My own answer to this question has changed over time. When I was younger, and less knowledgeable, I followed the common wisdom that teaches us that the “How many partners have you had?” question is relationship poison. Not knowing how to handle the answer to this question, I, like most men I knew, simply chose not to ask it at all.
As I was later to realize, however, choosing not to ask the question doesn’t solve the problem. Refusing to face something you’re afraid of doesn’t make that thing go away. Instead, it lays festering in your imagination, gradually turning into a demon of your own mind. And it’s a demon that can’t be beaten in the dark recesses of your thoughts. It has to be brought out into the open air, the sunlight, to be defeated.
But I, like most men, was strangely resistant to this notion. Believing, as many men do, that I somehow “owned” the woman I was with, I didn’t want to know that she had been “owned” by someone before me. My adolescent ego was faced with an intractable dilemma: I didn’t want to know, but I had to know. And the finding out would ultimately be my downfall.
I knew all that, but not having a satisfactory answer, I generally tried to ignore the problem. Sometimes it would surface on its own, though, without any questioning on my part. Someone I was seeing would casually mention previous relationships, previous affairs, previous one-night stands. I usually didn’t handle it very well.
Then I was forced to grow up. I met a woman, a remarkable human being. Intelligent, charming, caring, sexy –- everything I wanted. But she had previously worked as an escort, and was still a college student working as a stripper (no, really) when I met her. Her “number” was well into the triple digits. I had thought that my own modest, low double-digit “number” made me something of a man of the world, but I knew I was hopelessly "outmanned," so to speak.
So what is a boy to do?
Well, I decided to take the “negative” and turn it into a “positive.” Relationship jujitsu, if you will. This woman’s past was something I couldn’t possibly just sweep under the rug. So, if we were to make anything of ourselves, I had to learn how to turn her past experiences into something good, something healthy.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard. It was really just a change of attitude on my part, nothing more. And I found it easier to make the change when I realized that this woman’s sexual past was just as much a part of who she was as the rest of her previous experiences. Her former lovers combined to make her who she was –- this angel I met one day on a college campus –- just as much as her family and friends did. The fact that my overly sensitive male ego felt threatened by her sexual past was no reason for me to force her to hide who she was.
You see, that’s what you do when you refuse to face the “numbers” question. You force your partner to bury past experiences –- bury herself, in fact -- in order to sooth your own fragile ego. And that’s not love. That’s ownership. So I made the conscious decision not to go that route. Seeing that I was faced with such an experienced partner, I really didn’t have much choice, anyway. It was either accept or leave.
Now, it wasn’t a completely smooth process, mind you. I still felt pangs of jealousy from time to time, and, I’m sad to say, she occasionally used her colorful past as a weapon to hurt me, when it suited her. And we’re no longer together. Sometimes it’s just not possible to keep a truly passionate relationship going –- the fire in the heart burns out too quickly. But for the most part, this woman taught me to accept what I could not deny. I guess that’s just part of growing up.