During a visit to my beautician a few years ago, we were talking about dating and the new man she’d met, and I asked her, “Why did his last relationship break up?”. “I would never ask that!” she exclaimed. “I would never not ask that”...I replied.
Lots of women (and some men) are reluctant to enquire about the previous girlfriend, or wife, citing ‘politeness’ as their reason for not asking but, it’s not politeness at all. There are two real reasons we don’t ask…
One: If I ask him, then he’ll ask me and I don’t have a good answer.
If you don’t have a good answer, get one. If the reason you don’t have a good answer is because you really don’t know why your last relationship ended, then find out why. When a plane crashes there’s an investigation to prevent the next plane crash. Investigate your relationship so you don’t crash the next one (in quite the same way).
If the reason you don’t have a good answer is because the answer would mean admitting you behaved badly (e.g. you cheated, or you drank too much, or you were a bit clingy) then fix the problem (see a therapist about cheating, learn to handle your problems without drink, or develop some independence). It’s a sign of humanity to make mistakes, it’s a sign of maturity to correct them. A mature person will understand this and appreciate your ability to learn and grow. Someone who can’t bare the idea that you made a mistake and fixed it, is immature and you don’t want a relationship with them anyway. Someone who hears that you made a mistake but didn’t fix it is well within their rights to be cautious about you.
Two: I don’t want to hear he loved someone before he loves me.
As infants, we wanted total possession of the person we depended on and we use that childhood template as a rough guide to adult love. Seeking exclusivity is natural, normal, nothing to feel bad about however, if you’re dating after divorce, or as an adult, you are going to have a relationship with someone who loved another person before you. So, what are you going to do about it?
The easiest thing to do is denial...to pretend a previous girl/boyfriend just doesn’t exist and, never asking about them, is one way we protect ourselves from the emotional discomfort of the truth. Never asking also sends a message to our new love interest that we don’t want to know. It sends the message that we are emotionally weak...we can’t stand the truth, we can’t stand to share, we can’t cope with the past, we’re not confident they'll like us more than they liked the previous person. When they know you’re emotionally weak you will be treated that way...by hiding from you information you might not be able to cope with (but should know), or by exploiting your weakness in relationship games.
Denying the truth doesn't change the facts.
The solution is to get emotionally strong - to handle the reality of previous loves. The solution is to get confident that you have qualities this person will want from a partner (and keep developing those qualities). And, the solution is to want the information you’ll get from hearing about the last relationship.
The last relationship is the last time this person exercised their relationship skills and their relationship skills will directly, powerfully influence the quality of your life. If you’re going to entangle yourself, your friends, your family, your finances, your time, your body, your mental health with this new person, they are going to change the quality of your life...improving it or worsening it. Before you give your car to a mechanic to take care of, you get recommendations or reviews - information from past relationships about how well this person performs, what their skills are like. Choose a bad mechanic and you’ll suffer damage and risk fatal harm. The same is true of the potential new love who’ll be influencing your life.
When do you ask?
You want to ask very early-on while getting to know someone. There’s no point asking someone a month into the relationship when you’re already emotionally committed to them; you’re going to make excuses, or accept excuses, for some pretty bad behaviour once you’re “in love”. Red flags quickly become points of sympathy when viewed through the rose coloured glasses of romance. Get the last break-up story on the first or second date while you’re still clear-headed enough to see him/her objectively.
What happens when you ask?
If this person describes their ex as a “psycho” you walk away from the date and never look back. The most likely explanation for this characterisation of the ex is that they had such a melodramatic relationship, with so much conflict, that this person can’t do ‘normal’. And no, you’re not going to teach them how to. If this person loved their ex but can still blacken their character to a stranger (you), think what that means if they ‘love’ you. You’d be wary of someone who gossiped about a colleague at work...the same applies in romance.
Even if the ex was actually psychotic, as diagnosed by a psychiatrist, a decent person would have compassion for someone with a mental illness, not disrespect them with name-calling. If you ever have emotional problems of your own, you’re going to be put in the same too-hard-basket as well. (See the next article for the even more sinister meaning behind this answer).
If this person answers your question by describing relationship problems and conflict but blames the ex for them, you’re sitting opposite someone without the most important life skill of all: personal responsibility. Even if their ex did cheat, or drank too much, this person needs to acknowledge their choice to be in relationship with that. And, if they're making-up stories to use to discredit the ex and look good by comparison, you've still found a person you want to avoid.
However, if you ask about why the last relationship ended and this person describes relationship problems and how they were part of those problems, you’re on to a winner. All relationships have problems and relationship problems involve both people. So, when your relationship has problems in the future, (which it will), you’ve found someone who’s able to be part of the solutions.
If you’re serious about having a happy, healthy, productive relationship, you want someone with personal responsibility and relationship skills, and the best indicator of these qualities is their last relationship. Just assume that how the last partner was treated is how you'll be treated. Commit to asking about the last relationship.
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Thanks for reading the articles Jesse. As explained in the article, it’s not the “story” they tell that’s important…it’s how the person describes their ex that counts. If you meet someone who’s ex-girlfriend or boyfriend really was badly behaved, you’re looking for them to be mature understand this and to accept their part in the drama…either being attracted to it in the first place or tolerating it once uncovered. And if you meet someone who’s ex is described as badly behaved but actually wasn’t, you’ve still found someone you don’t want a relationship with… they’re still prepared to blame others. The content of the story doesn’t matter, it’s the blaming/lack of responsibility you want to avoid because it has a profound bearing on future events. We’re all interpreting, all the time, the trick is to get better at it rather than imagine you’re not doing it.
This is well written, but poor advice. When you ask, you get a very biased version of the past story, interpreted by only half of the characters, perceived by someone with limited knowledge about a past event that may have no bearing on future events.