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Exercising Tact When Discussing Old Flames


Most of us have been with a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse when an ex-flame's name is mentioned. While a little past information is often welcomed, some people don't know when to stop talking about their old relationships.

"I don't have much patience for guys who can't stop talking about what horrible things old girlfriends did to them," says Katie, a 25-year-old Orange chemist, who asked that her last name not be used. "Once I get the point, I don't want them to continue."

Katie doesn't appreciate it when someone constantly praises an ex either. "Although it's always nicer when a new boyfriend talks positively about an ex, I don't think anyone should glorify a former partner," she says. "It just makes me feel bad. I also wonder, if things were so wonderful, why did they break up?"

Katie would prefer that her boyfriends do as she does and just give her the essential facts.

"I say just enough to a current boyfriend to let him know what I didn't like about a past relationship and what went wrong, so hopefully we won't repeat the same mistakes," she says. "Then I shut up, and I expect him to do the same."

When a lover brings up a past relationship, whether you turn red-hot with rage or become curious will depend on why the information is being shared, says Saeed Soltani, a Santa Ana psychologist, who often performs couple therapy.

"If a person is continually bringing up a past relationship, he or she hasn't resolved past issues and those issues are contaminating the current relationship," he says. "The person needs to resolve the anger and confusion over the past before continuing with the new relationship."

Bringing up a past relationship to measure a new person against an ex-flame is also very destructive, says Soltani. "If a woman says to her boyfriend, 'You're acting just like my ex-husband,' she's driving a wedge between them."

Mentioning another partner to evoke anger or jealousy is also bad news.

If, on the other hand, a person is describing a significant situation that an ex-partner was a part of, then that would be a reasonable reason for reminiscing, Soltani says. The beginning of a relationship is also a natural time to share information about former lovers.

"The start of a relationship is a discovery period for couples, and it's not unusual to talk about ex-partners at this time," says Soltani.

"Sharing past relationships is a natural part of trying to get to know one another and can reveal valuable information," he says. "Knowing what worked and didn't work in past relationships is a critical part of building a strong foundation for the new relationship."

Although Katie appreciates brevity when it comes to talking about the past, she does rely on the information she receives from new boyfriends.

"What people say about their past relationships is much more revealing than what they say about themselves," she says.

When they talk about an ex, it can often be a good indication of whether the new relationship has a chance.

"If he describes how something an old girlfriend did bugged him," says Katie, "and I do the same thing, then I know we've got a problem."

Ann, who asked that her name be changed, is a 55-year-old Santa Ana lawyer. She has two main reasons for finding out about a boyfriend's past relationships: "For obvious reasons, I want to know where that person has been sexually, and, as a feminist, I am keenly interested in what a man thinks of women. If he is continually discussing female partners in a negative manner, that will probably stop the relationship for me."

To get at the truth about past relationships, Ann says she asks open-ended, non-threatening questions of men.

"Rather than asking why a man divorced his wife, which will often elicit a planned answer, I will ask something very innocent, such as how he met his ex-wife. That kind of question doesn't raise any walls, but a man's answer and the way he talks about his ex-wife can be very revealing," she says.

Ann has found that men usually don't ask her questions about past relationships. When she's interested in continuing a relationship, she will disclose things about ex-partners so that the man gets to know her better.

Although men may not ask questions, they are often just as curious as women, says psychologist Soltani.

"Men may not want to admit their interest, because it could be seen as a sign of weakness, so they will tend to camouflage their curiosity," he says.

Joe, 29, an Irvine resident who is a director of sales and marketing in the telecommunications industry, says that he's found some women to be quiet about past relationships.

"Some women aren't very verbal or open about the past," he says.

When Joe is with women who are slow in revealing information, he tries to focus on the present and future, and hopes that nothing drastic went on in the past. He's been in situations, however, where it would have been better to know crucial information about their past sooner in the relationship.

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