Haunted By Your Past

by Mel Dixon

When you start dating someone new, it’s inevitably difficult to know how much of yourself to give, and when. This is particularly true when it comes to telling them about your past. As the relationship progresses, it’s natural that you’ll want to learn more about each other – but there are times and places in which to have conversations about things like past relationships (for example). Sometimes, people reveal too much about themselves too soon, and come off as self-obsessed or as weighed down by their own baggage. Other times they keep information back, which may incline their date to consider them stand-offish, or worryingly secretive. If the relationship is right then people usually work out how much of themselves to give in their own way, and learning about people as you go along is part of the fun of embarking upon a new relationship. However, what if you have something significant in your past? Something like addiction? Or bereavement? Or a spell in jail? How do you broach this subject – and is it always right to do so?


Let’s begin with the positives of disclosing a checkered past. For a start, it often seems like the ‘honest’ thing to do. Honesty is a very important and healthy part of healing from any issues which assailed you in the past, and can help you to combat any recurring problems in the future. Furthermore, it may inspire your date to trust in you, and may even bring you closer together. Sincerity and honesty are [1] good for your health, and they are good for the health of a relationship. Certainly lying outright about your past is a very bad idea. However, it is important to ensure that your honesty is occurring for the right reasons. Disclosure should occur in a spirit of honesty and respect both for oneself and one’s date. It should be done with confidence and self-efficacy, without any ulterior motive, and without emotional burdens such as shame impinge upon it.


People who have suffered from addictions, or done time in jail, may feel that they are ‘bad’ people, and that their dates should be aware of how wicked they are. In these cases, the honesty is fueled by a sense of shame. Such disclosures have a masochistic tinge to them, and ultimately indicate that the speaker is still controlled (in a manner of speaking) by their past issues [2]. Shame in general is not a particularly healthy emotion, no matter how it is come by [3]. While you may well feel that disclosure is the honest thing to do, if you begin to believe that your past is the single most important thing for somebody to know about you, then you are ultimately still being defined by that past. A big part of moving forward and healing is letting go. If you continue to make a big play of the person you used to be, it’s a fair assumption that you still are controlled by that person in some measure. Let’s look at it a different way: if you were on a date and your date made a huge point of telling you that they used to be in a long-term relationship, and then went on to hash out the tale of that relationship in detail, you’d assume (probably quite rightly) that the legacy of this relationship still exerted an unhealthy hold over them. It is the same if you used to be in a relationship with substances, or crime. Disclose your past, by all means, but do so for the right reasons, when you’re in the right emotional state – and don’t let it be the be all and end all. After all, you’re not that person anymore!

Confidence And Respect

If you have a past to disclose to your date, don’t feel pressured into doing so – either by your own perceptions of its import, or their questions. Instead, do so at a time when you feel relaxed and confident, and know that you have the respect and trust of the person whom you are with. Your past is your own. You are not obliged to tell anyone about it. It may well be that doing so is a sensible idea, and it may well be that doing so would be good for your burgeoning relationship. However, it should not be done out of a sense of shame, or out of a need to present yourself as vulnerable, or from any motive other than ones of basic honesty and respect. If you are not completely comfortable, if it makes you feel small and ashamed, and if you don’t entirely trust either yourself or your date to make a big deal of the issue, then keep your past to yourself until such time as you feel ready to disclose it. There is no need to actively hide anything – simply don’t bring the subject up until you feel ready and comfortable with disclosing. This may take some self-esteem building [4], it may take some self-forgiveness, and it may require you to come to terms with the person you used to be. But if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly – and this goes for telling someone else about your past as much as it does for anything else!

[1] David DiSalvo, “How Telling The Truth Could Boost Your Health”, Forbes, Aug 2014

[2] Jo Harvey, “50 Shades of Vulnerable: The Art of Coming Clean About Recovery”, Rehabs, Feb 2015

[3] Elizabeth Persons, Trace Kershaw, Kathleen J Sikkema, Nathan B Hansen, “The impact of shame on health-related quality of life among HIV-positive adults with a history of childhood sexual abuse”, CIRA, Yale University, 2010

[4] Mayo Clinic, “Self-esteem: Take steps to feel better about yourself”, Aug 2014

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