I’ve been dating a girl for the past few months and we’re getting more serious with each other and talking about marriage. She has lots of questions about my past, which makes me uncomfortable. I have made some pretty serious mistakes in the past, but I’m different now and I worry that if I tell her everything, she’ll bolt. I don’t want to keep digging up the past. How much should I tell her?
It is difficult to face our past when we’ve worked hard to correct our mistakes. I admire your willingness to consider how you can open up more to your girlfriend. I have heard it said that intimacy means “Into Me See.” True intimacy only happens when we open ourselves completely to our partners.
Since I haven’t met with you and heard your story, it will be difficult for me to give you specifics about how to talk about the events that are embarrassing to you. I believe that anyone you’re willing to commit your life to should know everything about you. And, I literally mean everything.
There is a tendency to spotlight on the behaviors you want her to see. Try turning on all of the lights and let her see all of you. This will be one of the most difficult and important things you can do as you begin this relationship.
I’m not suggesting you do this as a form of confession. You don’t owe your girlfriend an apology or explanation for any of your past behaviors, as they weren’t betrayals against her. If you’ve sincerely corrected those mistakes, then the appropriate apologies have already taken place.
What I’m talking about is letting your girlfriend know the real you. You can talk about what you learned from those mistakes. You can share who you’ve become as a result of the school of hard knocks. Our mistakes, especially our serious mistakes, are our teachers. There is no shame in learning from a mistake.
If you’ve done things that have violated someone else’s physical, sexual, or emotional safety, or if you’ve committed an illegal act, it’s even more important that you open up about it and let her know who you are today as a result of those experiences. Let her experience your remorse and regret for your mistakes. It will also be a good reminder to you about how far you’ve come.
She has a right to know who you are. You have a right to know who she is. This isn’t a time for hiding and putting on a false front just so you don’t lose the relationship. If you minimize or hide your past mistakes, you will know it and it will create guilt and shame, which will keep you from believing that she could really love you. This belief will create distance between the two of you and make it impossible to be fully connected.
Email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a list of 99 questions you can ask each other to better understand each other.
Again, this isn’t a confessional. It’s an invitation for deeper connection. If you find that you can’t open up, then you probably still have some healing to do with your past mistakes. A counselor and/or church leader can help you sort this out so you can have the peace you deserve both individually and relationally.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. Please send questions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about Geoff’s counseling practice, read articles, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook at www.geoffsteurer.com.