I need advice: Should I be honest about my previous sexual partners?

Each week our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe helps a reader with a problem. This week, a woman is unsure whether or not to reveal her number of sexual partners 

Dear Rhona,

For the last five years, I’ve been professionally single. I’m really good at it, I enjoy my own space, am busy with work and am perfectly happy hooking up with guys when I feel like it. I’ve had some longer flings but nothing past three months and I’ve usually ended it.

I’m not great with emotional intimacy and am also very ambitious so relationships just haven’t been a priority for me. Until now! I met an older guy who’s recently divorced from his wife and has two kids. He’s a cool guy who’s lived a lot and things are getting more serious. There’s nothing needy about him and he’s very honest, which I’m into. But it’s also my issue.


I always tell guys when I meet them that I’ve only had four other sexual partners. I don’t know why it’s just a standard number I roll out. The truth is I’m closer to triple digits. Which is fine, that’s my business, I’m always safe etc. I’ve also entertained my friends with stories of my sexual adventures for years and do feel it’s now part of my identity.

The problem is, I haven’t corrected my initial lie and we’re five months in now. He’s only slept with seven women in his life and I think he’d be pretty shocked with my number but more disappointed that I’ve lied to him this long. My question is, should I come clean and tell him the truth or just let it go? I really feel that telling him could drive him away and that makes me feel panicky and vulnerable.

Full disclosure, I also told him my Mum was a model when she was younger  – she wasn’t – and that I gave up smoking years ago. I smoke about ten cigs a week but he hates smoking.

Do White Lies Really Count? Dublin.

Rhona says...

Okay, until you hit ‘full disclosure’ mode this was a pretty black and white issue, in my eyes, with two equally sound routes to redemption. Well, maybe only one of those paths led to real atonement but the other path was equally valid, if a little less transparent. Then you slipped in your Mum’s fictional career and a false declaration that you’ve kicked the cigs and boom, we’ve officially entered Whoppersville.

Not that I’m judging you. We all do it. In fact, an aggregate of a lot of sound research on the subject estimates that we, humans, lie up to two times per day on average without even thinking. We lie to protect people’s feelings, to cover our mistakes, to avoid conflict and to gain personal advantage.


We tell our hairdresser that our cut and colour is amazing when yet again we leave looking nothing like the Alexa Chung headshot we’ve been clinging to for the past month. A lot of us have trouble telling beauticians, waiters or those that we pay for a service, that we are dissatisfied. In one study, 85% of restaurant diners told waiters that their dining experience was positive when it wasn’t.

Interestingly, and according to Guy Winch in Psychology Today, those of us who lie to cover up our dissatisfaction are more likely to leave bigger tips! This is called ‘cognitive dissonance,’ when our actions don’t match our beliefs, leading us to feel uncomfortable and over-compensate in some way. I hate to admit that I am still, at the ripe old age of 45, a chronic offender in this category.

Honesty vs trust

People view and value honesty and trust in different ways. For some very singular thinkers, any breach of truth is grounds for dissolution, even if they are habitual white-liars themselves. If they accidentally uncover an untruth, this could be even more inflammatory. Full disclosure is yet more precious in a relationship where open, honest communication allows you the space and comfort to be your ‘best selves,’ you (two) against the world.

You’re five months in, which is still very early days but also the perfect time to start getting real. The easy win is to come clean about your Mum’s modelling past as that’s likely to spring back in your face at some point. If your lie is hinged on any scrap of fact – like a catalogue cover your Mum did for Butlins in the 80s – I’d personally let it fly. If it’s a complete fabrication, get it out there.

You pretending to give up smoking while you’re still smoking is some next level lunacy. My keenest sense is my sense of smell. I’m like a bear on a whiff of a carcass, twenty kilometres upwind. Smoke clings to your clothes, your fingertips, your breath. Even if you think you’ve vanquished every trace of it, he will smell it. Either give up for good or tell him.

As for coming clean on your sexual partners, that’s entirely your business. Often this can be a very spikey issue for couples to table and can lead to arguments and unnecessary dissections of your past. If you hadn’t referenced a number at all, this would still fall into the mystery zone where it could confidently stay. The discrepancy between four and let’s say, ninety, for the sake of putting a number on it, is significant though.



You mention that your sexual adventures are part of your identity and here lies the deception. Your sexual history doesn’t define who you are but it does contribute to your life experience and a big chunk of no-go conversational content. Long-lasting, mutually-rewarding relationships often owe their success to a foundation of openness and honesty. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to spill your guts but there is substantial evidence to suggest that concealing information or ‘secrets’ from loved ones can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Interestingly, this also impacts how ‘authentic’ you perceive yourself to be, leading you to believe that you are not being authentic! Having said all of that, if you do decide to tell him the truth, brace yourself for some puritanical judgment. Most men just can’t help themselves.

Opening up your sexual history might actually be the perfect litmus test for him and your relationship, with five months the ideal threshold to weed out the frogs. And if he does have a problem with the number of people you’ve slept with, remember that this says a lot more about him, and his own insecurities and prejudices, than it does about you.

Photo: Unsplash

Read more: The secret to a happy marriage (according to relationship experts)


Read more: Why what you want to hear in a break-up isn't always what you need to hear

Read more: Love Island: How Michael's behaviour gave us all a lesson in 'gaslighting'

The image newsletter