Our couples therapist wants to know too much

She wants a sexual history from each of us -- but I don't want my boyfriend to know everything.

Published October 21, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A little over 10 years ago, I spent some time as an exchange student in South America. This was hard on my boyfriend, who, the year before, had been unceremoniously dumped from abroad by his previous girlfriend. The night before I left on my grand adventure, he did a preemptive dump, stating that he was "giving me my freedom" although it was clear he didn't really want to end our relationship. We fought, and then we kind of kissed and made up, but we didn't officially reestablish the relationship.

While I was away, I decided to enjoy my "freedom." But we maintained a very relationship-like correspondence, exchanging "I love you, I miss you" letters and so on. Our relationship status was mushy. I let him know that I was casually dating and going out but that really, he was the one I wanted to be with.

Meanwhile, I was having fun! For the first time in my life, men approached me as desirable and attractive (I was the gringa, after all!), and I discovered that I enjoyed the attention. And twice, I got a little carried away, and had sex with guys I had just met. I didn't consider it cheating -- he'd "given me my freedom"! And yet, it felt like I'd crossed a line that I shouldn't have. When I returned, we resumed our relationship. I never told him about those encounters, both because I wasn't sure how he'd react (I loved him and didn't want to lose him) and because I didn't want to hurt him. He knew the big picture -- that I'd gone out with other people -- and the details seemed unnecessary.

And we lived happily ever after. But relationships are hard, and recently we've encountered some problems that we can't resolve on our own and that are significant enough to threaten the relationship. So we started seeing a therapist a couple of weeks ago.

Here's my dilemma: At our last session, she stated that she would like to get our sexual histories in the next session. What should I do? Do I tell him in the session about the one-night stands I had years ago when we weren't officially together but we kind of were? Do I tell him before the session? Do I lie -- in therapy -- about this piece of my background? It seems that lying to our therapist is probably not a good thing. Yet I never would have dreamed of telling him about this otherwise and it doesn't feel relevant to our current problems. I've thought of calling the therapist and telling her directly, but she is a big believer in honesty about all things in a relationship (whereas I believe that an occasional white lie can be an act of compassion), and I think she might write us off as a lost cause if I tell her but refuse to tell my partner. I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Am I a Cheater?

Dear Am I a Cheater,

What you do in a certain kind of therapy is try to unravel a mystery. So you try to look at everything. You ask, What could this mean? What could that mean? You enter into a kind of long-term relationship with yourself, in which you are questing and probing, seeking understanding. In order to find that understanding, you need to see the truth clearly. So you say it out loud, whatever it is.

In a relationship, you have two people who are simultaneously trying to unravel two mysteries. Each is trying to understand himself and the other person. We are at a certain advantage in trying to understand ourselves, because we know what we have done. We might not know why, but at least we know what. In trying to understand the other person, we may think we at least know what ... but we may not. It gets complicated.

Maybe too complicated. Perhaps that's a broader and less defined approach than what you were looking for.

Many of us enter therapy with a specific goal, something that has been bothering us a lot -- so much, in fact, that we're willing to take the rather daunting step of actually engaging a professional to talk with us about it: Hello, Dr. Technician of the Human Soul, I understand you have the tools to help humans change their behavior; well, I would like to ... stop smoking or play a better banjo or overcome my fear of flying. These are all things one can be helped with. And in fact, if it were purely a behavioral issue you had, perhaps you could take a very focused approach. If you had a bad habit, or a specific phobia.

But my guess is the reason she wants you to tell your sexual history is she wants to begin unraveling a mystery. There is a mystery in your relationship. Or she thinks there is.

Maybe you don't want to unravel the mystery. Perhaps you are concerned that by going into therapy to save your relationship you might ruin it. I would have a private conversation with her about this. I would tell her there are things in your sexual history you do not want to discuss with your husband. This kind of conversation might help you better define what exactly you are hoping to achieve. Perhaps in response she would explain what she is trying to accomplish. You might find out that you're after two different things. In any case, it would probably be a fruitful conversation.

Remember: You may have engaged a professional to help you solve some problems, but you are in charge. She can't force you to talk. You talk about what you want to talk about. That's how it works.

So that's what I would do: I would talk to your therapist yourself, and just tell her your concerns.

"Since You Asked" will be on vacation for a few days next week. Cary Tennis will be back Thursday, Oct. 27.

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