Dear Carolyn: My girlfriend has told me about her unfaithful past. She told me she dated someone for three years, and in the last year she became unfaithful.
After that ended, a year and a half ago, she became very promiscuous. We met four months ago. She told me she would never cheat on me, and that her past was full of mistakes. She says she used sex to cope.
Sometimes I worry. I’m trying my best not to become a jealous, possessive boyfriend. Any advice? – R.
People can be a bad relationship bet for countless reasons, often in glorious combination. Fixating on only one of them automatically forces you into a narrow view of a person, just when thinking broadly would optimize your judgment – not just of her, but of yourself with her.
Of course it makes sense to be concerned about her destructive past. Of course it’s going to be on your mind. Of course infidelity is near the top of the bad-news food chain.
But tease out the contributing elements of cheating, and you’ll get a much less tidy, but much more useful set of traits to screen for – in part because they’re behind all kinds of destructive behavior, not just infidelity.
Being possessive of someone, or employing the proverbial short leash, does nothing to offset any of these destructive tendencies. What does keep them from infecting a relationship is mastery of them by your girlfriend, and a certain amount of acceptance of them by you both.
The former is pretty straightforward. If she has looked the worst of herself in the face, identified her errors and frailties, worked to overcome them, and accepted that some element of this work will be lifelong, then I like her chances in a relationship better than I do some people’s who’ve never once colored outside a line.
As for the latter: I like both of your chances if you’re both mature enough to recognize there’s no such thing as trusting someone never to do you harm. There’s only trust that it won’t be purposeful or negligent – and that you’re prepared to handle it.