A reasonably common reaction to my book which has come mainly from women in their early thirties is:
“None of Katya’s past should matter; it’s in the past!”
At least two women have said they believe the past has no bearing on the present, and a line should be drawn whereby a person’s entire history is consigned to a vault and not considered in the relationship going forward. In this post I’m going to unpack that idea.
Let’s start with the premise that somebody’s character – an aggregate of a person’s behaviours, values, opinions, and attitudes – is important to a functional relationship (of any kind). I’m not at this stage going to comment on whether someone’s character is good or bad, but let’s assume that character is important in determining whether two people are compatible. If you happen to believe character and compatibility have no role to play in a relationship, then you’re probably going to disagree with the rest of this post.
So having established that character is important, how do we go about determining a person’s character having just met them? The best way is to look at their history, specifically how they have behaved, what decisions they’ve made, and – crucially – what they think of those decisions now. A review of someone’s history will carry far more weight than someone telling you who they are. This is why, at the start of any relationship, each party is expected to give a summary of their life to date (the term curriculum vitae loosely translates to “the course of my life”). Now it is up to the individual to decide which parts of his or her life are necessary to include, but there are some things which are not optional. A common follow-up to the remark to the one at the top of the post is:
“But it’s none of his business, it’s the woman’s private life; she’s not obliged to tell him anything.”
So let’s suppose a man beats the shit out of his ex-wife so badly she’s left in a coma. Is this private too? What about jail sentences, or other criminal convictions? Does a man have the right to withhold such information from any future partner on the grounds that it’s in the past and his private business? Okay, that’s a bit extreme, so let’s suppose a man has been married before, or fathered illegitimate children with whom he has no relationship. Is this private information he’s not obliged to disclose to a new partner? No, and the reason is because history is a reliable guide to character, and character is important.
When you’re young, your history doesn’t matter much because you don’t have one. Nobody will judge a 20-year old on their past decisions because they usually amount to dumb teenage stuff which everyone does. But when you pass 30 you have a decade of adult life behind you, and the decisions you made in that period are what define you as a person. I once met a guy who, at age 27, had been married for 6 months and it looked as though he was heading for divorce. He was working like hell to keep it together (he succeeded) and he confessed his biggest fear was having to explain why his first marriage failed for the rest of his life. This is not something you can just brush off; people will ask questions and – in many cases – you’ll be obliged to answer them. Now being over forty and divorced isn’t such a big deal, because any new partner will likely be quite understanding. But divorced at 27? You’re going to be carrying that history around solo for several years at least.
Marriage and divorce are not things you can leave out of your life history, nor are kids and jail sentences. Part of being a mature, functioning adult is knowing what to include and what to leave out. Only a fool would blurt out everything because, as my lady friends said, some things are private and nobody else’s business. The example I like to use is that if a woman goes on holiday to Mexico and fucks a waiter, she’s best off not blurting that out to any future partner. It might reveal something about her character and it might not, but it’s unlikely to be defining if it was a one-off. It’s up to the individual to decide, but some things you are obliged to disclose in a relationship, earlier rather than later. Anyone who waits until a relationship is firmly established before revealing they have children from a former marriage can be reasonably accused of lying by omission.
The other remark people then make is:
“Okay, so they did some stuff, but they don’t have to justify it to anyone!”
Which is true, they don’t. But if they want to portray their character in the best possible light, they’ve got some explaining to do. Anyone who has been married and divorced is obliged to explain to any future partner what went wrong. They don’t have a right to an explanation per se, but if they are weighing you up as a future partner they do. One of the biggest challenges fathers of young men have is to get them to think long-term at an age when they have poor impulse control. If you get a criminal record aged 18 you will have to explain and justify that for your entire life. The same applies if your 16 year old son gets a classmate pregnant and she keeps the baby. If a woman who at age 21 marries a foreign guy twice her age and divorces him the minute her new passport comes through, she’s obliged to explain her decisions to any potential partner if she wants a future relationship.
Now I made an important comment earlier in this post:
The best way is to look at their history, specifically how they have behaved, what decisions they’ve made, and – crucially – what they think of those decisions now.
A person’s past decisions and behaviours are not the only indicators of their character; equally important is how they reflect on their past. Someone released from a 2-year prison sentence for burglary aged 20 who never got arrested again, settled down, raised a family, and is deeply repentant and ashamed of his criminal conviction is of a very different character from someone who spent the next decade in and out of jail for similar crimes. Someone who got divorced, admits they made mistakes, maintained polite relations throughout the process and bears no ill-will to their former spouse is of a different character from someone who flies into an apoplectic rage at the mere mention of their name ten years later. Someone who brags about whoring in Thailand or slutting it up in New York is revealing something about their character; another who looks back on the same episode with deep embarrassment is revealing something else.
How people have changed is crucial to understanding somebody’s character, which is why alcoholics stress the number of days they’ve been dry. It’s a demonstration of their reformed character, usually for the benefit of those who learned the words from the person’s mouth were nothing but lies. If an alcoholic has been dry for 10 years, it’s a fair assumption that he’s a changed man; if he was on the piss last night, he probably isn’t. Words are important, but sometimes they’re not enough.
The idea that life is a slate which you can keep wiping clean is nonsense, as is the idea that one’s character is separate from the life you’ve led to date. Now it is understandable that some people want to leave everything in the past, but what they’re really trying to do is present themselves as a different character than the one they are. Now why would they want to do that? If they don’t like who they are, then they should change, not try to hide who they are. Similarly, while they are under no obligation to justify themselves to anybody, nobody with whom they want a relationship is obliged to judge their character favourably either. When people wail “Don’t judge me!” what they mean is “Don’t base my character on what you see!” Again, a judgement need not be good or bad, simply that it is incompatible with what the other person believes is necessary for a lasting, functional relationship. Perhaps some women don’t mind if their new boyfriend is a career criminal who spends half his time in jail. Perhaps some men don’t mind their latest love stars in porn films.
Everyone is different, and each must make their own character assessment of any potential partner. But to do that, they must be provided a history in one form or another, along with an accompanying narrative. Like it or not, our past is who we are; you can no more pretend it doesn’t matter than what you say and do in the present.