I won't kiss and tell

My boyfriend says he has a right to know about my past love life, but I don't want to talk about it!


Cary Tennis
May 28, 2003 11:41PM (UTC)

Dear Readers,

I am glad to be back after a two-week vacation. For the first 10 days I wrote every day and managed to finish a good draft of the novel. Then my wife and I and the dogs went camping for three days and returned to the house for a couple of days to hang around relaxing.

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I had no idea how stressed I had allowed myself to become since Sept. 11.

With a few days to gain perspective, I realized that knowing a solution is not enough; you need the time and energy to do the work that a solution requires. And while I greatly enjoy analyzing your problems, speculating on unseen motives and the emotions that may be at work, the one thing I cannot do is provide you the time necessary to actually change the course of your life. It takes much time to focus on even the simplest of life issues. And when you start trying to escape the demands of economic survival in order to find the time, you see how closely our personal lives are bound up with the social and economic structures we live in.

Social and economic structures are not my area. But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that because of how we live in America today, finding the precious time to implement change is the real challenge. Sometimes I wish I could say to people who need time to deal with life, "Just take a vacation" or even "Just quit your job." But few people have that option. There is no social safety net right now. Enough people are out of work as it is. I love my job. I'm lucky. I do work too hard, but that's my choice. I can take vacation. Not everybody can do that.

So the best I can say is, if you can manage it, if you're feeling overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted: Take a vacation! And if you can't take a vacation, just try to slow down. Somehow, you've got to find time to breathe.

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been together for about four months now, and although he's wonderfully sweet and supportive in most respects, he is constantly prying into my sexual history. Of course, I think everyone should have a right to know about their partner's sexual health history, but my boyfriend is always pressuring me to talk more about what actually went on between me and the two other guys I've had sex with. Both of these previous relationships were really emotionally painful experiences, and I'm afraid that talking about it will only dredge up memories that are better left alone. (Just to give you a better idea, he is not really asking for explicit who-did-what-to-whom details, but questions more along the lines of "Were you two dating?" "How many times did you do it with him?" and "Did you have an orgasm with him?")

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The first time we discussed our previous experiences with each other, I told him I preferred not to talk about it, and ever since then it seems that he has to ask about it every time we have sex. He says that he has a right to know what went on because my history will obviously have an effect on our relationship, and he feels hurt that I don't trust him enough to tell him. I've told him that it has nothing to do with him, but he keeps asking questions! Am I justified in reserving my right to privacy, or is it really required that I should share that sort of information with whomever I'm in a relationship with? (In case it has any bearing on the situation, I'm 20 and he's 24.)

Won't Kiss and Tell

Dear Won't Kiss and Tell,

He claims that he has a right to know certain things, but I don't agree. While your past probably affects your behavior, and your behavior probably affects him, I don't think he has the right to know anything except what you choose to tell him. In fact, I don't think it's a good idea to talk about rights at all in an intimate relationship. Intimate relationships are voluntary associations within which one exercises choice, not rights. Rights protect the weak in involuntary but necessary relationships: employees, citizens, soldiers, classes of people dealing with states and other institutions. They exist to protect the powerless from the powerful and to preserve a certain basic human dignity.

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What he has are not rights but wishes and desires. He wishes and desires to know these things. He may genuinely wish to understand you deeply, intimately and fully, and may believe that if he knows these things he will know you better. But the person he needs to pay attention to is not that person in the past who may or may not have done certain things, but the person in the present -- you -- who is in control of her narrative and is telling him she doesn't want to reveal certain things. To understand you deeply and fully, he needs to understand this particular you.

If he thinks by knowing these other things that he can decode you or come to know you in a way that you do not even know yourself, then to a certain extent he is calling you false and attempting a kind of psychoanalytic subterfuge. Our age is rife with such arrogance. We're always trying to figure each other out. Why not simply take someone at face value: I believe you are who you say you are. Otherwise, if he loves you, whom does he love? Does he love the person you present to him? Or does he love some concoction of his imagination? Is he hoping, by his cross-examination, to push you into conformity with the person he imagines you to be?

Sharing intimate history is not like giving someone a box of photos. It's an intimate act that one chooses to perform in front of a live audience. It's a narrative of disrobing. So tell him only what you choose to tell him, and leave the rest to his imagination.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read his columns in the Since You Asked directory.


Cary Tennis

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