It’s a cardinal rule of dating: don’t talk about each other’s exes. The pain, the unwelcome memories – some of them still fresh, perhaps. But you can thank her exes for at least one thing: leading her to you. In fact, according to research from Indiana University, the average woman may need to date nearly a dozen men before she figures out who and what she wants. And each of those men leaves an impression, says lead study author Dr Peter Todd. “The success or failure of relationships shapes our future search for mates and the attributes we value, which could include factors like health, wealth and physical attractiveness,” he says.
That’s just one reason why you shouldn’t be afraid to bring up the topic of her former squeeze, says Dr John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute, a relationship counselling centre. “Stories of past relationships will help you better understand her wants and needs.” Ask her these five essential questions (just maybe not all at once) and you’ll learn everything you need to know about her past – including how to keep yourself from becoming a part of it.
How did you lose your virginity?
The man who claims her v-card can set the bar for her future in the bedroom. In a recent study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, researchers found that a disappointing first time can often lead to poor sexual self-confidence and low overall sexual satisfaction later on. While an anxious, less sexually assured woman is likely to have had a bad first time, a negative first sexual experience could also make any woman uneasy about future romps, says study author Dr C. Veronica Smith, a psychologist at the University of Mississippi.
Don’t fear the past
Bad experiences in bed can run the gamut from tame to traumatic and a common theme is that she felt dehumanised, says Dr Brandy Engler, author of The Men on My Couch. She’ll want a stronger connection – but be aware that guys often think that means a tender, emotional experience, Engler says. “Women want you to express your full desire. So combine intimacy – eye contact, whispers in her ear – with carnal elements, like hair pulling.”
What did you fight about with your ex?
Arguments can arise when a partner feels that his or her power is being challenged, say researchers at Baylor University. Identifying the most common fights in her past can clue you in to her priorities and insecurities, says Dr Craig Malkin, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School. “When did she feel the most distress in her previous relationships?” he asks. “Because these situations, if they pop up again with you, are bound to rekindle old fears, triggering angry flare-ups and battles of will.”
Have a clean fight
Set a few rules for when you have it out, says marriage therapist Dr Paul Hokemeyer. “Agree not to argue late at night,” he says. “You’ll be more irritable and prone to saying regretful things.” When things get heated, take short breaks or go for a walk – it’ll help lower the emotional intensity of the fight, he says. In the end, aim for a compromise, says Malkin. “Ask her what solution would feel best for her. Even if she’s not sure, the fact that you asked will be deeply reassuring.”
What’s your biggest regret?
Women tend to place a higher value on family and relationships, says Dr Mike Morrison, a psychology instructor at the University of Western Ontario. Likewise, many regrets women harbour are linked to relationship choices, Morrison says. Those misgivings can plague her thoughts for years. And the parts she would’ve changed are clues to what she most values and desires, says Dr Terri Orbuch, a social psychologist and author of Finding Love Again.
Follow her lead
Regrets do have one upside: they motivate her to be a better mate. “When she says, ‘I wish I’d treated my ex better,’ she likely means, ‘I want to treat you better than I treated him,’ ” Morrison says. So return the favour; Orbuch’s survey of 110 divorced women revealed that they craved more affection and communication and less strife about money. And for good reason: a 2012 study in the journal Family Relations found frequent arguments about money to be more predictive of divorce than other types of spats.
Did you ever cheat on a boyfriend?
Nearly one in five women admit to being unfaithful, reports a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The most common predictor? Sexual incompatibility. A survey by University of Washington sociology professor Dr Pepper Schwartz and her co-authors also supports a sex-based link: 49% of women who admitted to infidelity said they strayed because of boredom in the bedroom. And research from the University of Denver suggests that past cheating can affect future fidelity.
Test your compatibility
Sexual differences are often about a clash of expectations, Engler says. “She might feel threatened by what you’re proposing, but you can deflect her anxiety if you explain what a certain sexual act means to you.” Even that’s not enough sometimes, says Debby Herbenick, relationships advisor. “She might just hate blow jobs, for example, and you’ll either need to move on or accept the idea of spending your life with somebody who has that off the table.”
How did your relationships end?
Maybe she’s always being dumped. Maybe she’s always cutting men loose. Either extreme could indicate trust issues, says Rachel A. Sussman, a relationships counselor and author of The Breakup Bible. And a recent, painful split, says Sussman, may make her worry that you’ll break her heart too. “These types of women are always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Sussman says. “And that paranoia makes them think it’s best to end the relationship the minute they sense any discomfort.”
Step up your game
Lavish her with attention, says Hokemeyer. That means keeping your phone on lockdown and your eyes off other women. Chivalrous gestures, like opening doors and pulling out chairs, go a long way. “They make her feel valued in public and you’re conveying to the world that she’s a treasure,” Hokemeyer says. “If she’s insecure, she’ll have a heightened sensitivity to your level of attention and connection to her. In other words, it’s not what you say – it’s what you do.”
By K. Aleisha Fetters