Q: Hi Emily!
I’m 24 and my boyfriend is 42, and lately we have been having problems with his—as he calls it—“retroactive jealousy”. Though I am much younger than him, I’ve had many more lovers than he has. As a result, he’s always bringing up my past experiences and comparing them to his own. He constantly bombards me with questions and asks me to recall memories that I would rather not think about. Is it okay that he’s asking me to divulge my sexual history to him? What good could possibly come of it? How do I help him understand that my past has nothing to do with our present?
A: Dear Jenn,
Sounds like you’ve got a whole host of issues going on here, so let’s break them down one by one. First off, a term for what your boyfriend is likely experiencing is “retrospective jealousy” which explains his obsessive thoughts and curiosity surrounding your sexual history and past relationships. Your boyfriend doesn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill jealous partner. We’re not talking about the occasional “I saw you staring at the waiter” incidents. People who suffer from this affliction live in a painful, uncontrollable loop of negative notions and insecure feelings which seems to have no end. These intrusive thoughts are coupled with fear, worry and heightened anxiety. No matter how hard he tries, he just can’t vanquish the images of all your former lovers from his mind.
I’m sure you’re sick of hearing this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention your almost 20 year age difference. Let me remind you that you’re young and this is the time to experience all different kinds of relationships—even if you think you’ve “been there, done that.” Remaining open to all that life has to offer you will teach you so much about yourself and about what kind of partner you want for the long-haul. I would advise that you take some time to seriously consider whether staying in the relationship is truly beneficial for you, especially in a situation like this that is breeding so much negativity.
I know you love your boyfriend and want to ease his anxiety, but believe me, no matter what you do or say to try to make things better for him (and for your relationship), he lives in an imaginary past and only he can find the way out. He may try to make you feel guilty for withholding information from him. He may tell you that the only way to move past this problem is for you to spill every detail of every former relationship to him. Not only is this untrue, it is actually incredibly counterproductive, and not to mention unfair to you. The problem isn’t with how many partners you’ve had. The problem is his insecurity about his own sexual inexperience. That is a demon he needs to tackle on his own. Give him space, support him, encourage him, but remember that he is not entitled to any details of your past that you don’t feel comfortable sharing with him, and it’s NOT okay for him to persistently demand it. He needs to respect your boundaries.
The truth is, we all go into relationships with a history. Everything we experienced and learned about ourselves and other people in past relationships are the very things that contribute to the success of a healthy partnership. Even if we made mistakes, we should never feel shame or regret, or that we need to apologize for our past. Our personal experiences are what make us unique and interesting. A good partner will accept you and love you unconditionally and knows that your past is just that; yours. And if this guy can’t get over your past, how you can build a future?
Best of luck!
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