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'The Number' says less than a few well-chosen words

Q: You have said that people do not need to tell "numbers" — how many past sexual partners they have had. Yet, to have healthy relationships, we should not lie to our significant others.

If we do not want to tell those numbers, how should we answer the questions if they arise? Do we assume those who ask are judgmental or insecure?

A: Well, yes. But since dismissing people as judgmental and insecure without giving them a chance to speak for themselves could reasonably be considered judgmental and insecure behavior, a good answer to the numbers question would be "Do you think it matters?" And if yes, then, "Why?"

If you get the "truth is important to healthy relationships" line in return, or some other guilt-generating vehicle, then please don't question the need to resist this blatant invasion of self. There is a huge, gaping difference between telling a significant other you think it's distracting, silly, juvenile, pointless, judgmental, shame-centric and conducive to paranoia to discuss numbers, and lying.

It is important, of course, for couples to have a good idea of each other's histories. Not so much for health purposes, since any sexual experience is enough experience for exposure to infection — but for the purpose of shedding light on someone's character, values and emotional makeup.

Excepting for extreme behavior — prostitution, for example, does warrant specific discussion — it's possible to glean that "good idea" from surprisingly little detail.

To wit: "I'm pretty new at this." "I lay low for years after my divorce." "I've had a series of long-term relationships." "I think we as a society are way too uptight about sex." "I was wild in college" already says plenty, and you can double its information just by dialing your expression to "impish" or "dour."

So what information would a number add that these summaries don't already provide? Certainly anyone who would fudge these would fudge a number, anyway.

Meanwhile, couples reinforce their general histories with armies of small details that come out through clothing, body language, interests, habits and conversations about this ex, that rough time in your life and the party you went to last week.

Anyone who needs the assurance of a number beyond this litany of overt and unwitting disclosure needs assurance no number can give.

Just say something

Q: Will you please advise on the sensitive subject of speaking with the family of a close friend who killed himself? I learned of this tragedy two months later when the man's fiancee answered e-mail sent to him. (They both lived in Chicago; the fiancee's parents, his parents and I are in Ohio.) I didn't know what to do and so left a message of condolence when I called his parents — thank the deities for answering machines. I'm uncertain how to behave. This is not an area where one is prepared to make discreet and sensitively written statements.

A: The most pain doesn't come from well-meaning but indiscreet words, it comes from silence.

This man was ill. He died. That his death was by his own hand doesn't change those two essential facts. Please send notes to his parents and fiancee, saying how much you'll miss your friend, how warmly you remember him and how sorry you are for their loss.

Write "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or

e-mail tellme@washpost.com.

'The Number' says less than a few well-chosen words 03/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:47am]

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