Before marrying, Irene and her fiance decided to be frank about their pasts. He had led a rackety life with lots of girlfriends; she had had only two, very important, lovers. But when she told him about them he was distressed, hurt and angry, refusing to speak to her for two days. When she asked him to confess all in return, he said he couldn't possibly hurt her in the way she had hurt him. What should she do now?

There is often a difference between how adult and sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be and the vulnerable weeping victims we really are, but in Irene's fiance's case the gap appears to be huge. "Know thyself" is clearly not his motto, and his petulant behaviour is not a very good sign for the future.

He has been caught in a hard place, between the rock of his strong, rational self and his squishy emotional self, and he has discovered that far from being a relaxed liberal who believes that what's sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, he is a hard-core male chauvinist who finds it intolerable to think that his girlfriend has slept with two other people in the past.

Or is it the sex he objects to? Perhaps it is the seriousness of Irene's relationships that scares him, the fact that it appears as if she has actually been in love before. Perhaps he could have coped with 10 drunken one-night stands, but not one love-affair. But what did he want to hear? He must have known she wasn't a virgin. Would he really have preferred to have discovered that she was someone who lay on her back for anyone, or that she was a serious girl who didn't sleep around? Or does he feel her confession shows him up as a shallow kind of person himself, someone who's never fallen in love before?

Of course, Irene was being a bit naive. She must know that it is one thing to be vaguely aware of other people's amorous pasts, but there is usually an agonising sear of jealousy that sizzles into the soul when the one you love actually mentions a name, a time or a place. Perhaps she should have given a watered-down version of the truth, or never agreed to this grim confessional which could only, surely, end in tears. Confession rarely clears the air and someone is always going to get hurt, sometimes yourself. I always remember screwing myself up, over an agonising week, to admit to a boyfriend that I had been unfaithful. The look of horror on his face when I revealed all, the look that told me in a single flash he was quite amazed that I should think my infidelity worth confessing since he felt free to have sex with anyone else he liked and assumed I did the same, was excruciatingly painful.

But Irene's fiance can't be the first old boulevardier to collapse in a heap when he discovers his true love once loved another. What is worrying is his childish reaction. He could have given a little wince, burbled something humorous about whether a marriage should be frank and earnest or whether one of them should be a woman, and nursed his hurt in secret. Or he could have been completely honest and said he was a wally to go in for this confessions caper and he had learnt by his mistake. But to accuse Irene of hurting him - that will not do. Having agreed to accept this confession the only person who can take responsibility for his hurt feelings is himself.

The only people I know who can talk about their past love affairs with ease are people who have been together for a very long time. They are usually well over 40 and their love affair has adjusted into a loving friendship in which they can easily refer to their partners' old lovers, sometimes with an admiring twinkle in their eye.

Somehow I doubt whether Irene and her fiance will ever reach this stage. And if she has any sense, Irene ought, surely, be having second thoughts already.

Double standards are alive and kicking

Irene's problem is grotesquely like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I had no idea the double standard was still so alive and strong. Some friends of mine, when they remarried, agreed that they each had a past and wouldn't go in for revelations and confessions. Much wiser.

L Hepburn

Chatham, Kent

Do you want to live with a bully?

Irene's fiance sounds extremely immature. She should be honest with herself. How often does he ignore her if he doesn't get his own way?

She asks what she should do to make things right. She has nothing to make amends for and should not make excuses for his oversensitive irrational behaviour. He has no right to treat her in this manner.

Don't get carried away with all the wedding plans, Irene. Think about reality and the dynamics in your relationship. If he is very dominant, ask yourself if you truly want this bullying type of behaviour. Find someone who respects you and treats you as an equal.

Beth Muscat

London NW4

A victim of his own immaturity

Although I am a lesbian I have fitted into a scenario just like Irene's - but in my case it is I who have led the "rackety" life. I have had a multitude of ex-partners, both men and women, whereas the woman who is the love of my life has had only a couple of partners (men) who she cared about quite deeply. I have never felt threatened by her past, and she has never felt threatened by hers.

I think that Irene's fiance is deeply immature and insecure; Irene's past is her own and if he can't cope with that he should re-examine his attitude and grow up. If you agree to be frank with someone, you should at least be grown-up enough to be able to deal with that frankness.

I find my lover's respect for her previous partner quite appealing, and that, in turn, increases my respect for her. I would hope that when Irene's fiance recovers from his bout of peevishness, he can appreciate that Irene is a woman who loves deeply, and that should her love for him end, at least she will recall their love with fondness and compassion.



Ask for his forgiveness

Your fiance was "distressed, angry and would hardly speak to you for two days" when you revealed to him that you have "become one flesh" (Genesis 3:16) with two other men before you were to be married to him. Sexual relationships before marriage seem fun at the time but they deeply affect the relationship that you have with your spouse. This advice is not much use to you now, however. The only you can do is ask your fiance for his forgiveness and while you are at it why don't you ask God to forgive you, too.

Henry Hudson


Convince him of your love

I think your fiance is mortally hurt that he is not the only man in the world in your life and is terrified in case either of your ex-lovers walks past you in the street and make you have second thoughts. So if you do still want to live with him for the rest of your life, you have to tell him that he is now the only man in your life.

MJ Hazlett


What's passed is past

Having "agreed" to be frank with each other, an exchange of lists of first names/dates to be read simultaneously, then burned and never to be referred to again would have been preferable to the dilemma now in place.

A better agreement would have been to acknowledge each other's "pasts" as past. The "fiance" having broken an important agreement will, now and forever, have the upper hand. Irene should be warned by the fiance's reaction and break off the relationship now or she will be unhappy ever after.

Elsie Evans



Dear Virginia,

My parents died when I was young, and when I got engaged I was delighted when the parents of an old friend asked if I'd be married from their house. My friend's mother even offered to make my dress for me. Initially, I was reluctant to let her because our tastes aren't the same, but as it appeared to mean so much to her to contribute, I happily let her.

Naturally, I paid for the material, and took her flowers and chocolates whenever I had a fitting. Imagine my horror when, the night before the wedding, I went up to my room and found an envelope on my pillow with a bill for pounds 500 in it, for making the dress! I was completely taken aback and though I was determined not to let it ruin my big day, I'm at a loss as to what to do now.

Yours, Petra

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the `Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL (fax 0171- 293-2182) by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.