A central task each of us faces when choosing a partner is loving ourselves. And as science would have it, a crucial aspect of loving ourselves is setting boundaries for whom we’ll let in our lives — and who gets shut out.
A big shut-out? Anyone whose past might ruin your future.
I have lost track of how many letters I’ve gotten from women and men who are trying to ignore a partner’s past. We have all done things we’re not proud of. But I mean past behavior that speaks poorly of a partner’s odds of being a good citizen in the relationship.
This especially applies to the Three A’s of addiction, abuse, and adultery. Or anything else you find unbearable.
One woman was dating a man who had slept with his best friend’s wife. He had also cheated on his now-ex-wife. Did I think he would cheat on her, too? That’s the question she asked me. I think if she had not been in love with him already, or if someone else told her that same story about another couple, she would know the answer. But too often, we get emotionally and sexually involved with people before taking the time to know the important aspects of their character.
So people keep hoping that the past is the past, and it’ll be different now that they’re together.
Well, maybe it will. It’s a big world, and every kind of action we can think of has happened and will happen sometimes. Some people cheat once, and never again. For instance, a person who fumbled their way into an affair at work, but then felt horribly guilty, ended the affair, believes affairs are wrong, and never had another affair is likely to be a safer bet—much safer than someone who has had multiple affairs and feels entitled to get some on the side.
Some people kick addictions—but one of the biggest studies on sobriety ever conducted found that only 15% of men remained alcohol free for the entire four years. And maybe some physical and verbal abusers stop; but science suggests those odds hover near zero.
Science is about odds, and odds are highest that your would-be sweetie will behave like they already have behaved, as long as conditions are similar. For instance, if they cheated while traveling for work, and they are still traveling for work? Bad bet. If they habitually lied, or drank, or fill-in-the-behavior-you-find-intolerable, they will probably do it again under similar circumstances.
Are you okay with it if their behavior comes down on the wrong side of probably?
It’s one of the very few laws in psychology: What a person did in a similar past situation is the absolute best indicator of what they’ll do in the future. It’s not a guarantee; science has few of those. But it’s the way to bet.
We all have a crystal ball: the past. Now it’s time to love ourselves enough to use it to chart a great future with someone trustworthy and good for us.
Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do (2015); this is a partial excerpt. The book is available now. You can get a free chapter and learn more at http://www.lovefactually.co