Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Ask but don't push; he'll dish divorce details when ready
Opening the Ex-Files: I just started dating my boyfriend about a month ago. We have been friends for a year, and we started hanging out more in the last few months after breaking up with our significant others for unrelated reasons. We've been "official" for a month, and we're deliriously happy.
I'm 29, never married; he's 37, divorced. I know almost nothing about the ex-wife, but he has a giant tattoo with her name on it on his bicep. From what I understand, they were married 10 years ago and he doesn't speak to her, but I kinda feel like I need to know at least part of the story.
I also feel like it will come out naturally and that if I press, it will undo the excellent foundation we've laid. I'm so happy the way things are, I really don't want to rock the boat, but that tattoo ... Advice?
Carolyn: If you have to press it — i.e., if he's not just ignoring, but also actively resisting the topic — then that will be a sign of emotional trouble. If asking a perfectly legitimate question about his past is enough to crack your foundation, then that's another significant warning sign.
The mark of emotional health isn't a perfect past, it's finding peace with an imperfect one. His marriage happened, and it ended, and it helped shape who he is now, whom you love. Ask about it. The tattoo makes the subject easier to raise: "Since she's in the car with us and out to dinner with us, I'd like to get to know her a bit, if I may pry."
If he is open about it, yay, it will likely bring you closer. And it may even give you a chance to float the idea of someday covering the tattoo. (Not always possible, but cheaper than removal.)
If he says he does mind, then drop it, but do be wary. Specifically, don't grovel or scramble to repair any perceived damage you caused by asking. Good couples don't fear the truth, so see it as giving you two a chance to be a good couple by letting the subject rest and waiting to see what comes next. If nothing comes next but stonewalling, then ask yourself whether you want to live amid forbidden topics, since chances are this won't be the last.
Anonymous: Would you also qualify your answer that, yes, she needs to know about the ex-wife, but no, she doesn't need to know after only one month? Seems kind of inappropriate for the skeletons to make their appearance outside of the closet at Month 1.
Carolyn: They were friends first, remember. If they're comfortable with each other, with their histories and with sharing in general, then there's no such thing as too soon. If one or both of them tend to be more reticent, then that will push the "right time" back a bit.
But even then, if one of them raises a topic prematurely, the net effect on a mature couple will be negligible. The unready one will be able to say, "I'm not saying never, just not now," and the other will be able to accept and respect that. There's an art to sharing, and it starts with trust — in themselves and in each other.