My boyfriend can't handle my past

He asked me how many and I told him. Now how can I be pure enough for him?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 14, 2005 11:13AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Lying doesn't come naturally to me. I have to think about a lie -- plan it out ahead of time -- and even then, I'm unlikely to go through with it. My first instinct is to tell the truth, even when I wish immediately afterward that I hadn't.

So that's why my boyfriend knows a little too much about my slightly storied past.

We started dating nine months ago. A month or two later, I let him talk me into telling him how many people I'd been with. Though my number was half his, he got upset. He said he had pictured me as "pure" and that the standards are different for men. Worse, a couple of months ago, he asked if I had ever been part of a ménage à trois, and I told him that I had. He was heartbroken. He says he thinks about it almost every day and it sometimes makes him physically ill. He's brought it up to me a few times -- he asks me, "What are you going to do about this?" as if the past is something broken that I can fix. I get frustrated and defensive (especially since he's been with two women at once himself). He tells me in 20 different ways he wishes I were pure. I make offers -- I'll talk to a priest, I'll go on a fast, I'll help him read up on forgiveness, I'll let him chop off one of my fingers ...

We love each other. I've never been in love before, and I've never enjoyed sex as much as I do with him. It always ends OK. But he's going to keep bringing it up. I'm really fine with him being old-fashioned. I am ashamed of my past, but I've forgiven myself. I think he's being punishing and ungenerous. Can you help us think of some way I can help him get over this?

Thank you so much for the understanding and creative advice you give. I hope you can direct us to a more productive way of looking at this.

Shamed and Frustrated

Dear Shamed and Frustrated,

You are not a product. You do not have an expiration date. You are not sold used or new. Your value does not go down with every sexual experience. You do not have a finite capacity, like a phone card, after which you are used up.

Neither are you a substance that can be pure or impure. You are no less pure now than when you were born. You will never be less pure than you are right now.

Nor are you an object upon which men have left marks that your boyfriend may discover and interpret. You are not a public place were things are written for others to read. You are not an exotic land that men have visited and reminisce about in comfortable chairs.

You are not a collection of experiences like snapshots in an album, subject to perusal and approval by your boyfriend.

Your past is not a term paper for him to grade. Your past is not something that needs to be repaired. You can't get up on top of it with a ladder and fix it like a roof. You can't do anything about it except regard it with awed attention. It is like the sea, far beyond us, far too deep, far too wide, far too powerful.

You are not a product, or a substance, or an object. You are not any of these things. For want of a better term, you are a creature, a spiritual being.

We are creatures of flesh and light and movement. We go through life. Things happen. We do things. We remember things. Things hurt us, things delight us, things frighten us. We go on. We describe the things that have happened to us and look for the light of understanding in someone's eyes. We are creatures who love and hate. We love and hate and are loved and hated and we go on.

Our past is not a map on our skin, visible to the male gaze. Our past is something we tell. Once we tell it, people sometimes turn away. They can't bear it. They're not strong enough. They have to find the strength. We can't give them the strength. They ask us to put the past back in the past, but we can't do that either. Once we tell it, it's with us in the present.

So tell your boyfriend to lay off with all this talk. Tell him to get some wisdom and some understanding. Tell him to get some humility and some awe. Tell him to go sit by the sea and think about it for days on end until his head hurts and he's thirsty and all he wants is you -- however you are, whoever you are, wherever you've been, whatever you've done.

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