I know how you feel, because I was a virgin on my wedding day, but my wife was not. Like the woman you mentioned, my wife had become a new creation. But it was still a painful challenge to deal with the knowledge of her past. For one, there was the pit that I would feel in my gut at the thought of her being that intimate with some stranger I’ll never meet. I also felt resentment towards the other guys, and never wanted to resent her. Then, there was the let-down of having waited that long to give myself entirely to someone, and wanting her to share the experience of the wedding night as totally unique. Sound familiar? I receive countless emails from men and women like you who are struggling with their partner’s past. Here’s a strategy to overcome the difficulty:
One reason why these thoughts keep coming to mind for you is probably because you are trying to push them out of your mind without dealing with them. Sweeping them under the rug will allow them to continue bothering you. As I see it, the solution is not to repress these thoughts but to deal with them by accepting them and lifting them up. Whenever you have these troubling thoughts, take the following steps:
1. Thank God. Act against feelings of bitterness and hurt by thanking God for bringing her out of that lifestyle. This will help to keep resentment from infecting your relationship. Remember: She wasn’t unfaithful to you. She just made some poor choices, and most likely regrets them. If you’re like me, you’ve made some mistakes in your past, too, whether it be looking at porn, or doing stuff with other girls. Remember that resentment is a choice, not just an emotion. You need to actively reject and uproot it.
2. Offer it up. Instead of dwelling on her past and moping over it, lift those thoughts to God when they come to mind. Here’s how: When you begin to think of her previous actions and relationships, take that as a reminder to pray for the healing of her memories and for the conversion of the men she dated. Because of Christ’s sufferings, our trials in life have redemptive value when we accept them with faith and offer them up to him. You need to realize the good that the Lord can do through it. Use your suffering to bring grace to others. This step is very important. Every time a memory comes to mind, I want you to pray for her healing and for their conversions. In other words, let the pain become a prayer.
3. Live Pure. Resolve to lead a pure life with her. You may not be the one to marry her one day, and if that is the case, you certainly don’t want to add more regrets for her to bring into her future marriage. In order to live a pure life, you also need to make sure that you’re not looking at pornography. This will infect the wound in your relationship and intensify your insecurities because it will make the thoughts of her past become more visual in your imagination.
4. Talk to her. If the relationship is heading toward marriage, do not be afraid to talk to her about the struggle you are having. It is better that these issues come to the surface before marriage than within marriage. If you do not feel ready for this, perhaps you can speak with a priest or some other counselor you respect (without betraying her trust). In other words, it’s best to talk to someone who either knows her past, or who does not know her at all.
However, remember that good relationships require open and honest communication. When you bring up your concerns, make sure not to blame her for the past, but rather express the fact that you want to work through this issue together. Never, ever, hold this over her or use it against her. Instead, share your insecurities, fears, or hurts, and allow her to love you. This will require some vulnerability on your part and some patience and empathy from her. If your love is strong and forgiving, the two of you will be able to overcome this difficulty.
When you do this, do not get very specific with regards to things she did with the guy(s). Such information will do more harm than good. Previous intimacies of one partner often cause feelings of pain, inferiority, or resentment in the other partner. Talking through your struggle will help you to guard your heart from the poison of unforgiveness. But take it easy on her, and don’t drag it on forever. This will cause her to resent you. I had once heard that a young man approached St. Padre Pio in tears because his girlfriend broke up with him. The saint smacked him in the face and said, “Be a man.” As harsh as that sounds, it’s just what the guy needed.
It is entirely reasonable for you to feel hurt by her past. This is natural. It’s not a sign that you haven’t forgiven her. It’s just a sign that you have a human heart. Forgiving someone is not about numbness. It’s about no longer holding something against that person. It’s a decision. In time, the wounds will heal, but it’s not within your power not to feel a certain way. Hopefully she’ll be patient with you as you work through this. As a note of encouragement, I have found that over time it gets better, and that in our case, marriage has been very healing. For example, even though the woman you’re with has experienced sexual activity in the past, marital intimacy will be unique for her, because she has never experienced the gift of pure intimacy as God intended—as a sacrament.
If you find that the issue is not improving, but is driving a wedge of resentment between you, find a marital counselor, priest, or parent to talk with. Marriage is one of the most important decisions you will ever make, and you need to surround yourself with wise counselors. The woman you are with should not have to live with the cloud of her past forever hovering above her. Your task is to help blow it away.
5. Reflect the love of God to her: A guy in your situation once emailed me, saying how he felt somewhat “gipped” because of his fiancée’s past. I can understand why he would feel that. However, we need to remember that we have not saved ourselves for the sake of getting, but for giving. So much of authentic love is simply about giving and not seeking something in return. If you become her husband, you will not receive the gift of her virginity. But you will receive something greater: the gift of herself. It would be sad to lose the gift of a person in pursuit of the gift of virginity. In fact, I know of one such couple who was nearing engagement, but ended up breaking off the relationship because the guy could not accept the girl’s past. It was tragic, because he could not see that in failing to accept her past, he was forfeiting a beautiful future.
Just look at how unconditionally God loves us, and how stingy we are in return. In fact, the Bible often speaks about Israel as having played the harlot, and having forgotten her first love, which was God. Yet God forgave her iniquities and loved Israel despite the past. I’m not comparing your girlfriend to a harlot (or you to God), but am simply saying that you’ll be loving her in a godly way if you choose to accept her past. She’ll need to love you unconditionally as well, if you hope to have a lasting marriage. We all have our own imperfections. God does not hold a grudge over her, and neither should you.
Remember that your unconditional acceptance of your potential future bride makes you more of a man in her eyes than anything else you can do. She may wonder, “Am I worthy of love? Am I damaged goods? Am I unlovable?” You play an important role in her healing, through dying to yourself for love of her. Believe it or not, this wound you feel is actually given to you by God in order to heal your own soul. It will conform you to Christ, purify your love, and even strengthen your marriage if you continue to respond to God’s grace to carry this cross. Both of you play a role in each other’s healing, and you can’t lose sight of that.
Mother Teresa told us that in order for love to be real, it must hurt. It must empty us of self. So, I encourage you to look at the crucifix, which is the ultimate sign of love. Only through it did Christ reach the joy of the resurrection. In the same way, Pope John Paul II tells us that when it comes to relationships:
“We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point, independently of those virtues and in spite of those faults. The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.”
For me, peace came with acceptance. It is then that we realize that forgiveness is not a feeling, but a decision. Sure, the pain will not go away overnight. For me, the thoughts and pains have come and gone. But each time they arise, I stop and pray for her healing, and for the conversion of the guys she was with. I know that when we unleash the power of redemptive suffering that God can use it for great good.
In summary, the main thing you need to do is to have a grateful heart for the woman she has become, and be patient with yourself and with her when these emotions rise up within you. Use them as a reminder to pray for her healing, resolve to keep your relationship pure, and show her the love of God. Do these things, and in His time, God will heal the wounds in her and even in you. In the meantime, do not fear that these haunting thoughts of the past will never diminish. Over the course of time, you should feel greater peace as your love deepens.
. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 135.