Is He/She Worth It?

Posted on July 27, 2020


Way back in 1983, Billy Joel released an album titled “An Innocent Man.”  The title track was a ballad in which the singer is committing to being a safe and healing person for a woman who has been badly wounded from past relationships.  Essentially, he recognizes that how she guards herself in the relationship is based upon her fears and hurts from past relationships rather than from anything he has done to make her unsafe.  He is willing to stay and commit through the tears because he is an innocent man.

How we respond in close relationships is impacted by our past relationship experience.  Some of this comes from our childhood experience with our caregivers (i.e. usually our parents).  Some of this comes from past relationship experience.  For example, if your partner’s previous partner had affairs, it should not be surprising that your partner would be very wary of your relationships with members of the opposite sex.  Any interaction with a coworker that sounds a little too friendly can trigger your partner’s fears.  Anything that seems at all secretive or incongruent will set off alarms for your partner.  Things that may feel innocent to you may not seem that way to your mate.

If you really have done nothing that you feel should warrant any distress or distrust on the part of your partner, it can be upsetting to find your integrity and commitment being questioned.  You may find yourself asking, “Do I really need to pay for my partner’s ex’s past sins?”  The short answer to the question is “yes, you do.”  My question back to you is, “Is he/she worth it?”[1]  If you answered, “yes,” let’s talk about what that might look like.

Let me give you perhaps the toughest one first.  Don’t make your partner’s distress about you.  Assuming you really have been faithful, not told lies or kept secrets, this is not about you being a person who would cheat, but about your partner’s fear.  Having a previous partner be unfaithful is traumatic.  This is a trauma response and not an indictment of your character.

Second, empathy, empathy, empathy.  Your partner needs to feel that you understand what it is like for him/her and that you care.  If you are confident that you 1) understand your partner’s distress, 2) care about your partner’s distress, and 3) that your partner knows that you get it and you care, you might test that hypothesis.  That is, ask your partner whether he/she feels understood and cared for regarding this point of pain in the relationship.  If the answer is “no,” again, don’t make it about you.  Find out what your partner feels you don’t understand.

Third, boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  When one partner makes a request of the other about keeping a boundary, the other can say, “yes,” “no,” or negotiate.  Just because your partner asks for something doesn’t mean you have to do it that way.  You still need to function in your own life.  For example, asking you to never speak to any other member of the opposite sex is not viable.  We have to interact with the other gender in the normal course of carrying on our lives.  But you do want to negotiate some boundaries that will help your partner feel safe and protected.  Once you agree to them, keep them.  It is much better to say “no” to a boundary you can’t possibly keep than it is to agree to it and then violate the agreed upon boundary.  Any boundary violation is going to trigger your partner’s trauma.

Fourth, as in all relationships, no secrets and no lies.  There are no white lies here.  The discovery of any lie will call into question (in your partner’s mind) everything your partner knows about you and the relationship.  Lying about where you were for an hour can quickly become proof of a double life in your partner’s experience.  Just let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Will it be like this forever?  How long will it be like this?  That depends on 1) the level of your partner’s attachment trauma from the previous relationship(s).  This is not just what happened to your partner, but how traumatic it was for your partner.  And 2) how consistent you are in responding in ways that help your partner feel safe.  If you try to rush the process, it tends to slow things down.

Could you get to a place where this is a satisfying and secure relationship for both of you?  Having not met your mate, I will give you a qualified yes.[2]  Attachment trauma can get healed by having the consistent corrective experience of having your partner be a safe and caring person for you.

Is he/she worth it?  If the answer is yes, this is really the gig you signed up for.   As Super Chicken would say, “You knew the job was tough when you took it.”  Good luck.



[1] My hope is that the question is rhetorical.  Out of 3 billion other possible mates on the planet, you chose this person.

[2] If your mate has Borderline Personality Disorder, it might always be like this.  That’s a story for another day.  If you think that is the issue, you might read Stop Walking on Eggshells by Mason & Kreger.