He loves me, but he can't open up
September 16, 2016 8:52 AM   Subscribe

My partner of 2.5 years can’t talk to me about the most significant relationship of his life. I want to understand this better.

My partner (let’s call him Dan) has seen a lot of pain in his life: loss of a parent at a young age, poverty, loneliness, neglect, abuse. He fought his way out of all that and, in his late 20’s, began leaving it all behind. He’s built an amazing career and life for himself, for which he’s thankful every day. This is something I greatly admire about him. His strength and resiliency and ability to keep a positive outlook on life is inspiring. I’ve been through some differently-shitty stuff in my life, which he appreciates, and we have a mutual respect and admiration for each other in this regard.

Here’s a rough timeline of Dan’s past serious relationships. From the ages of:

17-20 – A
26-30 – B
36-48 – C (married for the last 8)
50-present – me (together now for 2.5 years)

Dan has told me everything I’ve wanted to know about A, B, and other past partners. But the breakup with C was extremely painful for him and he doesn’t want to talk about the relationship in any detail. She ended it and, though they had been having problems in the last few years, he was devastated. Still, they managed to separate maturely and are now on very civil (if not warm) terms. She has primary custody of their two kids and he has regular visitation.

We’ve both been extremely open from the start about all aspects of our lives. He’s spoken to me in detail about his painful childhood and numerous other struggles. He’s told me about the difficult years with C and what led to the breakup. What he won’t talk about it, however, is anything good. How they met, dated, married, why they worked, what he loved about her, what he learned. Basically, I don't know their "story"; mostly just the end.

When we were first getting to know each other (as friends), he said things like: when C and I were happy together, we were ridiculously happy. We were the golden couple. I went all in. I thought we would grow old together. That relationship set the bar for him – for the 8 years that it was good, it was really, really good. So when it ended, he was devastated and lost. He felt deceived, and he still doesn’t have closure.

I’ve told him that I’d like to know more about their relationship, because I want to understand him better. I feel like there’s a huge, significant chunk of his life that I don’t have a grasp on. I’ve never, ever pushed this issue, because I don’t want to cause him pain. He has said maybe he’ll tell me one day but as of now he's not interested in that discussion.

Dan and I love each other very much. He is warm and affectionate and truly cares about me. We talk about building a future together. But this part of him is closed off, and sometimes I wonder if he’s really over that relationship. Not over HER (I don’t feel threatened by her and don’t think he wants her back) but over the grief of it. I don’t know enough about grief to really understand this. Is it possible he’ll NEVER be able to talk about this? And does that mean anything for me? There’s a part of me that thinks: if you've healed from something, you should be able to talk about it. Maybe you’ll always feel some sadness, but blocking it out completely seems unhealthy to me. Then again: I’ve never experienced pain like that. Maybe I’m just being an asshole.

I guess my TL/DR question is: what does it mean if you can’t talk to your partner about a painful thing from your past?

Note about therapy: he had a few sessions after the breakup which he found very helpful. He doesn’t feel he needs it now.
posted by yawper to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
what does it mean if you can’t talk to your partner about a painful thing from your past?

It means that it's painful, and the potential benefit of talking about it isn't worth the pain.

For some folks, talking about painful experiences is a healthy way of dealing with it. For other folks, it's the exact opposite. Especially something as fraught as talking to a new partner about an old partner. As anecdata, Mr. Motion and I have only shared the vaguest details of our previous relationships. I'm not even convinced that he knows about the longest one of mine (over 7 years through high school and undergrad).

You've told him that you'd like to know more, which is a fair ask. But just because you are in a relationship now, that does not mean that you have a right to a "grasp" on every "significant chunk of his life." To the extent that there are problems in your relationship now (maybe caused by him not being over the "grief"), you should be engaging with the problems, not with nebulous possible causes.

I don't think that it's fair for you to push him on this. I might even go as far as to say that your apparent need to know this information is unhealthy, and that you may wish to consider therapy for yourself, because your partner sounds just fine to me.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:06 AM on September 16, 2016 [53 favorites]


It means that the way he's chosen to move on from it is to pack it away and not dwell on it. I think this is a completely reasonable and mature way to approach a painful breakup. The memories are painful and useless. It shows great maturity on his part in fact, to be able to not dwell too hard on it and let it fade into the background in order to form a new relationship.

If he wants to share the positive memories with you, he will. He may just not feel comfortable doing so and I think you would do well to honor that.

I don't think there's much to understand here, it's fair to want to know what sort of things have shaped a person so that you can be sensitive to their needs and help them grow. And you do know those things about him and you can be there for him in that way.

There's a great Leo Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

If I were you, I would work on accepting that the time that was happy for him with his ex was happy in as storybook as a fashion that he tells you it was; that you don't need details to understand that, and leave it be. If he wants to share more, you've been very clear that you're open to it, so you're good!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:08 AM on September 16, 2016 [17 favorites]


After 2.5 years together, what do you need to know? What specific questions do you have? Does he act like he's still grieving? It seems strange that you are hung up on this and I agree with sparklemotion that you may benefit from therapy.

I don't talk about my marriage because there's nothing to say. The way it ended sucked. Why talk about the good times in that relationship when you can have good times in your new relationship? It doesn't mean I don't trust the person I'm dating. It means I want to be happy and not dwell on painful stuff.
posted by AFABulous at 9:08 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


I’ve never, ever pushed this issue, because I don’t want to cause him pain. He has said maybe he’ll tell me one day but as of now he's not interested in that discussion.

Please continue to not push and respect this wish regardless of your curiosity. As someone who has had both a shitty upbringing and has been in shitty relationships I really very much disagree with "if you've healed from something, you should be able to talk about it." "Talking about it" isn't an objective, universal good, it's a choice you make after weighing your options and risking the emotional damage of opening up old wounds regardless of how far they've healed. For many reasons, some parts of people's histories are better left untouched for the sake of both of the people involved in the relationship. The fact that he is now on civil terms with his ex and you're sure he doesn't want her back should tell you more about him and his character than any stories would.
posted by griphus at 9:12 AM on September 16, 2016 [44 favorites]


There’s a part of me that thinks: if you've healed from something, you should be able to talk about it.

Think of it as a scar. Picking at a scar doesn't help.
posted by Etrigan at 9:14 AM on September 16, 2016 [10 favorites]


if you've healed from something, you should be able to talk about it. Maybe you’ll always feel some sadness, but blocking it out completely seems unhealthy to me.

I definitely see where you are coming from and I mostly agree because I know that is how *I* function. Not knowing what happened during that time in the life of my partner would be difficult for me too. I'm also a "talk about my problems to deal with them" person. But not everyone is that way. Not everyone wants to talk about their problems, and for some people talking about past problems represents it not being "done". For a lot of people when a shitty situation is done they don't talk about it because that topic represents a shitty time in their life that they don't want to relive and because they feel that they already wasted too much time/energy living that shitty time the first time. Or in the case of some people, their partners in the past have used their painful past/painful memories against them so now they don't share to just protect themselves.

If you truly can't get past that he isn't able/willing to tell you all about his painful past, then you have a few options. Therapy, breaking up, etc. But I don't think he necessarily has an obligation to share all this with you.

Datapoint: My husband is not a talk about his problems person, both past and current, and this has been a bit of a sticking point from time to time mostly because I will see that he is clearly upset or worrying about something. I will ask whats up. He'll say "Nothing, I'm fine." and I'll say "Look, you're visibly upset over something. Please tell me what it is so that I can help, or at the very least so that I don't imagine horrible things that it COULD be."


ETA: Maybe think of this in terms of some other situation that isn't how you function. For example, I'm a woman who has absolutely zero desire to get pregnant or give birth. The whole idea is just... awful to me. I have a step son who I love more than breathing and frankly I feel like I have hit the lottery with that kid because I got a kid without having to push one out of my vagina. But if he didn't exist I STILL would NEVER want to give birth. For a lot of people that is just crazy talk and they're sure I'll change my mind or whatever, but that just isn't how I function. I don't have that need that apparently so many people have, and while that may be weird, especially to people who have bio-kids or who are trying to get pregnant, my not wanting it isn't WRONG. And having people tell me that how I feel about this is some how "selfish" or wrong or how I'll change my mind is rude and dismissive.

Your partner not wanting to talk about his painful past may be weird to you, but it isn't wrong.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:18 AM on September 16, 2016 [8 favorites]


I am similar to Dan in the sense that I also had a long term relationship that was very happy until it was not. And in my case the other person also ended it as well. I have certainly talked about that relationship and why it ended with my partner -- but have not gone into why we worked and what I loved about her etc. Why? Not because it's painful -- it was then -- but it's not now. Because it's over and I am not really interested in revisiting it. I think that's okay. If he's not acting like he's grieving then I suggest let it go. You don't need to know all of that to have a happy relationship.
posted by Lescha at 9:20 AM on September 16, 2016 [8 favorites]


I would be super uncomfortable if my current partner seemed really invested in knowing and talking about the details of my previous relationships in all their intimate glory. When you say you want to hear about the "good parts," I take you to mean that you want him to tell you how and why he feel so deeply in love with his wife and what all of that entailed. And that sounds like you're gearing up to shop for some pain by starting a dialogue in which you'll be compelled (how could you not be?) to compare your current relationship with him to his past relationship with her in order to see how things stack up.

That's to say - few of us think it's a good idea, I bet, to regale our current partners with stories about all the good things that were attached to our previous partners; I think he's being really responsible, considerate, and mature in this regard. And most of us who have been through painful breakups have had to put those good things away and reconcile - in really thorny ways - what it means and meant to have all of that tainted by the bad way things ended. It's not just that it's painful or confusing to linger again in all the happy memories of a past relationship, but that those happy memories may themselves seem very different in a post-breakup light and in the spotlight of a new, happier relationship. He may, in other words, be in the midst of reevaluating whether or not those "good times" were really as good as he thought, and if he has made the decision that they weren't, in fact, as good as he thought - then it isn't that he's holding back from telling you about all the good parts, he's potentially decided that they weren't good parts in the first place. It would be crazy-making, if this were the case, to have a new partner insist that you keep them and talk about them as if they were "good parts."
posted by pinkacademic at 9:25 AM on September 16, 2016 [11 favorites]


It actually sounds like he's told you quite a bit about this relationship. He's told you what it was like when it was good, how it went bad, what it meant for him to lose it, and what his healing process has been like. That's a more than I've told any of my SOs about previous relationships, and it's not like I've made an effort to conceal them. Mostly I would just think that he'd want to focus on his relationship with you, the one he's in right now, rather than going over old ground.

I have been through some crazy and shitty relationships myself, ones that took a lot of healing and time to get past. I've found that once I've gotten to a point where I am genuinely and truly "over" them, when I've processed things fully and am at peace again, I don't have any desire to repeat the process. It feels like a bunch of unnecessary pain, and that it runs counter to my efforts to rebuild myself and make a life that doesn't involve having to think about my past relationship all the time. I also worry that I might come of as bitter and obsessed, even if I've been specifically asked to discuss the topic and didn't really want to do so to begin with.

So I'd agree with everyone above who is telling you that you should leave it alone. If I were you, I would think a little bit about why I felt like I needed to know this stuff. What good does it do? What purpose does it serve? What in your relationship is being held up by the fact that you don't know all the details of all his previous ones?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:31 AM on September 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


I totally feel you on this one, but I think you need to respect his wishes and give him time. That doesn't mean you can't ever ask a question once in a while but, if he doesn't elaborate, then leave it at that. I would say it takes considerable time to remember the good with the bad and have it not be immensely painful. For some, focusing on the bad and not acknowledging the good is the best and only way there is and that may never change. Honestly, I don't really think it says anything truly significant other than that some people cope differently, and you may never get all the answers you want, but that's okay because then those answers aren't important. What is important is *your* relationship, how you treat each other, and the stuff you do choose to speak about with each other. It sounds like things are pretty good, so enjoy it and good luck!
posted by katemcd at 9:31 AM on September 16, 2016


Since they have kids together, he needs to be able to compartmentalize. Sorry.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:32 AM on September 16, 2016 [8 favorites]


Thanks everyone - really good answers, and the perspective I needed. To be clear, I am not "really invested" in knowing all these details; I AM curious, but certainly not obsessed. I'm just trying to understand what he might be feeling, and these answers have helped. The part I didn't emphasize is that we are the type of couple who talks about everything, including past relationships. We like to talk and analyze and figure out why we are the way we are; we're nerdy that way. He's asked me a ton of questions about my past relationships, too. Neither of us are jealous or insecure types; we just like to examine things. I hear you all though, and I am happy to let this drop completely. Thanks.
posted by yawper at 9:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't talk about why my relationship that ended after 10+ years was good either. I talk about what is necessary to explain myself to my current partners. Remembering the good stuff hurts more than the bullshit does. Leave it. It's a lockbox for a reason.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


Wow, yeah, just let it go. I was married for 25 years (!) before this marriage. We have now been married 5 years. She was married 15 before. We both have shared the basics and maybe some specific incidents about our previous marriages, but never press each other for more. There are things I would never want to talk about, just because there is no point, and it just dredges up painful memories. I also have some childhood events I would never tell anyone for the same reason: why bring up painful thoughts for no reason, and more importantly, why put those thoughts into someone else's head?

I guess my TL/DR question is: what does it mean if you can’t talk to your partner about a painful thing from your past?

So, what it means is... nothing, really. At least nothing you should worry about. This doesn't mean he "can't open up." It means he chooses what he wants to talk about.

Dan and I love each other very much. He is warm and affectionate and truly cares about me. We talk about building a future together.

It sounds like he is open about current things that actually affect your relationship. That's all that matters.

Note about therapy: he had a few sessions after the breakup which he found very helpful. He doesn’t feel he needs it now.

Obviously, I don't know him, but I don't see any reason he would need therapy now. I went to therapy for a while during and after my divorce, but the time came when I was done with it. Sounds like he's on the right track.

Enjoy your wonderful relationship!
posted by The Deej at 9:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think it depends on why you want to know. I can brainstorm several plausible reasons, such as:

1. You have a nagging suspicion he is still in love with her and you are some form of rebound/second choice. You would like to know this for sure so you can either break up with him or redouble your efforts to win him over.

2. You are worried that he shows tendencies in relationships towards Negative Problem Behavior A or B that has significantly contributed to his prior relationships breaking up. You would like to know about this so you can either break up with him, or prepare yourself to deal with A or B in your own relationship.

3. You want to feel a consistent sense of deep emotional closeness in your relationship and to feel like he doesn't shut you out, because it gives you a sense of security in the relationship and/or you yourself want to talk about these things in your own past, and feel that doing that without reciprocation is uncomfortable.


1 or 2 might be okay depending on how valid your fears are. 3 is not a good enough reason, IMO.

I actually think its pretty common for couples to never talk about prior relationships, especially if there was real love and/or some part of them still loves the ex.
posted by stockpuppet at 9:40 AM on September 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


It sounds like there is still contact due to the kids.

He may not want to share in part so you do not create drama. I got dumped once for answering a question honestly. In another relationship, I did not get dumped because I had the sense to keep my mouth shut. He may not want you feeling insecure (or whatever) over something you have zero reason to feel insecure over.

He should not have to answer to your judgement for his past private moments. He is good to you now. That should be enough.
posted by Michele in California at 9:43 AM on September 16, 2016


I guess I don't think we have the right to know all this information about previous relationships of our partners. I get that many folks share this, but many couples at middle age can't catalog their partners' former relationships like this. And I think it's okay.

I agree you should let this go. This would be a perfect thing for you to discuss in individual therapy.

It's okay for your partner to have these boundaries with you, and you should respect that.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:45 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


if you've healed from something, you should be able to talk about it.

I don't feel this way. I think a lot of folks are like me. For me there is a time to stop processing, to stop discussing and sharing. A place where all further engagement with a topic is only regressive and painful.
posted by French Fry at 9:46 AM on September 16, 2016 [8 favorites]


There's a difference between secret and private. The difference is hard to articulate, but in general terms it comes down to whether the information is anyone else's business. Like, if your partner fantasizes about Orlando Bloom, that's private; if your partner is going on dates with Orlando Bloom, that's secret.

How much privacy a person needs varies both with the person and with the subject in question; a person can be extremely open about some things but very quiet about others. And in relationships, it can cause a bit of disconnect. Especially if you're the kind of people who are open about most things and suddenly run into something one person would rather keep private. And if you don't know what someone's not telling you, you have no idea whether or not you need to know it, so it can be worrying.

You worry that the details of his past relationship are secret; he considers them private. It's a normal worry for you to have, but if it's in the past and not threatening your current relationship - and it sounds like it's not - then there's no need for him to share it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:58 AM on September 16, 2016 [10 favorites]


Maybe it's just something he wants to keep for himself. Let it go, move on.
posted by Brittanie at 10:00 AM on September 16, 2016


My husband was married to someone else before me and I would not dream of prying about it or expect him to talk about it more than he has volunteered. If he has good memories to treasure, all the better. And if it's pain that he doesn't want to hash over, then there's no reason for him to do that. And if he's just not thinking about it anymore, that's fine too. It's not current; it's not relevant; and most importantly, it's not my business.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


"I'm appalled that you expect to know every single thing from the private life of this autonomous adult person's intimate past. That's private. Ouch."

I think it's not superbly useful to punish or judge the OP for a wish or yearning of theirs—thoughts aren't actions. Especially when they've indicated that they've always backed off on this topic and have never pressured their partner, and have already mentalized and recognized the perspective contra their own that their partner might have.

Hi OP! I'm like you! For me, "being able to talk about something" is a pretty excellent proxy for "mentally healthy about that topic." As you're reading in this thread, however, not everyone is like that; people are built differently, or things may just be too utterly devastating or painful to reopen.

On the other hand, I think it's totally normal for you to want to know about your partner's inner life and history, and I imagine that, if you're anything like me, that mutual sharing makes you feel closer to and more intimate with your partner. And, because I also function as an "opennness = health" person, my automatic thought would also be to be interested or concerned why this area seems cordoned off for him.

I think it's fair for you to ask and to indicate that you're a safe space for him to discuss this if he so wants, and fair for him to indicate his need to not talk about this, for as long as it doesn't really affect your relationship in the now. Which seems to be exactly how things are going for you, now, so, mazel tov! :)
posted by Keter at 10:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


As another data point, I've been married for 13 years, together with the same partner for 15. I cannot imagine any non-cringe worthy scenario where I would sit my wife down and say, "Here is a listing of all the wonderful moments that made me fall in love with the person I dated before you". I don't subscribe to the "Current partner needs to know every last detail of any semi-significant event that has occurred in your life, ever" theory; I'm guessing your boyfriend subscribes to the same philosophy.
posted by The Gooch at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, it sounds like you have contact with his ex, at least in passing. Telling you his private moments with her involves telling you private stuff about her. He may feel it violates her privacy.

Think a bit about your own privacy before you set your expectations here. Do you want him telling other people about your private moments with him? Or do you think what you two do together in private is supposed to be just between the two of you?

You can't really have it both ways.
posted by Michele in California at 10:53 AM on September 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


I get both of these feelings -- I am process intensely through verbal means, talking out loud about a situation being the most prominent one. Sometimes I don't even realize how I feel about something until I'm talking about it with a close friend and suddenly all the feelings come pouring out.

However, there are some things in my life that I don't talk about much, because the attendant rush of emotion that comes along with them, or the regrets I have about them, or (in one case) the deep pain that I feel remember the good times with an old love, can be just too much to manage at a given time. I have a lot of sadness still about that old love and its ending, and even though now I am well over it, so much time has passed and I rarely even think about him, the thought of "Talking it out" is just overwhelming. It brings back this terrible bittersweet feeling for me that sounds a bit like, "I thought that was how my life would end up. And even though I love my life now - the inherent promise and beauty of that relationship was so great that I wish we could have had forever." Even though that relationship had its problems, I still am a bit sad that it didn't turn out to be The End for me, even though I am so happy with my life and my partner and the way it all shook out.

I don't really ever talk about that old love, except once in a while, in person with my best friend who was there through all of it, because it hurts too much to over-process it with someone who doesn't already know the story.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:11 AM on September 16, 2016


It probably means he can't think about it either, that he does have the words to say or describe the break up, only the early parts of the relationship. Not everyone thinks or remembers all the time with words. Some of our memories are in colours and scents and emotions. Often when we are under major traumatic stress short term memories do not transfer into long term memories. Sometimes in order to remember something we need to sit down and turn it into a narrative using words so that we can retain it, and if we don't do that during the window where we can still retrieve it reasonable we can't retrieve it any more and make a narrative out of it and then move past it.

This is why, following a traumatic experience people often get together and trade stories because then they get their version of what happened down and can remember the story they told instead of having to try to recall something coherent from a mixture of visceral pain, a sense of overload, vertigo, a negative association towards what was previously a positive thing, such as springtime, or the cozy living room couch, etc.

It's normal not to be able to talk about bad things. It's also a positive thing, compared to the opposite extreme when someone can't stop remembering a bad thing and can't move away from it and can't stop talking about it and all they ever do is talk about their ex and try to get her to go back to them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:11 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Is let it go. I have a husband who does not like rehashing. It can be hard sometimes because when we have a fight (which happens rarely, but is upsetting to me when it does happen) I have trouble getting closure until we have talked about why it happened, how we can prevent it next time etc. And he just wants to forget that we put ourselves through that, embrace the fact that it's over and move on. We both have had to learn how to compromise a little. He has to accept a bit of talking, and I have to accept being judicious in how much of that I demand from him.

I also have realized that there are some experiences about another person that you will never really understand----no matter how much talking you do. He will never understand what it was really like for me to grow up with divorced parents, for example. My relationship with my dad is a little distant, and even though he can see some of the behaviours on both our parts which make it that way, he still doesn't really understand the emotional dynamic of it for me. And on his part, growing up with a serious chronic illness was a huge shaping force on him. I know some of it, obviously. But I will never really and truly understand it the way he does. People are complex individuals. Please consider that this aspect of your partner's life may simply have to be chalked up to 'it is not for you to understand this.'
posted by ficbot at 11:37 AM on September 16, 2016


Adding to the above...I feel like: Eh, just focus on finding interesting new things to analyze and talk about. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 11:39 AM on September 16, 2016


It's not like he refuses to talk about this relationship at all, he just doesn't want to tell you about the good parts. Probably because remembering the good parts hurts like hell when you know what came after. Probably also because it's hard to hold on to conflicting feelings, to really actively grasp the beginning and the end at the same time, it's much much easier to deal with the present on its own. Plus, he still has contact with her so he needs to remain civil, and dredging up complex feelings in their entirety is counter productive to that.

I find it much much harder to talk about the "good that came before the bad" than I do to talk about anything else. Painful things don't stop hurting, they just hurt a little less, and it's often much nicer to leave them buried than to dig them up whenever someone wants to take a look at them.

Just because you are his partner now does not mean you are entitled to his entire life story (despite what Hollywood might tell you about how couples ~know everything about each other~ that usually just means those people have had little out of the ordinary happen to them). He gets to choose what he shares with you. You get to choose what you share with him. Try to be grateful for what he has given you of himself, instead of looking for the pieces that might be missing.
posted by buteo at 2:28 PM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


If my husband asked me what the good parts were with my ex, I'd struggle to even name them. The ending of that relationship was so painful that I can't recall what was ever good, even though obviously there were good things. So that's another thing that can be going on.
posted by cabingirl at 4:53 PM on September 16, 2016


I would be more worried if he did want to talk about her all the time. It sounds like he's already told you the important bits. He's moved on from it, you should too.
posted by intensitymultiply at 10:10 AM on September 18, 2016


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