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Carolyn Hax: Truth of past can distract

Fri., March 14, 2008

Dear Carolyn: You have said that people do not need to tell “numbers” – how many past sexual partners they have had. Yet, to have healthy relationships, we should not lie to our significant others.

If we do not want to tell those numbers, how should we answer the questions if they arise? Do we assume those who ask are judgmental or insecure? – Phoenix

Well, yes. But since dismissing people as judgmental and insecure without giving them a chance to speak for themselves could reasonably be considered judgmental and insecure behavior, a good answer to the numbers question would be “Do you think it matters?” And if yes, then, “Why?”

If you get the “truth is important to healthy relationships” line in return, or some other guilt-generating vehicle, then please don’t question the need to resist this blatant invasion of self. There is a huge, gaping difference between telling a significant other you think it’s distracting, silly, juvenile, pointless, judgmental, shame-centric and conducive to paranoia to discuss numbers, and lying.

It is important, of course, for couples to have a good idea of each other’s histories. Not so much for health purposes, since any sexual experience is enough experience for exposure to infection – but for the purpose of shedding light on someone’s character, values and emotional makeup.

Excepting for extreme behavior – prostitution, for example, does warrant specific discussion – it’s possible to glean that “good idea” from surprisingly little detail.

To wit: “I’m pretty new at this.” “I lay low for years after my divorce.” “I’ve had a series of long-term relationships.” “I think we as a society are way too uptight about sex.” “I was wild in college” already says plenty, and you can double its information just by dialing your expression to “impish” or “dour.”

So what information would a number add that these summaries don’t already provide? Certainly anyone who would fudge these would fudge a number, anyway.

Meanwhile, couples reinforce their general histories with armies of small details that come out through clothing, body language, interests, habits, and conversations about this ex, that rough time in your life, and the party you went to last week.

Anyone who needs the assurance of a number beyond this litany of overt and unwitting disclosure needs assurance no number can give.


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