious” relationships would strongly disagree with this idea.
In fact, a lot of these women would argue the contrary, stressing that seeking out multiple relationships earlier in life gave them the necessary perspective to know what they really want, and fully commit to someone when they were ready.
However, does a lot of sexual and dating experience lead to emotional complications and psychological damage in some women? Unquestionably. Can a lot of sexual and dating experience do the same to some men? Unquestionably.
But a woman who has dated only one man can have just as much “baggage” (and more) as a woman who has been with several men.
Think about it: if you’ve only dated one person, and that person was an abusive sociopath, it’s likely that you’re going to bring some serious baggage into future relationships. So the question of the “quality” of someone’s past relationships should also enter the equation here, not just the quantity. Many men fail to appreciate this.
Another example: polyamory, or “open” relationships, is a popular modern trend. Some bloggers claim that this is the only realistic model for 21st century relationships.
And while there’s zero doubt that polyamory is the best option for some, the argument cannot be made that it is the best choice for all. Polyamorous relationships can be a hell of a lot of work, and hundreds of millions of people around the world function best in monogamous unions.
This is the problem I have with many men’s rights activists, sex bloggers, and feminists alike. Many of them tend to cherry pick facts from barely-skimmed scientific studies, bastardizing evolutionary psychology to draw sweeping, simplistic generalizations about the “natural,” or “proper” sex and dating habits of the human species.
Many of these commentators fail to acknowledge that we humans are a wildly varied bunch. Whenever you try to argue that “all women are like that,” or “you should only marry virgins,” or “everyone should be poly,” you ignore countless counter-examples, competing statistics, and studies.
Think about this: in the 21st century, scientists and researchers can’t even agree on what the hell we should eat. And someone is trying to tell you that they know the universally ideal models for sex and dating for our entire species? I doubt it.
Again, we are our own masters.
We can decide what works for us, and what doesn’t.
And it isn’t easy, especially in the 21st century.
Women don’t have it any easier—it is an enormously complicated world out there for modern women, constantly being fed (often misleading, disingenuous, and damaging) advice on what they really want, or should want, from men, dating and relationships.
Again, the pill is only around half a century old. We are only beginning to appreciate the momentous, revolutionary change modern birth control and the sexual revolution has wrought upon the modern world. And we’re all still trying to catch up and wrap our heads around this, all of us.
So, whatever decision you make regarding your girlfriend’s past, and it’s significance for your future with her, cut your girlfriend a bit of slack if she’s made mistakes in her past, or doesn’t have it all figured out. Neither do you.
It’s an enormously complicated new dating world out there. We’re all trying to figure things out. And, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. So…
Step 5) Don’t be a hypocrite.
Let me clear one thing up right from the start: I know men and women are different. Very different.
We have different mating strategies, different turn-ons, etc. Not to mention the fact that women are the ones who bear children and men are not, etc. etc.
I know that we are not “all the same.”
But there are mountains of evidence to suggest that:
- Female sexual appetites are equally ravenous to their male counterparts—yes—despite the disparity in testosterone levels, and regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.
- Casual sex doesn’t necessarily “damage” women for future relationships, the same way it doesn’t necessarily “damage” men.
- Men and women are equally vulnerable to societal and cultural pressures. And thus, owing to societal and cultural pressures all around us, we are all equally experimental in the 21st century sexual marketplace.
So don’t be a hypocrite.
Consider your own past dating experiences. Any negative experiences? Any bad choices? Do you have anything—or anyone—you wish you could “take back?” And haven’t some of your missteps and mistakes led to your biggest revelations about who you are, and what you want? The same is almost certainly true of your girlfriend, and your girlfriend’s past.
Men and women are different, yes. But we have more commonalities than differences.
Before rushing to judgment about your girlfriend’s past, consider your own past experiences, and reflect on how they helped to shape who you are today. Think about all of the ways you have experimented, grown, and learned. Think about the man you were five years ago, compared to the man you are today. Hopefully there have been some significant changes, growth, mistakes, and learning during the years in between.
It’s clicheed to suggest that all of your girlfriend’s past experiences shaped her into the woman you fell in love with, but it’s true. Watch the video below for more on this idea:
If you’re still struggling after a couple of weeks…
Step 6) Talk it over with an older, trusted male friend (or two).
You probably know a few “girlfriend guys”— men who, once they get into a serious relationship, more or less disappear.
You know what it’s like: mo more after-work drinks at the bar, no more weekend barbeques, no more casual get-togethers, no more pickup basketball, nothing. Just an endless slew of Instagrammable brunches with their new girlfriend.
Maybe you’re one of them. (I used to be.)
If you’re a man who doesn’t have a lot of friends, in particular older male friends, make some. Reconnect with your wacky uncle, join a men’s group, sign up for intramural sports, do something to connect with other men.
Modern men are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. And we need other men in our lives, not least to give us some understanding, and offer potential solutions when it comes to crises in our romantic relationships.
If you find a man you can trust, consider talking the situation over with him. Be brutally honest—share your story, describe how you feel about your girlfriend’s past in detail, and ask for feedback.
Lay your ego aside a moment, and benefit from the perspective of a man with more life experience, who might be able to introduce you to some new ideas. The simple act of talking this out with a man you can trust can be a gamechanger—often, we need to write down, or verbalize our feelings before we can truly understand them.
But stay realistic. Specifically…
Step 7) Realize that you’re probably never going to love your girlfriend’s past. And that’s ok.
While some men and women are completely neutral about their partner’s past, and others even get off on thinking about it (seriously), most of us don’t feel this way.
At the least, most people in committed relationships harbour at least a little discomfort surrounding their partner’s past. Which is to say: it’s not a big deal, but it isn’t our favourite thing in the world to think about.
This makes sense. When we fall in love we often feel like we want to own our beloved, with all of the complications, and toxic emotions that come along with that. We want our partner all to ourselves—past, present, and future.
So try to go easy on yourself if you never reach an enlightened, Zen-like state of total peace with your partner’s past. Depending on the type of man you are, and what your girlfriend’s past looks like, that might be unrealistic.
Instead, if you come to the conclusion that your girlfriend’s past is not a dealbreaker, aim to get to a place where you’re ok with it. It’s not something you want to think about, but you’re alright if it comes up. You don’t have anxiety, or disgust, or anger around it—it’s just ok.
It’s in the past, and your real interest is in living now—taking advantage of the fact that life is fleeting, and you want to make the most of the time you have with your girlfriend right now.
Step 1.) Stop talking.
Step 2.) Acknowledge this is your problem, not your girlfriend’s.
Step 3.) Get clear about your values.
Step 4.) Realize that we’re all trying to figure out 21st century dating.
Step 5.) Don’t be hypocritical.
Step 6.) Reach out to a trusted male friend for support and perspective.
Step 7.) Realize that you may never love your girlfriend’s past. And that’s ok.
I have a lot more to share on this subject. And the above practices and perspectives simply are not enough for some men struggling with their girlfriend’s past. Maybe you’re one of them.
If you’re struggling with constant—or obsessive—thoughts, constant questions, constant unease with regard to your girlfriend’s past, you may be dealing with retroactive jealousy OCD. And the above path I outlined may not be enough to arrive at peace.
And you’re not alone.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world struggle with retroactive jealousy OCD. Hundreds of thousands of men become “obsessed” with their girlfriend’s past, struggling intensely. Once upon I time, I did too.
But the good news? Thousands of us have found a way out.