A Risky Conversation

A Risky Conversation Most Couples Avoid -
But at What Cost?

WHAT IF, while having dinner in a restaurant, you hear a song that awakens the memory of an earlier love? Or you go to a class reunion, and there she or he is? Or you hear that a past love is gravely ill? Do you share what you are feeling with your partner?

Almost everyone has at least one significant past love. But conventional wisdom advises against saying "too much" to a partner about a previous love. Unless, of course, what is said is unflattering. People actively fear—with good reason—that whatever they reveal could result in hurt feelings, comparisons, and possibly even irrevocable damage to the stability of their relationship. And besides, they don’t want to encourage their partner to talk about a former.

Although some feel a slight discomfort when carefully omitting part of their story, they see no other negative consequences from this "don’t talk" taboo. They simply conspire, in an unspoken agreement with their partner, to keep potentially unsettling revelations hidden away. It certainly does seem simpler—and safer—and, they convince themselves, even kinder. Besides, it is what everyone else does.

But this avoidance has a price. It keeps couples from engaging with not only what is most difficult, but also what is potentially most rewarding. Because this whole subject is mostly off limits, both individuals are unconsciously guarded. They offer only a selective account of what they have experienced, what they feel, who they are.

Consequently, a rich source of understanding—of self and partner—is eliminated. Movement toward deeper intimacy, being known (and knowing), is impeded. Interestingly, this closing off happens even though many of today’s couples feel a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the lack of intimacy in their relationships.

Many of the people whose deeply revealing stories we heard when gathering material for If Only I Could Tell You... Where Past Loves and Current Intimacy Meet believed there would be more intimacy in their relationships if they could express the warm feelings that awaken unexpectedly when they are reminded of an earlier love. The same people also articulated the reasons they keep those potentially charged conversations from happening.

This tension between a desire for greater intimacy and the need to avoid discomfort (for self and partner) introduces a provocative question: If partners could acknowledge that prior loves are forever woven into the tapestry of their lives, and could reveal their feelings, would they discover a magnificent opportunity to know and understand each other? Could it be that, even with all the very real risks of such conversations, the possibility for intimacy is worth it?


The suggestion that couples could benefit from open recognition of, and heartfelt discussion about, previous love relationships is decidedly controversial. But, based on what we have learned through our own experience, and from all those whose stories we have heard and read, we believe that there is much to gain from a more comprehensive inquiry into the effects of what we choose to do with the love and loss that is sheltered in our hearts. We believe that it is appropriate to at least broaden the discussion beyond the pervasive "Don’t do it" advice—so that each woman and man might have a larger understanding upon which to base their choices.