It's A Pleasure

I'm Insecure About My Partner's Past Relationships. How Can I Get Over It?

OK, so you get envious sometimes — so what!

I'm insecure about my partner's past relationships.
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Q: My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years. I was a bit of a late bloomer, and at 27, he’s my first everything: first kiss, first sexual partner, and first long-term relationship. We have a really great relationship and we respect and love each other deeply. However, one thing I've had to work on since we started dating is my insecurity over his past relationships. Unlike me, my partner has had many past relationships, and sometimes I feel like this leaves some sort of imbalance in ours. I do understand that my insecurity over these relationships is about me and my insecurity over my lack of experience and not about him, as he has always been open to any questions about his past and has done nothing to break my trust. However, last week while I was helping him organize his old belongings at his dad's house, I found a box of cards which included love letters from his exes. I understand that he has a right to keep these old mementos, and I know keeping those letters doesn't mean he has feelings for them, but I feel upset by it. All my insecurities I've worked so hard to get over came rushing back. I haven't spoken to him about the letters, as I feel like I've violated his privacy by seeing them. I also don't want to ask him to get rid of them or anything, because I feel like that's controlling behavior. How do I get past this?

A: You, my friend, have fallen into a trap. A very common, very sticky trap. And I bet at least $14 that it’s not the trap you think I’m gonna say you’ve fallen into. No, you’ve bought into the societal myth that Getting Over Things is paramount. That not feeling bad or insecure is a — or even the — sign of a healthy attitude and outlook. That your job as a person is to exorcize petty or small or unreasonable thoughts and feelings from your body. Please believe me that you don’t need to purge all the nasty bitterness inside of you (not that I even think what you’re describing could be defined as such) to be a good person or partner.

And you sound like a really good partner. I mean, I don’t know for sure; maybe you leave kitchen cabinets open all the time or you’re working to steal your boyfriend’s identity. But what’s in your letter? Golden. You have identified what you’re insecure about, how it makes you feel, and you’re doing the most important thing of all: not acting on it. You recognize that this is about you, ultimately, which all insecurities are — more’s the pity; I would love something to be someone else’s fault for once. You haven’t punished your partner for your feelings of inadequacy or your grief over missing out on something. You aren’t demanding that he lie (inadvisable) or change his past (impossible). You aren’t begging or cajoling him into throwing away things that might have some lingering meaning to him. You understand his boundaries and you’ve set ones for yourself that seem incredibly healthy.

You say you worked so hard to “get over” this self-consciousness, but I don’t think it’s really possible. Please don’t despair at that — you can live a full and happy life with tons of worries waiting in the wings! In fact, every single person I know is. Feelings of inadequacy are so often either lingering pains from old, deep wounds or things society has told us we ought to feel bad about. It’s impossible to get rid of either old, deep wounds or society completely. You’re bound to feel twinges of pain or pings of embarrassment from time to time. Such is being human and caring about other people. We all want other people to think good things about us, to love us, to admire us, to respect us, to find us smokin’ hot, to value our work, to laugh at our jokes. Insecurities are just us worrying that perhaps, for some reason, other people won’t do those things. That someone will find us lacking, again, either because we find ourselves lacking or because society has insisted that we’re lacking. And the harsh truth is that we all are lacking certain things. And some people aren’t going to like us or laugh at our jokes or find us smokin’ hot because of that. So we’re all going to spend at least some of our time on Earth feeling self-doubt.

Frankly, I think we have all perhaps gone a little far in the idea that a “secure” person is what we all must strive to be and that having even a whiff of insecurity is pathetic or anathema. Yes, loving yourself is exquisite and I hope you do. But loving anything doesn’t mean blind adoration for all its parts. I love my dog with the most pure, delightful love I can imagine, and still, I see her flaws. There are things I don’t … love. [Disgusting details alert!] She has to be taken to the vet every 10 days because her anal glands aren’t like other dogs and they don’t work. It’s not great! Doctors hate her! Even outside of her weird, crappy body, sometimes she wakes me up at 6:30 a.m. by hitting me in the eye. It’s not like I think there are no issues with her. And yet, my love for her is complete, total, irretrievable, and devastating. Sorry to pivot this way after talking about anal glands, but! Your love for yourself can be the same. You can see yourself as a messy, try-hard, self-conscious, sensitive human — as we all are — and you can be immovable in your adoration.

If you really want to get fancy with the spices, to quote Ratatouille, you can even dare to try to love yourself for those things, instead of in spite of them. Your uneasiness is not only normal and totally fine as you’ve designed and shaped it, but also, it’s interesting and lovely and human of you to desire more. To wish you had a different past, to wish your partner did, too, perhaps. You’re allowed to reframe how you see your characteristics, or at least find the slices of good in them. For example, someone could love that they’re sensitive because it also means they’re very attuned to other people. Or someone could love that they try too hard because it means they put in effort and show up. (Please, please don’t think I’m saying you’re sensitive or a try-hard; I just used my own insecurities as an example.) You can see and acknowledge all the parts of yourself that you don’t like and sometimes even reframe them into nice things. You can also simply forgive yourself for them. OK, so you get envious sometimes — so what!

Honestly, I don’t think you need to do any more work on yourself or this issue other than to forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for thinking harsh or petty or small thoughts. Forgive yourself for being sad about your “lack of experience.” (You have plenty of experiences! They just aren’t the same dating ones as some other people have, but please know you are nowhere close to alone in feeling the way you do.) Allow yourself room to be sad about what you think you missed out on. Feel insecure. Feel worried. And then ask your partner for what you want and need. Plan an extra date night. Take a cute photo together and frame it. Write him a love letter. Make up a fake ex-boyfriend named Todd who really sucks and complain about him all the time (OK, that’s a terrible idea). Please give yourself a break and be so proud that you’re mature and loving enough to feel your feelings and not dump them in someone else’s lap and make them their problem. But also let people help you feel them, too. Talk with your boyfriend, share what makes you feel sad or bad or lesser. It’s not a weakness. It’s just being a human, which is obviously an embarrassing affliction, but one we all share.

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