Q I am reaching out to you because my boyfriend really struggles with my past. I have slept with and dated more people than him - all long before we started going out - but he can't stop thinking about this and he says he has very vivid images of me and these other men. He is upset that he thinks like this, and he regrets not being more promiscuous when he was single.
He is very kind to me and he never holds these thoughts against me but it really affects him and our future together. I can see how upset he is and sometimes he thinks it might be easier to not be with me, to stop these thoughts, but we have been together for 18 months and I can't lose him over this. I am always very understanding about his feelings and I never get angry with him but the whole situation really upsets me.
How do I help him overcome this?
A Martin Seligman wrote a great book called What You Can Change… and What You Can't, looking at specific psychological interventions and/or medication in relation to anxiety, catastrophic thinking, obsessions and compulsive habits such as eating, drinking and sex.
So let's start with what you can't change. You can't change your boyfriend, no matter how much you want to. This is his problem, although you can keep giving support.
You are being very patient and compassionate and that is a positive sign for the relationship - and about who you are as a person. But you can't keep shouldering this as your problem. So create clear boundaries of where you begin and where he ends.
Your boyfriend can't control what you did or didn't do before he met you. I'm sure he knows that. That is often the frustrating part for people caught in thought loops like this. They 'know' they 'shouldn't feel like this'. The problem is, that they do. So shame enters, creating more disconnection and self-loathing.
Your kindness, patience and empathy could be very helpful but I don't want you to take this on as your responsibility to fix.
In mental health it is important to not over-simplify or undermine the issue. People on the outside who haven't experienced mental health issues often jump to the supposed 'rational' reaction of 'he just needs to get over it'.
But relationships are about connection. Connection is about intimacy. Intimacy is about sharing our dark thoughts, doubts and fears together. Shame lurks merrily around anything sexual.
Your boyfriend's issue is a common occurrence, heard regularly in the therapy room. What he is experiencing is called 'retroactive jealousy', whereby your sexual past plays out movie-style in his present. I can only imagine how upsetting that is for you both.
Compulsive thoughts make you feel out of control, and although he probably doesn't want to ask questions, or check what you did, these intrusive thoughts and vivid images can make people feel overwhelmed and anxious.
Other people can relate to jealousy; it can be harder to emphatically understand when it seems irrational - such as being fixated on your past. Your boyfriend may experience vicious thought-cycles that start with questions and go on to sexual flashbacks, imagining you with someone else, then coming full circle to feeling somewhat appeased when you reassure him, but quickly going back to graphic thoughts. This is a horrible cycle.
I would suggest that he speak with a professional who has experience working with intrusive thoughts or OCD. I can't say whether he does or doesn't have this condition, but it may be a useful place to start, to examine the 'safe fantasy' of you having sex and to look at how he feels about being vulnerable.
As you are together 18 months, his feelings and future may have you at the centre, and this fixation may be a destructive defence mechanism in how he deals with love and attachment.
He could examine and work through any loss or regret in terms of his sexual past. Or how he deals with risk and or rejection, working on creating a secure attachment with himself, so that hopefully it will create a space for a healthier relationship.
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