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September 17, 2008 2:17 PM   Subscribe

How to tell a new intimate partner about self-inflicted scars?

I am a 20 year old male with no previous experience of intimacy, so this is the first time I will have to show someone my cuts. I have many and they cover the entire skin over both deltoids.

The time will come very soon where I will have to rip my shirt off in a hurried and sexual manner, and when that happens the biggest secret I've kept from the world will be shown. Obviously she is going to be shocked.

I'm thinking I should tell her beforehand, to prepare her for such a sight. I need help with the how. The truth needs to be told, I know that, but its a touchy subject and I need to be delicate and careful because I DO like her, and she IS someone who is very outgoing, and may not be able to relate to my sad past.

First anon question.. So I figured I'll make a clever throwaway: scarredtoshowyou@yahoo.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
you should prepare yourself to have direct answers to eventual questions, especially the kind you might not get asked outright. your partner might suspect you are a cutter and wonder about your mental health ("what am I getting myself into? is anonymous stable?") or want to know how you got them. the key is direct communication. get it out there, warn your partner, prepare this person for what they are about to see. the 'rip my shirt off in a hurried and sexual manner' moment is not the one when you want to make disclosures, be it about this or std's or declaring anything else. you want to have the luxury of just letting yourself go with the mood when that moment arrives, so take care of business earlier (that also means you buy the condoms, btw).

have fun!
posted by krautland at 2:36 PM on September 17, 2008


to a 6 year old.

to coworkers

I would imagine a lot of the advice would pertain.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:41 PM on September 17, 2008

While you should never be one who identifies themselves by their scars, your scars are a part of your identity. They are history written on your skin.

Disclosure is important, however: "I went through some very rough times and I found that self-injury provided me with some relief, and as such I have quite a few scars from that point in my life. Thankfully I have found other, less damaging ways to manage these feelings now, but I wanted you to know about it before we take this to the next stage, which I really want to do."

Let her ask questions and answer them truthfully. Hold her hands and look in her eyes and just talk to her about it. Talk the issue inside-out if that's what you need to do.

Note that, in my experience at least, this sort of thing can cause a great deal of upset in new partners, and not necessarily because they are frightened by what you used to do to yourself: a lot of the time they are frightened that it might be something you will do to them. For people unfamiliar with the issue, you need to explain it inside-out: it's not a sexual fetish, you're not a deviant or a sociopath or a sadist, it was just a thing that worked.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:13 PM on September 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I'd tell her ahead of time. First time together will be awkward enough on its own, without this hanging over you.
posted by meta_eli at 3:23 PM on September 17, 2008

Vulnerability + confidence can actually be very attractive to some women. Firstly, do not tell her right before you're about to have sex. Make dinner at your place and tell her then (a restaurant doesn't offer enough privacy). Tell her that you used to do this thing because [vague reason like you had a rough time at home]. Tell her that you're much better now because [example of stability like job, school] and you want to put the past behind you. Answer any questions she has, but don't go into gory detail about how dad was a drunk unless she asks. Don't get bogged down in a conversation about what happened to make you feel this way. Reassure her that you've taken steps to prevent it from happening again. Ask her if she'd prefer you kept your shirt on during sex for right now (lots of scars would initially be a distraction to me; after significant emotional involvement I wouldn't care)
posted by desjardins at 3:43 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agree with Desjardins - if handled well, this could be communicated to her as a moment of intimacy in its own right, one that brings you closer together.... well before you ever actually make love together.
posted by skylar at 3:49 PM on September 17, 2008

Thirding everyone who suggests that maybe you should show them to her in during a non-sexual encounter, such as before you go swimming together. Or just tell her and then unbutton your shirt to show her. I'm thinking that even if she knows about them from you telling her in advance, it might be awkward or off-putting for her to not actually SEE them until right before you have sex.
posted by np312 at 3:57 PM on September 17, 2008

I have fairly extensive self-inflicted scarring on my arms (from the shoulders down to my wrists). At this point I'm comfortable being completely open about it - I don't wear long-sleeves constantly. That's a fairly recent thing, though (I'm 26 and I started doing that earlier this year, I've done it before, but the scarring was a little less obvious then). I've been through a number of "hey, I have scars" conversations.

Each time has been pretty much OK. And the timing has ranged from after getting to know them very well to the first time we met. Pretty much as soon as sex has become a realistic possibility. The conversation pretty much goes like this:

"Hey, so I guess there's a possibility you'll be seeing me without my shirt on at some point. There's something I need to tell you before that happens, just so you know. I have some scars on my arms. I'm kind of sensitive about showing them because I used to self-harm. It's not something I'm doing now or have done recently, and I'm much happier now than I was then. You're actually one of the few people I've told. If you want to ask any questions about it, then go ahead."

Mostly the people I told this would want to see them, so be prepared for that. None have seemed all that shocked.

Other people are going to tell you this - anyone worth having sex with is going to be OK with your scars. There's very few women who would let a few scars get in the way of a relationship with someone they care about and you don't want to be around those women anyway. The other thing you'll hear is "Your scars aren't as bad as you think they are." This is almost certainly true. They're a much bigger deal to you than they are to anyone else.

It's definitely daunting letting someone in to something that's very private. It's totally OK and normal to feel this way.

Anyway, if you want to talk about this further, feel free to mefi mail me, or send me an email at the address listed on my profile.
posted by xchmp at 3:58 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

anonymous, here is a huge and compassionate self-injury support website with a very detailed page called "Living with SI" that includes tips on talking about self-injury and its scars with people you care about. There's another section that offers support for family and friends too. Good luck.
posted by onoclea at 4:02 PM on September 17, 2008

I'm going to add my perspective on self-harm support groups (such as the secret shame website onoclea linked to). It's totally not my intention to be critical of that suggestion, so think of this as an alternative take on online support groups and the associated literature.

It's been my experience that, by their nature, online support groups treat self-harm as a far more important subject than it needs to be. If you think of self-harm as Big Deal then that's what it's going to be. Really, it's just a thing that you do or did, but it's not who you are. People cope in lots of ways, it's just that one of the ways you coped left marks. (Just to clarify, self-harm is definitely a Big Deal if it puts your life in danger, or causes serious damage to important bits of your body, but most self-harm isn't like that.)

The bit of this that's directly relevant to your immediate concern is this: If you don't treat your self-harm as a Big Deal, mostly other people will follow your lead. Expect people to be shocked and they'll do their best to fulfil that expectation. If you introduce your scars as something deadly serious, that requires a big build-up then other people will think of them as a deadly serious thing and will worry about them. But if you introduce them as just something you did, then other people will tend to think of them like that. It's not easy feeling like that initially, but it does get easier.

Obviously people's mileage on this stuff varies, and my perspective may well be affected by my gender (the majority, though far from all of the people in online support groups are women). This is just my view (and probably not a very popular one at that).
posted by xchmp at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look... what everyone else said, and also make sure you are alone and in a place where you feel totally comfortable telling her. Either her place or yours is ideal, and you might want to phrase it in such a way that you let her know that you know that nobody is perfect, and that you accept her exactly as she is... and you want her to know that you are not perfect, and are hoping that she can accept you exactly the way you are... and that these patterns have stopped and she need not be preoccupied with "saving you from yourself" or any triggers.

I have dated guys with one testicle; strange bone growths, had a best friend who was a conjoined twin and had a lump from being severed from his brother over their hearts (why is this so romantic to me! but I digress); I myself have stretchmarks, just like most women do. One of my best friends in high school had one hand and was a very graceful ballerina. Our anomalies are beautiful; they make us unique.

We fall in love with, and grow closer because of, our imperfections. You fall in love with quirks and vulnerabilities; the media ideal of perfection is both impossible and really not that attractive to the vast majority of people.

You feel afraid because this is not an issue you've dealt with before; with time, and with practice, this shared vulnerability will become easier and build intimacy with this partner and hopefully any future partners you might have.

You might also look at therapy to deal with building self-confidence and maintaining the will through stresses great and small to never self-harm again.

Never be afraid to be who you are, inside AND out; those that truly care for you will love you all the more for it.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:01 PM on September 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

I show my scars to pretty much everybody. Short sleeves club, what what.

I lie to people I'm not comfortable sharing with. "Remember when space heaters used to have red-hot metal grates?"

I have told every boyfriend about them. What they are, why I did it, when it was, why I don't feel the need anymore.

Oh, dear, it's worth it. I heard the line "You're gorgeous, all of you. Even your arm scars. So punk rock and hot," the other day, and while it probably sounds way too personal and silly to be sharing, I just want to let you know, when you find someone who really loves all of you, even the ugly bits, it means so much more than someone who has only scratched the surface thinking you are perfect.

I would recommend getting comfortable wearing short sleeves, and wait for her to ask. Be honest, be non dramatic. It's just part of your body.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:06 PM on September 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have dated two people with fairly extensive self-inflicted scarring. I never thought of the scars as being a turn-off or even really that odd. I guess I remember being a teenager. I would tell her beforehand, possible even try to find amusement in the situation during the disclosure so she can be sure that you don't take yourself too seriously, and, honestly, she may actually find it somewhat endearing.
posted by exacta_perfecta at 5:52 PM on September 17, 2008

I started cutting when I was pretty young and was not able to stop until I was in my early twenties. I have some pretty noticeable scars on my hands, chest and the soles of my feet.

I was with my ex-husband for 9 years and I did not tell them what I had done/did until a few years into our marriage because I told myself that he would be disgusted with me; however, I think the real reason that I did not tell is because I knew if he knew I would have to stop. Whenever he asked it was always space heater/burner/kid growing up in the country/barbed wire fence/broken glass/it was an accident excuse. When it finally came out is my mom asked me in front of him if I still did it, and I lied and the bell in his noggin went dinging and he figured it out. All those old scars, all those new scars, she did it to herself. He was pretty mad at me, not for doing it, but for not trusting him enough to tell him. After that he became kind of nuts about it and watched me like a hawk, which was really irritating at the time, but now looking back it is what broke me from the cycle of self-harm. Much earlier this year when I left him, which was one of the more stressful periods of my life, I was able to not cut, and still haven't which is mind boggling to me. I want to, but don’t.

I guess what I am saying in my long rambling way is that you don’t "owe" anyone and explanation, but it is better to tell someone (especially if you want to have sex with this person!) on your terms when you are ready, instead of making them get up the nerve to ask and then just blurting the best cover up story that comes to mind. It doesn’t do a relationship any good to hide that kind of stuff. If she feels out of sorts after your talk, send her to some of those support websites where she can read the stories of other people that are/were cutters, so she can read their stories and not just hear from your lips that cutting is not about killing yourself or hurting other people. I noticed that in your post you did not mention if you still cut; if you do I would make that clear to her as well.

And, on a side note; while I am not saying that cutting is healthy or not an issue to be concerned about, having that history is absolutely nothing you should be ashamed of, we all have ways that we deal with stress, depression or even boredom, many of them destructive, some are just more visible than others.
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 6:21 PM on September 17, 2008

The time will come very soon where I will have to rip my shirt off in a hurried and sexual manner, and when that happens the biggest secret I've kept from the world will be shown. Obviously she is going to be shocked.

She might not be shocked. I'm outgoing and upbeat and, although I've never self-injured, I knew many, many people who did in high school. Even through college and graduate school, I've been in the minority when I've told people that I didn't when the subject's come up in social settings. It's a fairly common thing. I've had partners with scars, and while I was always sad that they felt pressed to do such a thing to themselves, well, we've all been through bad times. Jenny is Crafty gives great advice here. I think it's important to understand that even happy people go through sad, rough, difficult things--especially in adolescence--and that it's perfectly healthy to talk about these times with people you care about.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:22 PM on September 17, 2008

I recommend you spend some time in front of the mirror training yourself to look dispassionately at your own scars.

This is going to be hard work, because at the moment, all they mean to you is memories of past pain. You need to get to a point where you can look at your own scars and forgive yourself for inflicting them.

Googling "scarification" and checking out what some other people are prepared to do to themselves for essentially cosmetic reasons might be helpful, too.

If you can learn not to treat your scars (or any other aspect of the way your body looks or works that you're currently unhappy with) as a shameful secret, you will find that your partners' reactions to them will give you no cause for grief.
posted by flabdablet at 8:37 PM on September 17, 2008

Oh, dear, it's worth it. I heard the line "You're gorgeous, all of you. Even your arm scars. So punk rock and hot," the other day, and while it probably sounds way too personal and silly to be sharing, I just want to let you know, when you find someone who really loves all of you, even the ugly bits, it means so much more than someone who has only scratched the surface thinking you are perfect.

I think this bears repeating. I was sure I'd NEVER find anyone who really meant it when they said they could stomach my scarred body, let alone be attracted to it. But I found someone who really does. Even all it encompasses, my emotional past--all of it. He has said and written things just as clearly as the aforementioned. It is an incredible feeling.

I won't go into details--perhaps I will mail you or I don't know if I think of more and it requires more private disclosure--but I have a torso loaded with massive scars due to a violent injury. I told my partner gradually, and yes, DEFINITELY beforehand. I threw out the vague line first to get a feel for his reaction--you don't have to mention self injury or scarring, but the source of it first perhaps--"You know, I've struggled with depression off and on in my life" etc. Then you go into more specifics if she reacts in a way that seems understanding. Specific times you were struggling and trying to cope. And then, without making a fuss but also without alluding in a manner that might be confusing, mention--repeatedly perhaps--the scars. She might want to know if you still do it, etc. Discuss it. Tell her how you feel--that you're scared to expose that part of yourself to another person, that you don't know how she will react. Be honest. Gauge her reaction while still being compassionate, realizing it might come to a shock even if you've done the steps of mentioning depression or whatever the cause was first.
posted by ifjuly at 9:00 PM on September 17, 2008

I have several friends with extensive scarring and it never made me feel any differently about them. I understand why they did it and am glad that they have recovered. It's an accomplishment to overcome something like this and if anything she should be proud of you for being strong enough to find other ways of dealing with your pain.

I think that you telling her about these scars will make her realize how important she is to you and I doubt she will be as scared as you are.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:28 AM on September 18, 2008

From the perspective of the girl: I once dated someone with scars on both shoulders and upper arms. I felt them with my hands before I'd seen them, before any shirts were wildly ripped off and I remember being puzzled but not having any negative or judgmental feelings. I gently asked about them, got a vague explanation, and that was that. The scars just weren't as important as things like personality, lips, and raw physical attraction. Find a way for her to see the scars and talk about them before the heat of the moment; either bring it up and show her, or casually wear a shirt that shows them so that they come out into the open. I understand that it feels awkward, but you will be fine.
posted by bassjump at 7:35 PM on September 18, 2008

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