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Carolyn Hax: When your sexual history leads to her current anxiety

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I've been with my girlfriend only six months, but I felt like I could see years into the future with her.

She's recently become very jealous and untrusting of me, though. An ex of mine from college was coming to town for work and wanted to get together for dinner. This was a relationship that ended amicably and we remained good friends. I have no romantic feelings. My girlfriend is aware of all of this, she's been in the room when we've video-chatted.

Around the time my girlfriend got jealous, we got on the subject of how many people each of us had been with. She was shocked by my number. So dismayed she refused to tell me her number.

Since then she's been very apprehensive toward me. She didn't outright forbid me from seeing my ex, but told me that she was uncomfortable with it, so I didn't go. She now constantly wants to know what I'm doing and who I'm with, and though she's timid about it, is clearly upset if I socialize with any women.

I want to confront her about this, especially because I have not given her a reason to distrust me, but I fear that would drive her away. I want to work at this relationship, and I want her to be able to trust me, I'm just not sure how.

— S.

S.: Here’s the math, and it isn’t good:

You haven’t changed.

What has changed is your girlfriend’s understanding of who you are.

That understanding changed because you were honest and transparent about your history.

Her response to your transparency was to choose not to be transparent with you. Or trust you.

For the record, had either of you asked me sooner, I would have said that sharing “numbers” in a relationship was the unholy offspring of Counting and Comparing, each a flagrant missing of important points in its own right. You want to reveal to (prospective) partners who you are and how you got there, yes — but through emotional honesty and context-appropriate storytelling. Not by forensic audit or at proverbial paranoid gunpoint.

Anyway. More math:

Her response was also to doubt herself.

But she didn’t say, “Now that I know how many women you’ve dated, I feel as if I can’t measure up to your exes.” That’s not a promising confession, either — insecurity can’t be fixed by anyone except the person who feels it — but at least it would be honest about where you and she stand.

And it would be on the right side of important boundaries.

Instead, she dumped her self-doubt outward onto you, and decided you can’t be trusted to value her. To fear you’re inadequate is a terrible feeling, obviously, so it’s going to feel (marginally) better to create an external villain. But it’s not fair to you to be scapegoated, and it’s not your job to manage her insecurities.

You can take reasonable offense at her thinking so little of you — or take a compassionate view of her thinking so little of herself.

Either way, though, it’s not something you can fix by defending your trustworthiness; proving yourself through cohabitation or marriage or reproduction (please, no); avoiding all women but her; painfully dropping friends (they have feelings, too!); or documenting your every move.

Healthy people, for current and future reference, won’t ask you to do the undoable or surrender to their control. Both are the beginning of various abusive ends. Timidity does not preempt that, because the taproot of abuse isn’t forcefulness, it’s the belief one is entitled to control others’ actions.

Again, this is a trust breakdown that occurred entirely within her, and she’s putting pressure on you to fix it. Despite having options she rightly controls: She can make peace with your past; wait and see without telling you what to do; or break up with you knowing she no longer trusts you.

All you can do, meanwhile, is keep being yourself. Honestly and transparently so. And decide how long you intend to wait for her to address a problem she isn’t yet willing or able to recognize she has.

To that end, you can also “confront” her, yes, though I suggest you merely explain that your history made you who you are, the person who chose her — no small thing — and the person who has been honest with her throughout.

And explain that you have always chosen how to conduct your own friendships and will continue to do so, as you expect she will with her friendships.

And you can point out that you want to keep seeing her and seeing where this relationship goes. But only if she is comfortable with both of you being yourselves and letting things play out.

Consider, though: Six months is a heartbeat. She might not have changed so much as revealed a bit more of her truth. If her truth involves locking things down, then please set yourself free, and soon.

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