Two women I’ve dated have wanted to know a lot of personal details about my previous relationships. “How did x make you feel? What are some things you did together? What was the connection like?” And some sexual questions. I was under the impression that what I shared with a previous girlfriend – feelings and thoughts – are above all intimate and private. Even if there are no feelings there anymore that bond of trust still is.
But now I am not sure if that kind of compartmentalization is the best move. Should I be an open book for the next person? It isn’t that my dating past is sordid or particularly salacious. I am under the impression that part of what makes these things special is privacy, both for current loves and previous. This can come off as keeping people at arm’s length. But cutting people off from my past is anti-intimate. I am on the fence on how to move forward. Am I being too closed off, or do people just need to talk about themselves and their story more than they should?
Struggling with Privacy
You’ve tapped into one of the fundamental questions of human relationships—how much do I reveal and how much do I withhold? If Don Draper and Batman exist on one end of the “sharing” spectrum, perhaps Marc Maron and Louis CK are on the other.
You’re faced with a predicament that most people encounter at some point in a relationship, and there’s no easy answer. While your question refers primarily to information about past partners and relationships, it begs a broader question about secrecy in general: What is it? Do we need it? What is its role in a partnership? For this reason I turn to Georg Simmel, one of the granddaddies of the study of secrets. He wrote about everything from romance to money: both bastions of secrecy.
With his help, we’ll help you define your own relationships to secrecy and privacy and how they interact with intimacy in your own life. For obvious reasons I’m more of an over-sharer than a secret agent when it comes to this stuff, but let’s see how you feel after hearing what good old Georg has to say from beyond the grave.
NOBODY IS AN OPEN BOOK
“One never can absolutely know another, as this would mean knowledge of every particular thought and feeling,” says Simmel. He’s right. There’s no way you could possibly be an “open book,” to any of these women. People are just too complicated for that, so take that stress off yourself.
YOU ARE A BUNCH OF FRAGMENTS
Simmel goes on to tell us that we must form “a conception of a personal unity out of the fragments of another person in which alone he is accessible to us.” You are an entirely different person with each person you are with. Every time you enter into a new friendship or relationship you notice different things about that person and share different things about yourself. There is an innate privacy in every relationship no matter what you choose to reveal, so don’t kid yourself that you can control that.
TO WITHHOLD IS TO BE HUMAN
Here’s something to ponder: Nothing else in the world can “either enlighten us with reference to itself or conceal itself as a human being can. No other knowable object modifies its conduct from consideration of its being understood or misunderstood.” In other words, rocks, fish and cheese sandwiches don’t consider how they are to be understood in the eyes of an audience. If you were not concerned about being misunderstood would you or would you not talk about your past relationships with present partners? Answer honestly…
SECRECY AND MODERNITY
Simmel would say that modern life has more emphasis on truth than ever before because of its complexity. The closer we are to people the more that whether or not they’re keeping secrets from us matters. Your current girlfriend may be trying to establish closeness by probing you for details. If you’re really against revealing those details, start a conversation asking her what she needs to feel closer to you that doesn’t have to do with how your ex kisses.
CLOSENESS AND DISTANCE
Simmel took a break from talking about secrecy in society to dive into secrecy in relationships in particular. He felt that intimate relationships lost their “charm” and intimacy if they didn’t include “distance and intermission.” To Georg’s point—to feel closeness we must know distance. What feels important to you to keep to yourself? If privacy is part of intimacy for you, explain to your new love interest how you want to keep that “charm” alive between you.
YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH
Simmel offers us a third option for trust and secrecy besides attempting full knowledge of another or withholding all knowledge: “Faith of one person in another.” He calls it an “attitude of the soul with respect to another.” Often couples who are very close with each other and have been together or plan to be together for a very long time reveal most of their past to each other precisely because they have faith in each other. It’s possible that you just haven’t met a person you feel confident in doing that with. After all, adopting an “attitude of the soul” is hard. In that case, you have to wait it out until somebody comes along that you’ve got faith in.
Ask yourself if you are withholding information in order to respect past partners or whether you’re just holding onto it for the sake of holding onto it. Secrecy has a dark side. If you obscure “all that is deep and significant,” people can assume that “everything secret is something essential and significant.” It might not be that big a deal to tell your current lady friend about how you felt in the past, especially if the only reason you’re not telling her is to maintain an air of personal mystery. Do you really want to respect the privacy of your exes, or are you just being a Batman? If it’s the latter, she’ll soon figure out your more Bruce Wayne than masked hero. Better to be honest up front.
THE BEST THING ABOUT HAVING SECRETS IS TELLING THEM
Look, secrets were meant to be shared. Or as Simmel would say, “Secrecy invokes a tension, which, at the moment of revelation, finds its release.” If you reveal some of the sexual emotional shenanigans you got into in the past it will likely feel great. Who doesn’t love a little release?
Your condition is a human one, as is that of the women who wish to know your secrets. Reveal in good faith, and you’ll have intimacies aplenty.
Just the Tips is Playboy.com’s weekly advice column with professional matchmaker Katherine Cooper. Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @kathkathcoop.