A rule I've broken on every first date is "don't talk about your exes." It's not that I have an overwhelming need to vent about my dating history, but the fact that I can't even vaguely reference a person who I shared so much of my life with feels odd when I'm supposed to be opening up to someone new. Yes, deep-diving into every aspect of your last relationship feels like chronic oversharing, but is there no middle ground? Can I not at least hint at the existence of an ex without suddenly feeling like I crushed all hopes of future romance?
Because here's the thing: First dates are already nerve-wracking enough without having to remember to refer to your ex you went on vacation with as "your friend." It's a small lie, but a lie nonetheless—what happens when you make it to date #12 and have to confess that you actually saw that romantic sunset in Sagada with your boyfriend of five years?
"It's always easier to tell the truth than to make something up," says Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "If you actively avoid the topic in an attempt to spare someone else’s feelings, you have to weigh that against getting yourself entrapped in a corner you won’t be able to get out of later.”
And then you have to ask: Why would mentioning the fact that you once dated someone else be hurtful to your date you just met? If you're worried that they'll get irrationally jealous, isn't that a huge red flag?
And speaking of red flags: There is no better way to spot them than from quick exchange. "You want a partner who's securely attached," says Dr. Whitbourne. "That means they're not intrusive, and not dismissive." If I bring up a quick story about an ex, and their response is to either immediately switch the subject or probe me for every detail of that relationship, that says a lot. And if they decide to share something about their ex as well, that can be key too, especially if they only have bad things to say. "It's like talking about your ex-boss at a job interview," says Dr. Whitbourne. "Once you start badmouthing someone you were in a relationship with, whatever that might be, you look like a person who is highly critical. The natural thought is 'what will they say about me'?" If an employer asks me about my last job to suss out my potentially-shitty personality, why can't I do the same for a date? If all his exes are "crazy", I want to know that (because it's a clear sign he's the problem).
The only reason people dodge talking about their ex is the fear of looking like they're not over it—but having a solid dating track record should actually be a huge relief. "In a way, you want someone who’s been in a long-term, healthy relationship because it suggests they’re going to be in a healthier relationship with you (assuming that they’re now over that healthy relationship)," says Whitbourne. Sure, you don't have to have an LTR on your dating résumé to be partner material, but if a guy says he's never had a "girlfriend"-girlfriend because he "doesn't believe in labels," that very quickly narrows down the possibility of date number two. On the flipside, if a guy can say that yes, he was in a committed, good relationship in the past, harbors no ill-will against his ex, but that he's so excited to get to know you now, it's a big hint that you might just be in for something really special.
I learned so much valuable info from the get-go from opening up the ex-files on first dates. A guy who was elusive about his "messy" dating history ended up ghosting out of nowhere. A date who spent over an hour talking about how every woman wronged him grew very clingy over text. And my current boyfriend, who never spoke resentfully of any of the women he dated, and was open to hearing about my own dating experiences, felt just right. Knowing just a little bit of each others' pasts made us so much more focused on the present.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.