It’s impossible to predict what will bother you most about a partner’s exes. The beauty of this exercise in testing your own self-esteem is that you often can’t know what’ll get you until the precise moment you discover one of them was a particularly talented artist, a manic pixie dream girl, or really good at handjobs.

Over at Slate, Seth Maxon sets out to discover what men find particularly challenging about their partners’ pasts. He looks, first, in the most obvious place—concentrating on how many exes people have, meaning how many people they’ve slept with. The post is inspired by Amy Schumer’s new movie Trainwreck, in which her boyfriend, played by Bill Hader, is apparently shocked to discover she’s slept with a lot of guys—though the actual number isn’t specified.

Maxon writes:

There are a lot of reasons that Schumer’s character might be starting to freak him out by that point in Trainwreck—her drinking, her selfishness, her aversion to nonsexual touch—but one is definitely the notion that her bedpost is too thoroughly notched.

Trainwreck is not a documentary, but still—is this a real thing? It’s only natural to wonder about a partner’s sexual history and how it might stack up to yours.

We’ve written before about whether or not you should tell your partners your “number”—I vote no, unless you want to, of course—but what’s interesting about Maxon’s piece is that he’s sure that most (straight) men don’t care about this anyway. And he turns out to be right, at least from his highly informal poll results. The men he asks care far more about everything but the number and were refreshingly not gross about it:

“If there’s a number like a hundred, I would want to be like, Well, you better go get tested for STDs,” the 26-year-old said. But later he said that if he really liked someone, he ultimately wouldn’t care. The 36-year-old said, “There are guys in these movies who say, ‘I thought she was a sweet girl, but then she’d been with 100 guys!’ That doesn’t mean she’s not a sweet girl.”

Another 32-year-old, who is engaged to his partner of three years, likewise isn’t fazed by 100. “If you’ve had 100 perfectly healthy and safe one-night stands, then go nuts,” he said. What number would be too high? “I don’t know if that number exists. I mean, I’m sure that it does. I just don’t know what it is.”

But that doesn’t mean nothing bothered them, and what did was finding out other aspects of those past relationships: details, locations where they’d slept together. Enough material to either compare themselves with the aid of their partner and come up short, or to simply compare themselves silently, and also come up short.

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Maxon argues that focusing on the past is a bad idea, and the healthier choice would be to focus on the pleasure and health of the relationship you’re currently in. Cool idea—let’s all do that. But whomever among us has not seethed upon seeing a particularly happy picture of your boyfriend with his old girlfriend, hearing a story of how much so-and-so was so much fun to roadtrip with, or being reminded of how she was always down to do new stuff even if she wasn’t that into it just as you’ve refused, yet again, to go bowling—well, please, cast the first ex.

Worth mentioning: Back in the old days, if you wanted to find out about an ex, you’d have to rely on word of mouth, your partner’s accounting of things (dubious), or whatever artifacts might still be around that you could get your hands on (never snoop!). Now all you need is a name and you can probably still find their old couples blog, the one where they share fun recipes and talk about how much they love each other.

Regardless of the location, old lovers resurface like zombies of the heart all the time, on social media, at your local bar, or just in your very cool brain, for the express purpose of taunting you. The “right” way to be is to accept that someone has a past, that it has nothing to do with you, and what’s past is past. Or, if you are the sort of person who likes knowing about your partner’s exes, an open mind. The trouble is, there cannot be a person alive who has never felt the mild burn of jealousy about your partner’s past.

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Sometimes you think you don’t care, only to realize you really fucking do care. Sometimes you think you’ll be super jealous only to discover you aren’t threatened at all. I have had entirely different images of certain exes built up in my head only to find out that the person in question not only seems like a nice person, but that we could actually be friends if circumstances permitted it.

There is part of me, also, that feels that she can never know too much about anything, because knowing someone means accepting their entire life before you, including who they loved before you, how they were loved, what that person brought out in them for better or for worse, what that person encouraged in them or exposed them to. There’s another part of me that thinks that first part of me is really fucking stupid.

Discomfort with this knowledge, in the end, always comes down to insecurity. You become convinced, irrationally or otherwise, that the ex was/is better than you in every way, such as:

  • Nicer
  • Smarter
  • More fun
  • Good at whatever you are bad at
  • Fun in whatever situations you suck at
  • Gave better blowjobs
  • Dated your partner for so long you can never ever trump it unless you get married or something and that’s too much pressure
  • Better taste
  • Great cook
  • Fun at parties
  • Makes a signature cocktail
  • Still needs your ex in some way, and what’s worse, your ex obliges
  • Were around for major milestones in your ex’s life that you can never replace
  • More photogenic
  • Never wore makeup
  • Always remembered to do that thing you always forget to do
  • Hair looked good after riding in convertibles/ferries

And the most important thing of all: They exist, and they still do.

But they should exist—after all, you presumably love your partner, and for that you should thank their exes. I think we are all changed in some way or another by everyone we’ve ever loved. On some level we are everyone we have ever loved, too.

If you’re the jealous type, this is the stuff of your worst nightmares. Even if you aren’t the jealous type, rest assured we all hit our weak points. Either way, that jealousy, as irritating as this may sound, is actually quite useful in helping you understand your own limitations and fears. So next time you feel mildly or extremely threatened by some other person, you just have to repeat the mantra that the person is in the past for a reason. You’re here now. Try to enjoy it. Unless they are the worst kind of ex of all, which is the one who won’t go away. That is a very real thing that I cannot help you with.


Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.