Michele O'Mara

(s)EXcapades: to hear or not to hear

Filed By Michele O'Mara | July 21, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: sex talk about ex's

Hi Michele.

So my question is what should I do? My gf and I have been together for 4 years, a bit rocky, but ok. One nite she was tipsy and started talking about her past sexual experiences. She talked and talked even after I said that I was getting uncomfortable. She was giving me details (boob size, nipple looks, taste of the ex's, 3 somes, specific times when she was doing things) Ok with that in mind, now when she is trying to become intimate with me- I have a mental flash of her with other girls. I am making rude comments about her previous sex life. It is totally ruining our sex life because of the flashs I keep getting then I don't want to continue. What should I do?

- Overloaded

Dear Overloaded,

Makes sense to me that you are disturbed by the initial conversation and now the intrusive visuals you are left with after hearing about your girlfriend's sexcapades with her exes. It's not so much the sharing of details that concern me, though, as much as it is her disregard for your boundaries, and the lack of respect she expressed for your feelings. Because she was "tipsy" this could be an issue of alcohol abuse and lack of inhibition/self-control which would indicate the need to address the role of alcohol use in your relationship - but I'll assume that is not the case here.

Some partners are comfortable sharing prior sexual experiences and details and some are not. Seems to me that the issue is that you expressed that you are not comfortable knowing these details and she disrespected that reality (somewhat with your consent, because you did stick around to hear the details).

When you tell someone (especially your girlfriend) that you are getting uncomfortable about something, the appropriate response would be for your girlfriend to stop sharing, inquire about your feelings, and explain to you why it's important to her for you to know what it is she's trying to tell you. Instead, it sounds like she simply proceeded with more talk of her sexual adventures and the anatomical details of women with whom she's been. And her point was? Did you ever truly understand the message she was sending? I think that's where putting your focus will be most productive.

Many people struggle with knowing how to communicate their feelings. Children and adolescents, for example, will often use behaviors, rather than words, to communicate how they are feeling. Mostly this is because developmentally they don't have the skills to express themselves, to decode feelings, and identify and communicate in abstracts, so they rely on actions to communicate. Unfortunately, the same is true for a lot of adults.

A good rule-of-thumb is that you can figure out what someone is trying to communicate by tuning in to how you feel when they misbehave. For example, if a child (or an adult for that matter!) is throwing fits, you probably feel out of control - thus your child is probably feeling out of control and needs more boundaries or more limits in order to feel safer. I wonder if when you apply this concept to your situation, what it is your girlfriend may have been trying to communicate? How did you feel when she shared these details? Were you jealous, angry, hurt, insecure, feeling inadequate, feeling disrespected, or maybe threatened? Whatever you felt, when you turn it around, is it possible she may be feeling this way and not have the skills to tell you?

My guess is that she has some feelings of hurt or anger that she has tried to communicate - about something in your relationship, and she's ineffective in getting you to understand her feelings. As a result of her failed attempts to communicate, rather than eliciting your concern or regard for her feelings, she has only succeeded at pushing you further away, compromising your ability to be vulnerable/intimate with her. Now she's probably further hurt and perhaps misbehaving more, causing you to distance even further.

And so it goes with many couples. We do more harm to our relationship through our attempts to lessen our pain than we could ever do by sharing our respective truths, and being honest about how we feel and what we need.

Break the pattern. Tell her how you feel about what she shared. Be honest. Tell her it's hurtful, that you're jealous, or insecure, or feel upset by the intrusive visuals that interrupt your intimacy now. Ask her what she wanted you to feel. Explore with her what she may have been feeling when she shared this in the first place. Take your communication up a notch. Be the communicator you wish she could be.

I see communication as a mixture of clarity, courage, and skill. I would estimate that communication is 40% clarity (knowing how we feel), 40% courage (ability to say how we feel once we know), 20% skill (finding the words, exercising good timing, and using an effective delivery to express how we feel.)

Be clear, and be courageous.


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Great advice. I always wonder about the back story to some of these letters. Like how did the girlfriend just start blabbing about all her exes, with full details? Did the writer just sit there and take it all in? And why are they discussing this now after four years if the girlfriend thought it was so important?

People are weird.

Seems to me the issue that's not being addressed here is jealousy. All this blah blah blah about communication and boundaries and the appropriateness of saying certain things to your partner is just making some kind of elaborate ritual of denial. Partners have histories. If this person can't bear to hear about it, that's her problem to work on, not her partner's.

I wondered about that too, water.

Michele - how do you think the writer's jealousy plays into this?

First, I don't make the assumption that jealousy is the emotion the writer feels. If this conversation had taken place on a first date, do you think this pair would have become a couple? I doubt it. Why didn't a conversation like this take place while courting? Because it wouldn't work. It's unlikely that tipsy would have gotten what she wanted by having this conversation then. So why initiate a conversation like this years later? What really is the message here?

The writer is upset. She's having intrusive visuals. She has not responded well to this information and she requested that this NOT be shared with her. To say, "deal with it, it's your problem," is more of what she's already experienced. Of course the writer needs to examine why she feels he way she does; and how to make peace with her reaction to this information. I think that's why she wrote for advice.

Jealousy, by the way, gets a bad reputation. At it's core, jealousy is an emotion designed to help us protect what is important to us. It's a survival response. Typically we feel jealous when there is a threat. The reason jealousy gets a bad reputation is because many people mistake imagined threats for real threats, and when your actions are mistaken as threats, the reactions you get in a relationship can begin to feel "controlling." That, of course, is an entirely separate column in itself.

Jealousy is often based on real threats. When your boyfriend is having regular phone conversations with his ex, after two years of not speaking to him, and you just happen to be going through a rough time - jealousy makes sense. There IS a potential threat. Jealousy moves people to action.

Unfortunately many people reject their honest feelings of jealousy, convincing themselves it's some sort of underdeveloped emotion for the weak and insecure, and in their efforts to be strong, they miss opportunities to change their situation when they can. Jealousy is an alarm of sorts that says "Hey, wake-up, there's a possible problem here."

So whether or not it's jealousy, I stand by my initial take on this that it's important to communicate in order to know what's REALLY going on. It's easier to blame tipsy for sharing, or the writer for being jealous - and yet where does that get them? No where. In the end, it really is all about the blah,blah, blah.