In episode 292, I answer a question from an individual struggling to come to terms with their partner’s sexual past, resulting in increased anxiety and panic. In this post, I dive deeper and take a look at what might be underpinning these issues and what steps you can take to move forward positively within yourself and in your relationship.
Hi, I’m grateful that I found your podcast and enjoy every new episode.
I’m bipolar 2 and struggle with anxiety. I’ve been in therapy now for a while and have made great strides in my mental health. But a while ago I found out about my partners sexual past. My partner had a threesome many years ago and I struggle to not imagine it or view it in my head. Now I don’t have a problem with being sexual or exploring. I have as well, and have my own sexual past which I don’t find inferior. But these thoughts occasionally pop up in my head and it strongly affects me for the rest of the day. They give me great anxiety, resentment, and disgust. I know these are all irrational, unfair, double standard, and pointless thoughts. If I let it, it can bring me to a point of an anxiety/panic attack. I love my therapist but I don’t feel comfortable sharing this. I’m looking to see if you can give me some advice, ideas, or maybe an insight on how to deal with these thoughts or why I have them.
Thank you, and again much appreciated.
Thanks for the praise about the show. I really appreciate the feedback and I’m glad it’s been helpful for you.
This is a really interesting question. I’m going to share a little bit of my own experience here, so if you aren’t down to hear some self-disclosure and learn more about me, skip ahead.
I really appreciate the way you phrased this. You are essentially saying that your body is viscerally reacting to this information that you learned about. I wish I knew how long it has been because I’m not sure if a while means a couple weeks or a few months. But even though you are having this automatic visceral reactions, you are stating that you understand that your partner’s previous experience has nothing to do with you, that it’s irrational, a double standard, and not useful. That’s good. I think this whole situation becomes much harder when your morals or your intellectual understanding of the situation leads you to the conclusion that they did something wrong, gross, etc. But in your case, you are essentially saying that you intellectually feel a certain way about this knowledge, but your body is betraying you.
Speaking from experience
So, I said that I would bring in some of my own experience, because I can relate to this in a certain way. As many of you know, my wife and I are nonmonogamous. This means that we are allowed to have romantic and sexual connections with other people. For me, this has basically taken the form of committed relationships, and for her, she is in a period of dating more casually and having a wider variety of experiences. Up until this past year, we have essentially explored nonmonogamy together. Anyone else that we had slept with had been together or at least we were both seeing them. That was sort of a de-facto reality rather than the rules of our relationship. We understand it as more ethical to not exclusively date or play together. How could we put the pressure on someone else to want both of us or be romantically interested in both of us? And if we do, how are they not just an accessory to our relationship? There are many forms of nonmonogamy from swinging to polyamory to relationship anarchy. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to do your research before diving in. The problem that I’m talking about here is what is called unicorn hunting.
Anyways, since we do not want to be unethical in our nonmonogamy, we are both okay with one another having separate relationships and encounters. This has meant that over the past year, my wife, who I had previously been the only man that she slept with (we have been together since I was 15), has been having experiences with a variety of other men and women. This is something that I am morally and intellectually cool with. I am a very sex positive person. I think sex work is valid. I have no issue with someone being a slut if they want to. BUT… when it came into practice, my body freaked the f**k out. The first night away, my body was elevated as hell and after she got home, I didn’t sleep a wink. I essentially had a 10-hour panic attack. Was that unpleasant? Absolutely. Was it hard on her to see me like that, especially as she was trying to enjoy the afterglow of a good experience that she had? Definitely. But I understood that the feelings I was having were inconsistent with my values and beliefs. That meant that the work to be done was on my part.
There’s a phrase that I’ve used in my relationship that I think can be helpful in your case, which goes something like, “I want you to know that you aren’t doing anything wrong. Just because I am having a hard time with this does not mean that I judge you for it.” You are allowed to feel what you feel. But this doesn’t have anything to do with you. Even if it wouldn’t be within the boundaries of your current relationship agreement, it predates you. That means it’s on you.
Avoid avoidance – lean into and explore your feelings
When you said that you aren’t comfortable talking with your therapist about this, that communicated to me that this is an area that you are engaging in a lot of avoidance. It makes sense, and it’s a common pattern in people with anxiety. Something generates shitty feelings in us, so we try not to think about it and try not to invite those feelings. As I’ve talked about many times, avoidance is the fuel of anxiety, so making sure that you stay away from those ideas, images, feelings etc only gives them more credit and makes the anxiety bigger. Instead, what you need to do is approach them. Obviously, this can be a bit challenging. You seem to understand where you stand on the issue, which is good. It’s important to be clear about your values and where you stand. Once you are able to figure that out, it becomes your target and your goal. You want to work toward making your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors more consistent. So when you have negative feelings, images, sensations etc. You can know that they are not a sign of danger. They are not a sign of you being in a bad situation (not necessarily, at least). They are just a sign that you still have work to do to get your beliefs and feelings more consistent.
One way that you can approach rather than avoid is to actually spend time processing what you feel. I mean literally setting aside time to write about it, to talk out loud, or to process with a friend. It doesn’t always have to be the same format. But keep asking yourself “why?” Why do you feel resentment? Why do you feel disgust? Why those feelings and not fear or jealousy? What does this seem to imply about you as a person or about your partner? Ask the questions over and over and try to keep working toward clarity. Some of this is about actually trying to understand the underlying feelings behind your more immediate symptoms and some of this is simply keeping the topic on your mind so that your body can learn to tolerate it better and downregulate its responding.
Another way that you could approach rather than avoid here is to talk about this with your therapist. That’s a huge, glaring one. Often when we feel resistance to something, when we are afraid to bring up a topic, that is because it’s really the thing we should be talking about here. If there are reasons that you don’t feel comfortable addressing it with your therapist, such as them expressing a moral standpoint of some kind that would clearly judge your partner or you, that’s valid and you might want to find someone that is a better fit. But if it’s just about avoiding the topic because it’s hard and scary – that should be your indicator to lean in. You aren’t going to resolve it all in one session and you may even have a bit of a hard time expressing yourself. But that’s okay. You just start the process. Get it off your chest. Drag it out into the light and then you will have some accountability to keep dealing with it and potentially someone to help you work through these difficult sensations that come along with thinking about the topic at all.
Effort + time will = results
As always, with anxiety-related issues, it’s a good idea to be regularly and consistently practicing a deep breathing exercise. I’m a big fan of 4-7-8, but personally, I’ve been using 4-6 lately with a nice steady exhale. Whatever it is, if you can work on practicing this at least three times a week for 10 minutes, you can arm yourself with a good tool to help reduce the physiological elevation that you feel when you start getting panicky. And of course, even if you do have a panic attack. Even if you do go completely off the rails for a little bit. That isn’t going to hurt you. And if you remain sure about your values and your intellectual opinions, there isn’t much to interpret here. Just something to endure and keep working at. Give it time and this will get better with effort. It may spontaneously resolve over time, but you can help it along by approaching rather than avoiding it. Effort + time will = results in this case.
Last thing I want to bring up is the possibility that there IS actually something to be concerned about. There is a chance that the strength of the feelings that you have about this are not exactly related to the information you learned, but they just serve the purpose of highlighting existing issues in the relationship. When you ask yourself why you are so upset, why you feel resentful or angry, is there a broader issue in the relationship that comes to mind? If you have issues with trust, respect, being valued, or issues surrounding intimacy and sexuality in the relationship, it could be that this knowledge is just bringing that to the forefront and your emotions are fueled by existing frustrations or resentments. If that is the case, you may need to also approach those concerns. Communication directly with your partner can help. Of course, there are things like couples therapy that can also be beneficial here.
Thank you for the question. Have patience, don’t beat yourself up for having these feelings. Working to resolve them is the responsible thing here.
You can listen to this on Episode 292 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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