Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past
Derrick and Carli are three months out from their wedding. Invites have been sent, RSVPs have come in, the honeymoon has been booked. When they sat down last week for their final premarital counseling session, they both had the wedding jitters. However, a painful and unexpected truth came out in that hour of counseling—a secret Derrick had kept not only from their premarital counselor but from Carli as well. He had been struggling with pornography off and on for the last twelve years, since he was fifteen. He had tried everything he knew to overcome it, but he was always on his own, never daring to share this with anyone. Now that he was in seminary to become a pastor, the terror of being found out had kept him even more committed to hiding. However, as he explained, he loved Carli and wanted her to know about it before their wedding so that she would be able to help him.
Carli was shocked . . . and heartbroken. He’s just telling me about this now?
Now what do they do? Should they move ahead with the wedding and hope for the best? Do they postpone it? Do they call it off?
Michael and Shaina have been dating for eight months and are now beginning to talk about marriage. Sure, they have a few fears, but excitement is growing as they both sense God is doing an amazing thing in their relationship.
However, there are significant secrets hidden in each of their hearts. Each has engaged in pornography and masturbation, though it’s Shaina who is more actively pursuing porn online. She is most drawn to lesbian stories in the sites she visits.
Shaina has been encouraged that, since her relationship with Michael became serious, her struggle with lust seems less intense, even if she’s still giving into temptation. She’s thought to herself, “God must be preparing me to marry him. Maybe when I’m married to him, the temptations toward women will go away all together?”
Michael would be shocked to know that Shaina struggles with porn. It’s completely off his radar that women would be tempted in that way. He’s mentioned several times that men really “wrestle with lust . . . it’s a guy thing.” She wants to be confident in his love for her, but his comments have tempted her to feel dirty and ashamed because she’s looked at porn for years—lesbian porn at that—and isn’t a guy.
Should she be honest with him, or just with her two closest female friends who can keep her accountable? Wouldn’t it be more hurtful for him to know? After all, her private fantasy life isn’t really hurting anything, is it?
Maybe you connect with one of these stories. You’re engaged to someone you truly love and yet you wrestle with knowing exactly what you should share with your fiancé(e) about your past sexual experiences and your present temptations and struggles.
Perhaps you’re not in a relationship at all right now, but you’d like to be married in the future. You’re anxious about the how, the what, the when, and the how much of sharing the parts of your story that include sexual struggle and sin.
These are important things to seriously and prayerfully consider before you get engaged, and even more crucial to consider before you get married.
But what happens when a couple enters marriage and they don’t really know each other? Wise premarital counseling addresses important issues of family history, depth of faith in Jesus, finances, children, sex, roles of each spouse, desires for lifestyle (standard of living, social life, ministry involvement), etc. However, people often marry having avoided, or barely discussed, a critical component of their story: sexual history.
Sexual history refers to experiences of sexual activity with another person, or with oneself, sometimes through technology-based communication and/or sexual fantasy. Knowing a person’s sexual history includes understanding what his or her struggle has looked like in terms of length of time, frequency of giving way to temptation, attempts to fight and overcome sin, and a willingness or resistance to be transparent and accountable with others. Sexual history also includes traumatic experiences of being sexually harassed or abused.
There are any number of reasons dating people (and premarital counselors) avoid discussing sexual history:
- Fear. It’s scary and feels too vulnerable. Will my boyfriend or girlfriend reject me? Is my past or present struggle too much for him or her to handle?
- Some think, “Let the past be the past.” Sharing this will be more damaging than helpful. Leave it alone and trust God to work things out.
- Private sin struggles. Pornography, masturbation, sexual hookups, mental fantasy, etc. may seem to lose some of their tempting power in the euphoria of a new dating relationship. It’s easy to think that perhaps your relationship with this person has solved the problem, as Shaina believed.
- Shame. Derrick had kept his porn struggle hidden from everyone until that fateful moment in the counselor’s office. Shame is a persuasive yet destructive force that leads many to keep secret sin in the dark.
- Feeling intimidated. Therefore, they avoid them all together. Pastors, mentors, and counselors allow personal fears and feelings of insecurity to inhibit the necessary probing into these sensitive issues.
For couples to grow into an honest, truly knowing-each-other level of intimacy, it takes time, risk, and vulnerability. This needs to begin in the dating relationship, as both man and woman wisely open up their true selves, one to the other. Based on that true knowledge of each other, including sexual history and present struggles, each can discern if this is a relationship they want to commit to for life. For this to happen wisely and thoroughly, couples need other trusted people to help them navigate these crucial and often scary conversations—before they get engaged.
Why It’s Wise to Discuss Sexual History Before You Get Engaged
Couples are wise to not wait until engagement and “formal” premarital counseling to discuss sexual history. Pre-engagement is the time for the messiness to be shared and known—not in traditional premarital counseling, which is almost always pursued post-engagement. Why?
Engagement communicates, “I’m committing myself to marry you, as is. I delight in you, respect you, know you, and will support you to grow in Christ through your joys, trials, temptations, and struggles.” Therefore, before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say, “I know you. I know your story, strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life. I want to marry you and stand by your side, ministering to you as I also receive your love and ministry to me.”
Before a couple gets engaged, they should be able to say, “I know you. I know your story, strengths, weaknesses, temptations, sins and the pattern of your life.”
Consider another life-impacting decision that requires thorough knowledge and taking the time to gain detailed information before taking action: buying a house. Most people would never purchase a home before the costly, time-consuming process of completing a home inspection. Buyers want to know everything possible about a house before making one of the most significant purchases of their life. A thorough home inspection, conducted by an experienced and trustworthy person, will produce a report that addresses the true condition of that house, from the roof to the foundation. A well-done home inspection brings every problem—both present and potential—into the light. Relationships are much more complex than a physical structure—and thus the importance of knowing potential challenges is that much more crucial!
If it’s commonly accepted as wise to inspect a house, how much more so for couples to do the hard work of knowing, and being known by, each other as thoroughly as possible before committing to marriage? A man and woman need to know each other’s external and internal issues, both past and present, so that they can make a wise decision regarding a lifetime investment into a marriage. Sexual history is certainly one such issue.
Wisdom would lead this couple to invest the time, money, and effort to “go deep” in knowing this house to the best of their ability before purchasing it. Even though they’ve seen the house with their own eyes and have walked on the floors together, there’s more to learn. To avoid the cost and process of a professional home inspection, or to ignore the long-term implications found during the dangerous discoveries of one, would be foolish at best and catastrophic at worst.
Committing yourself to marry a person is so much weightier than buying a house! Taking the time, effort, and vulnerability to truly know a potential spouse isn’t an “inspection”—it’s a way to show humble love to one another and build trust. Rest assured, God delights in honesty and is committed to helping his children walk in the light before him and each other.
Jesus Strengthens and Comforts You in the Process of Sharing Your Sexual History
Sharing your sexual history can be a scary thing to consider. The Lord says that honesty is a good and necessary part of being joined with other Christians (see Ephesians 4:25). If honesty is crucial for our relationships in the church, how much more important is it for those who are preparing to join in the most intimate of unions? Here are some encouraging truths to consider as you prepare to be completely honest with a potential future spouse.
You’re not alone. One of the beautiful facets of a Christ-centered relationship is that it’s not just a twosome. Jesus is with you to guide, encourage, and enable you to do the right thing and walk in the light rather than hide (see Ecclesiastes 4:9–12).
God promises mercy to those who walk in the light. Proverbs 28:13 contains a sweet promise and a sober warning as well: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” A lack of joy and freedom in Christ, versus God’s mercy and grace—which reality do you want to live in? Which of these qualities do you want to be embedded in the foundation of your relationship? Jesus already knows us fully and loves us completely. This truth compels us to confess and turn from sin, which is the invitation given to us in the gospel! Humility before God in acknowledging your need of his gracious love will embolden you to be honest with the person with whom you are contemplating marriage.
God enables us to love rather than be self-protective. Jesus loves us, and also sends us to be ambassadors of his love to people around us (see 2 Corinthians 5:20–21). This includes your girlfriend or boyfriend. Galatians 5:13 commands us that in Christ, we are to no longer live for ourselves, but rather to serve others. A decision to be honest about your past and present sexual struggles may not seem like a way to love and serve someone, but it truly is. You are honestly acknowledging and offering a component of your life story to this person. You are inviting them to know and trust you. Hiding, spinning the facts, and telling half-truths are all basically the same thing: deceitful self-protection. For a future marriage to be healthy, it must be built on transparency and solid trust, which itself begins to grow in an honest dating relationship.
God forgives our sin and redeems our past. As God forgives you, you and your future spouse will have many opportunities to offer and ask for forgiveness, participating in Christ’s work of redemption in each other’s lives (see Colossians 3:12–17). Your relationship becomes a testament to the power of the gospel to make all things new, and to restore years of sinful living. In fact, one of the beautiful ways that God uses the unique “one-flesh” union between husbands and wives is to give them a 24/7/365 experience of being known, unashamed, and loved. This images God’s steadfast love for his people who sin, who are weak, and who have painful and stigmatizing scars.
God provides helpers. Another comfort of Christ, though it may feel scary at first, is that you have brothers and sisters to walk with you. Jesus doesn’t expect couples to navigate their relationship alone. In the euphoria of a new relationship, some couples can pull away from other key relationships, which will hurt them in the long run. Such isolated future spouses evolve into an island of two—and when the storms hit, they have only each other to rely on. Proverbs 11:14 encourages humility, which reaches out to others for help, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Jesus is our eternal companion and spouse. Finally, Jesus is with you now and forever, and will never abandon you. Your relationship may not survive the vulnerable process of sharing your sexual past. It’s better to know now, before making lifelong marriage vows, if this person can accept and be committed to the real you.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Ellen’s minibook, Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share. When you buy this minibook from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
To learn more about this topic, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, Why Couples Who Are Considering Marriage Need to Share Their Sexual History.