History lesson: How do I ask about my partner's past?


How would I go about asking a partner about his past?

Dear Reader,

Getting in the know about your partner can be great for your relationship, but it might be helpful to first figure out what you mean exactly by "past." Are you curious about your partner's ancestry? Do you want to know details about their childhood? Or are you wondering what they were like in fifth grade? If you want to find out more about your partner's life, go ahead and ask, share, and inquire. If you're not sure how to start, you could say: "Honey/Buttercup/Sweetie, I really like you, and I want to get to know you better. May I ask you about _______?" You can be playful and respectful — sometimes getting to know funny little tidbits of information about each other can be a real relationship booster. If by "past," you mean sexual history, then a little more consideration may be required.

It’s wise to be sensitive when bringing up sexual history and consider beforehand what information you want to learn from your discussion. Why do you want to ask your partner about their history? Do you want to know how many sexual partners and what forms of sexual contact they've had? Are you interested in knowing if they've been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) recently or ever? Or is there any reason to think you might be at risk? Would it make you feel closer and safer to know these details about your partner? Are you worried about your and your partner's sexual health? When you ask, it may be helpful to let your partner know the reasons why you’re asking and to be prepared to share your own history.

Once you have a sense of what you want to know and why, consider where you want to have this conversation. A private, comfortable setting could be great — perhaps when snuggling on the couch, resting in the park, eating dinner at home or in a quiet restaurant corner. Then it's up to you to bring up the conversation in a way that fits both your needs and your relationship. Here are a couple of suggestions on how to get the conversation started — feel free to modify them, or use your own ideas, in any way you feel is appropriate to your particular situation:

  • "Hey, I think it's time for that talk. Yup, that one."
  • "This is kinda hard or awkward to talk about, but have you ever been tested for STIs? [Wait for a response] Maybe we can get tested together?"
  • "Hey [insert cute couple nickname], I was wondering if we could have a conversation about our past sexual experiences? The reason I am asking is because..."

You might also reassure your partner that you care about them and that you want to learn, support, and figure out which precautions to take — not to pry or judge their history. If you need a little extra help, you may want to meet with a health promotion professional, who may be found in a college health center or other health facilities. They can help you prepare for these types of discussions and even help you role-play to practice starting a conversation. 

Just to be prepared, you may want to consider all possible answers, even the ones you might not expect. Additionally, your partner could be sensitive to your reactions. You may try to avoid assumptions and reactions that might come off as judgmental (such as laughing or impressed whistles). Also, it may help to offer your own personal experiences — it's only fair that the sharing go both ways and it might serve to strengthen your relationship even further.

Good luck!

Last updated Dec 25, 2020
Originally published Sep 12, 2003