Daniel and Kristie’s dating relationship began well. Conversations flowed easily. They agreed theologically and enjoyed one another’s friends. Yet after a few weeks, Daniel’s angst grew. His past was marred by sexual sin, and he knew a tough conversation was on the horizon.
Many of us can identify with Daniel’s distress. I still remember preparing to tell my (now) wife about my sin-riddled past. Shame, guilt, regret, and fear haunted me. But God’s grace is always greater than our sin; he is able to help, heal, and lead us (Rom. 5:20; 2 Cor. 12:9).
Before we address the issues involved in such disclosures, I cannot stress enough how vital it is to invite godly brothers and sisters to get to know you and your potential spouse and to give you advice about your relationship. From the early days of your relationship, they can help you with your feelings, protect you from temptation, and give needed wisdom—especially as you navigate a conversation about your past.
Why Should I Share My Past?
The primary purpose of two Christians dating is to evaluate whether they should get married. This includes learning who the other person truly is. Not everyone is entitled to the intimate details of your life, but a potential spouse is.
Not everyone is entitled to the intimate details of your life, but a potential spouse is.
Taking your relationship to a more serious level knowing your potential spouse has an inaccurate view of your history is unwise and unloving. Sharing your past serves them by providing an honest picture of who you are. Our past need not define us, but it does shape us. Sin’s effects can emerge in marriage, so if your dating partner is going to become one with you (Gen. 2:24), that person deserves to make the decision with eyes wide open.
Sharing your past in this way cultivates biblical love and encourages meaningful spiritual conversation. It helps you speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), rejoice in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6), and depend on God’s wisdom and grace (Heb. 4:16). These qualities create the foundation every Christian relationship needs.
When Do I Share My Past?
Knowing when to have “the talk” is more of an art than a science. Sharing about past sexual sin too early can be overwhelming and short-circuit the trust required to bear the weight of your confessions. Waiting too long can lead to feelings of betrayal and frustration.
A natural way to prepare is to share ever-deepening aspects of your testimony. As you talk about God’s work in your life, you can show there’s more you desire to share about sin struggles, but you’d prefer to wait until the time is right. This puts a deeper discussion on the radar until you are both ready.
As you consider when to share, clarify the answers to these questions:
- Are you both ready to share and hear intimate aspects of your stories?
- Do you care about this person enough to share these details?
- Do you trust this person enough to hear and respond to your past sin?
- At what point is it negligent for you to not talk about your past?
What Should I Share?
The point of sharing is to make yourself known to the other person. Sin done by you (patterns of masturbation, pornography, immorality), sin done to you (abuse, rape), or sinful desires you’re fighting (same-sex attraction) are the types of things you should discuss. But the level of detail you go into on each of those topics requires great wisdom.
1. Prepare beforehand.
Pray, pray, and then pray some more. Ask God for wisdom regarding when, how, and how much to share; he promises to answer (Matt. 7:7–8; James 1:5). Invite a trusted friend or two to help you prepare. These should be older, wiser, preferably married people who have navigated these waters before.
- Set a time to talk. Put a date on the calendar so that you and your potential spouse can both pray beforehand.
- Pick an appropriate place. Things could become emotional, so privacy would be wise. Do not, however, put yourself in a situation that could lead to temptation.
- Write out what you intend to say. This ensures you say everything you need to say and you don’t forget important elements you’d need to revisit later.
As you prepare, consider these questions:
- What sins have been part of your story? (Include sins done by you and done to you.)
- How long have you been battling these sins?
- How has God helped you put sin to death?
- How are you struggling with temptation?
- What other factors feed your temptation (loneliness, discontentment, anger, stress, pain)?
- What steps are you taking to battle sin?
- Who keeps you accountable and helps you fight sin?
2. Avoid graphic details.
Oversharing can unnecessarily burden the imagination of your future spouse. For instance, sharing that you’ve had premarital sexual experiences is essential, but talking about frequency or what you enjoyed about those experiences is normally unhelpful. Likewise, talking about struggles with pornography is important, but giving specifics about what sites you’ve visited or things you’ve seen can be harmful.
3. Invite follow-up questions.
Your initial conversation may not be enough. Elements of your story may provoke appropriate follow-up questions. My wife had follow-up questions for me immediately after I shared—as well as in the early months of our marriage. Guard yourself against defensiveness or shutting down. God can use painful conversations to bring healing to you and your future spouse.
4. Avoid unhelpful curiosity.
If you are on the receiving end of the confession, guard yourself from unhelpful curiosity. Hearing confessions about your future spouse’s past sin can provoke insecurity and fear. You may think that if you simply knew more details it would help you understand. It won’t. “The devil is in the details” is often true, especially in this case. Don’t give Satan an opportunity to use the details of a potential spouse’s sin to tempt you to sin.
What Do We Do Next?
The reason to have a conversation about your past is to clarify the future. Evaluating what you hear and how your boyfriend or girlfriend responds to it will help direct the next steps in your relationship. To help you evaluate, consider these suggestions.
1. Give time.
After you share your past, give time for reflection. Some people handle hard conversations quickly; others need time and distance. If you need time to think about a confession, be sensitive to the person who shared, but be honest as well. You could say something like, “Thank you for sharing with me, I know that was tough, and I respect your honesty. I’m going to need a little time to pray through this.” Most relationships face various crossroads, and this may be one of them.
God can use painful conversations to bring healing to you and your future spouse.
If one of you has experienced sexual abuse, John Henderson’s Catching Foxes leader’s guide has a helpful section (p. 45–46) about how to respond to and care for the person who has been hurt.
Understanding how the past affects your future with others can be extremely helpful. If you are both willing, you should develop a pattern of inviting trusted, spiritually mature friends into intimate conversations. This will prove helpful for the long haul of your relationship.
2. Gauge maturity.
If you hear someone’s confessions, you need to evaluate what you’ve heard.
- Is your partner humble and contrite about this sin, or defensive and minimizing?
- Is your partner making progress in resisting sin, or still ensnared in it?
- Has your partner turned to mature believers to receive help, or choosing isolation?
If you see true, humble, grace-empowered progress, be encouraging. Celebrate how far God has brought your partner. Rejoice in how much growth God has given. Together, treasure the life-giving grace of Jesus.
But if flags arise, don’t ignore them. You may hear things that lead you to suggest taking time apart so your partner can focus more attention on battling sin and developing accountability.
It is also important for the one who shares to consider how the other person responds. It may take time to observe, but does your partner respond with kindness, or self-righteous judgmentalism? Does your partner point you to Jesus, or punish you by holding it over your head?
Troubling trends shouldn’t be shrugged off. Few things are scarier than being married to someone who is casual toward sin, isolates from accountability, or doesn’t enjoy extending grace. If you see those trends, take them seriously.
Don’t ignore troubling trends. Few things are scarier than being married to someone who is casual toward sin, isolates from accountability, or doesn’t extend grace.
3. Guard yourselves.
Engaging in intimate conversation can provoke your flesh. I know several couples who, after having this talk, struggled with sexual temptation. For some, their insecurities were provoked, and they wanted to “prove” that they could live up to the past experiences of their boyfriend of girlfriend. For others, the vulnerable conversation awakened a deeper desire to share even more of themselves. This desire is good, but Satan wants to use it for evil. So be alert and help guard one another from his attack (Rom. 6:11–14).
4. “Gospel” them.
One of the most important qualities of a godly relationship is that a couple knows how to help one another take sin, shame, and pain to God’s throne of grace (Heb. 4:14–16). A conversation about past sin is an opportunity to practice this.
A friend recounted how his now wife “gospeled” him after hearing his sinful history. She said, “I always knew this conversation was coming, so I prayed that God would give me something to say.” She read the story of the sinful woman from Luke 7:36–50. Then she looked in his eyes and said, “This woman loved much because she had been forgiven much. And I know the same is true for you. You love God much because he has forgiven you much, and I know you’ll be able to love me much as well. This only makes me trust more.”
Not every disclosure of past sin leads to marriage, but every conversation should lead to Jesus. Once someone discloses a painful history, offer your assurance that in Christ, we stand without condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Remind your partner of God’s forgiveness, and that everyone’s sinful record is nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14–15).
Though a sinful past may make things complicated, we can share about it with hope because we know Christ is at work in us. He will care for you, no matter where the conversation leads your relationship.