Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
I grew up thinking spouses would know every inch of each other, inside and out, backward and forward. I imagined I’d have that kind of intimacy with the person I chose to marry. And that’s partially the way it’s worked out: My husband, Eric (not his real name), knows pretty much everything there is to know about my life today — my love of Trader Joe’s mini peanut butter cups, my adoration for the Queer Eye reboot, my obsession with our cat, Sameowel L. Jackson. When it comes to my past, though, things are a little murkier.
Early on in our relationship, it was clear Eric and I had very different experiences in the dating world. If you were to put our sexual histories in ice cream terms, you could say I’ve tasted every flavor in the freezer aisle. My husband, however, has pretty much stuck to the same single pint. On our third date, he mentioned that he’d only slept with two women before me.
I didn’t say anything when he made his revelation; instead, I just nodded, mentally processing the ginormous gulf of sexual experience between us. At last count, my grand total of sexual partners was around 50. Two people! In my wilder years, I once slept with two people in one day.
According to research published a few years ago in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the average millennial will have eight sexual partners over the course of their lifetime (that number is slightly higher for baby boomers and members of Generation X, at 11 and 10 people, respectively). For people like me, whose number is way higher, it can be hard to know what to do with that information.
So I didn’t do anything. I knew Eric had grown up in a religious household with strict attitudes about sex, and I feared my extensive sexual history could potentially cut short a promising relationship. In hindsight, I suppose that conversation on our third date would’ve been the best time to divulge my magic number, but I didn’t. And now, after seven years together, he still hasn’t asked how many people I’ve slept with. And I have no plans to tell him.
It’s not like I’ve kept him in total darkness. I’ve told him over the years about a few guys I dated, but I’ve never gone into detail about my dozens of one-night stands and smattering of other exes. And even with the ones I’ve mentioned, I’ve clipped my stories and sanitized the encounters. For instance, Eric knows I used to hook up with a guy named Billy, a fellow journalist, but he doesn’t know I once had a threesome with Billy and his girlfriend. And Eric is aware that I once went on a few dates with Louis, the guitarist of a popular local band, but I didn’t tell him Louis and I once had sex nine times in one night, or that we tore through an entire box of condoms in the process.
I’m not ashamed of these stories; I just don’t relish the conversation that would come from telling them. And to be fair, it’s not like Eric needed to know the full extent of everything from a health standpoint. I am happy to say I’d always used protection and, before Eric, routinely had STD checkups. Before the first time Eric and I were intimate, we both had a full panel of STD tests done, which put both our minds at ease.
So in some ways, I’m relieved Eric hasn’t pried into my sexual history. But still, sometimes I feel a little squirmy about keeping something from him, especially because my number of past partners represents a formative part of my life. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 26, but once I did, it was like a fog had lifted: From 27 to 32, I was on a sexual awakening tour, determined to experience everything I’d been missing out on.
I’ve always been a curious person, and my sex life was the ultimate expression of my curiosity. My lovers were a mix of intense DJs, moody artists, hilarious chefs, and sweet-tempered teachers. None of them were terrific candidates for long-term relationships, but by being intimate with dozens of men — all with different quirks, needs, and personalities — I received a master’s-level education about the kind of mate I needed to be happy. When I met Eric, I didn’t suspect he’d be a great husband; I knew he would be, precisely because I’d been with so many different kinds of people already.
And, by the time I met Eric, in my mid-30s, I’d sowed my oats. Thanks to my slightly delayed Rumspringa, I knew I was truly ready to settle down.
As of now, my plan hasn’t changed: I don’t intend to ever tell my husband how many people I’ve slept with. It’s a can of worms that just doesn’t need to be opened. And I’ve made peace with the fact that my husband will never know everything about my past. However — and this gives me comfort — he will know everything about our future together.