She Said, He Said: Double standard in past sexuality can lead to lies, shame; couples need to make safe space to talk, move forward
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
A few months ago when my wife and I were unpacking from a move, I came across an old notebook that contained the names of 50 or 60 men. When I asked my wife about it she said it was just a group of college research project participants, but she was so nervous in answering that I knew she wasn’t being honest. When I pressed the issue, she admitted that it was a list of men she had slept with before meeting me. When we were getting serious in our relationship, we went through the usual disclosure of our sexual pasts and she had made it sound like she had only been with around 15 other guys, which is more in line with my history. I don’t want to hold the past against her, but I’m struggling with the fact that she lied to me about such an important topic. I feel like I was robbed of the chance to decide for myself whether her dating history was a deal-breaker. Our marriage is mostly good and we have a 3-year-old child so I don’t want to blow things up, but I’m left feeling betrayed and stuck. What should I do?
Haunted by Her History
Lori and Jeff: We first want to acknowledge the difficulty of your situation. No one would blame you for being upset or angry, or for wanting to pull away. However, it does seem that there are enough positive aspects in your relationship to at least try to work through this. Trust issues kill relationships when they are given the opportunity to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: a breach in trust leads to walls going up, and those walls prevent the necessary healing from being received. But if you’re both willing to stay open, navigating from this painful place together could lead to a much stronger marriage.
Lori: Nothing that I’m about to say is justification for lying. Period. At this point, your wife has to take responsibility for her choices. Beyond owning up to her lie, she has to develop an understanding of why the lie happened in the first place. Dishonesty of this nature typically stems from wanting to avoid shame — shame that she has, or that could arise. It’s possible that your wife, in her younger years, expressed herself in a way that now makes her shudder to think about. Or, perhaps she’s quite comfortable with and grateful for her past, but didn’t trust that you would accept her as the sexually experienced and expressive being that she is. Yes, you deserved the opportunity to make that choice. But please also realize that for all of the strides that have been made to close the societal gender gaps, there are still massive double standards. Women are expected to be the fun, sexy seductress to get a date then become the Virgin Mary to get a ring. All the while, we’re human and trying to figure out who we are and what we want to experience in this life. It’s deeply unfortunate that she wasn’t transparent about her journey. Her work now is to get clear on why the truth was too difficult to share and propose a plan for addressing shame and fear that could arise in the future.
Jeff: There are two issues here. The first is your wife’s lie and the second are your feelings around her promiscuity. I’m in agreement with Lori about the significance of the lie and that there are no excuses for her making that choice. There may be, however, ways for you to understand why she made that choice. There is a clear, biased imbalance when it comes to the acceptable number of sexual partners for men and women. While this is in no way meant to condone her lying, the reality is that it’s much more difficult for women to be honest about the history of their sexual partners. It is definitely now her responsibility to do whatever it takes to reestablish an environment of trust in your relationship.
You must ask yourself if you would have pursued a relationship with her if she had been honest? What are your feelings about her promiscuity based on? What number of past partners would have been acceptable to you? This situation is a double-edged sword: If she had been honest with you about her history and you had rejected her, you would never have had the opportunity to get to know her and find out all of the things that ultimately led you to decide to marry her. But now you have to deal with both the lie and the unsettling history. Which bothers you more?
Jeff and Lori: Move forward with intention, compassion and patience for yourself, and to the extent that you can, for her as well. Put in a genuine effort to see if you can get past this lie and rebuild trust. Be honest with yourselves and with each other about what you need now and moving forward to ensure there is always a safe space for the truth.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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