Help me ask for help.
August 12, 2009 6:01 AM   Subscribe

I have a traumatic past and a partner who wants to be supportive, but I don't know how to ask for support!

I was in an abusive relationship four years ago. My ex hurt me pretty badly, emotionally and physically, over a period of a couple of months before I mustered the courage to leave him. I spent a couple of destructive years pretending it didn't matter and Everything Was Fine, and when that didn't work I tried therapy instead, with better results. I now have a therapist I like and am in a good relationship with a man I love.

Due to some circumstances beyond my control, I have to visit the town I lived in when I was with my ex. I will probably see some of the people who knew us, and at least drive past some of the places we frequented together. I am in a panic over all of this; just thinking about going back makes me nauseated and shaky.

My problem is that I don't know how to ask my partner for support. He can't come with me, so I'll be going by myself; we talk on the phone each night when we're apart. I get overwhelmed thinking about being anywhere near the old places and then I panic, and it takes a long time to calm down again. (Plotting out a route to get there from where I am is what motivated this question, actually; I got it done but am still feeling completely horrible hours later.)

I think it might be good to hear a pep-talk from my partner, but I don't know what sorts of things would be good to hear, and I feel like I'm being unfair when I ask for general support without having some idea in mind about what form that support should take. I also have trouble articulating my regular ghosts-of-abusive-past freakouts to him unless I've already gone over them in therapy, polished them, and come up with some kind of conclusion where I ask for a specific type of support--a backrub, a hand-holdy evening out, a ton of hugs, reminders that I am safe, etc.

Basically, if I haven't figured out exactly what is making me feel miserable and contrived a way to make me feel better, I freeze up and can't say anything at all. I have tried to talk to my partner about upsetting stuff without practicing on my therapist first, and it always ends with him being a patient listener, but frustrated over not knowing what to tell me; then I feel like a burden and a loser for not having made any progress, and even less inclined to try again.

You are not my therapist--she's on vacation and I can't see her again until our schedules coincide at the beginning of September, which I am sorely regretting. But I would really appreciate any advice that anyone can offer in the meantime. It's making me crazy that I can't talk to my partner. Throwaway email for contacting me privately is
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could you get a referral from your therapist, and bring your partner into a session? My therapist has told me that he's perfectly happy to allow me to bring someone in if I need to have a discussion facillitated or can't think of a way to approach a subject in which I need support that he can articulate better than I can. I haven't required that, but it's nice to know that I can ask for it.

If your therapist has a trusted colleague, you may want to see if s/he can hold a session where s/he moderates a discussion between you and your partner.
posted by xingcat at 6:22 AM on August 12, 2009

Fear and resentment are generally the biggest obstacles to healthy recovery from traumatic or depressing situations. In your case, you certainly have fear of the reactions you will receive from your new partner, as well as your own ability to cope with your trip to the old hometown. Undoubtedly there is resentment going on with your ex that is also putting up a wall between you and your new person.

Perhaps start your conversation with your partner with something like this, "I have resentments from my past, and I am afraid of dealing with that. Can you help?" If your new partner is as great as you imply, chances are they will start the ball rolling and enable you to pull up more from those depths that are so hard to reach. It is not a character flaw to be afraid. You certainly have every right after what you have been through. But don't cut off your new life at the knees because your are paralyzed by fear of hashing out your old life.

Give your new partner a chance. Give them the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to accept and support. Don't project outcomes. All my best to you. Remember that fear is overcome by help from others.
posted by netbros at 6:29 AM on August 12, 2009

*shakes fist at therapists' perennially ill-timed vacations*

OK, you're right, I'm not your therapist or a therapist at all, and I have no firsthand experience with abusive relationships. But my relative is a therapist, and browsing her bookshelves recently I flipped through a book on battered women. (I can't tell from your post whether you're male or female; I'm making the leap of faith that abusive relationships have similarities regardless of the gender of the partners. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.) This point stuck with me hard: Battered women tend to devote a lot of time and energy attempting to "make things perfect" for the batterer, in hopes that it will prevent more battering. This doesn't work, according to the author.

Now, I understand that your current SO is someone you love, but perhaps the same basic framework for this behavior is still in place. Based on your post it sounds like you are trying to "make everything perfect" for your SO in order that he can provide you with support. But maybe you need to try to let that go. It's not your job. It sounds to me like this person is a decent human being (yay!) and maybe can figure out some good ways to help you in this stressful situation. Asking for support without knowing what kind of support you need is not "being unfair," it's reaching out. Being human. FWIW, I think the capacity for being a patient listener is an excellent form of support. Also, I don't think there's anything wrong with asking for, say, a backrub, even if you're not sure it's exactly what you want/need. You could think of it as a starting point: Maybe the backrub will lead to a helpful, supportive conversation. Have you tried just asking your SO for a pep talk? Let him run with it. Sounds like he might be able to supply something helpful without having it scripted out beforehand (by you).

HTH. And a world of congratulations for getting yourself out of the abusive relationship. Keep up the good, hard work. :-)
posted by scratch at 6:32 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Therapists routinely (and perhaps legally) have someone who covers for them when they are away.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:36 AM on August 12, 2009 always ends with him being a patient listener, but frustrated over not knowing what to tell me...

Sounds like he takes your bad feelings personally (why can't I make her happy?), which sucks because it flips things around so that you feel you must reassure him and/or feel guilty rather than having him care for you. This sort of competition over who gets cared for can make a relationship feel like a zero-sum game, but it doesn't have to be that way. You can care for each other.

Even if you can't say exactly what you need from him, some information about what you don't need might be helpful. Let him know that you don't expect him to fix your past, or make up for it, or save you from your scary monsters. He may think it's his job to do these things, but he can't figure out how because it's impossible. I'm guessing that anxiety over his inability to fix everything is probably what drives his frustration.

I'm guessing that what you most need is just to voice your feelings, to have someone mirror them back to you and let you know you're not crazy. Can you ask for that?
posted by jon1270 at 6:52 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're already doing a lot of good work towards getting to the point where you can ask for support easily, so give yourself some credit! Serious kudos for taking this trip and for thinking about what you're going to need beforehand.

This jumped out at me: I feel like I'm being unfair when I ask for general support without having some idea in mind about what form that support should take.

I know all-too-well where this feeling comes from, but I can assure you that it's not actually true. Our need to be supported often precedes our ability to process the specificities of that need. That's how feelings work, especially the abuse-recovery feelings which can be so excruciatingly painful to process. You shouldn't have to feel guilty for having normal feelings.

When you're in a loving relationship, one of the skills you develop over time is the ability to get from "I'm panicked and I need something" to "we've figured out what I need together and we can start to calm me down." In my case, this often means that I ask for a backrub/a pep talk/a bubble bath to start with and then figure out halfway through that that's not actually what I want at all, that I want something else. So that's one thing you could try--approximating your needs by saying "hey I need a hug," and then sort of feeling that out until you discover what you actually need in the moment. "Hey this hug isn't working, tell me I'm safe." That kind of thing.

More specifically to your current situation, you say you think you want a pep talk from your partner--that sounds like a pretty good way of putting your needs to me! "Pep talk" to me says that you want to be reminded that you are strong enough and brave enough to take this trip even when you feel like a panicked mess.

One thing I did for a friend who was taking a similar trip to yours was write her little affirming notes that she could open, one a day when she was having her freak-out, to remind her that she was loved, that she was tough, that she was totally capable of taking this challenge on, that when she got back we were going to do fun and safe things together. This worked really well because she didn't have to wait to call at night--she could reach for her envelope when she felt scared and had something tangible to hold onto to remind her that she would be okay.

Best of luck with the trip, and keep on taking care of yourself.
posted by besonders at 6:55 AM on August 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think it might be good to hear a pep-talk from my partner, but I don't know what sorts of things would be good to hear, and I feel like I'm being unfair when I ask for general support without having some idea in mind about what form that support should take.

Things that might be good to hear:
You survived.

You "mustered the courage to leave him". That's takes a lot of strength and is hard to do, but you did it and the key word here, which you said yourself, is 'courage'. This means you're strong, even if you don't realize it (which means you're really strong).

You moved on and are doing better, despite the horror of where you were, you moved on and learned.

It's in the past and can't hurt you anymore. This is just a visit and not reversion to the past. The people who knew you then, the places you and your ex frequented, those are just paper tigers, fierce looking sure, but ultimately nothing to you, because you've survived and moved on and are in a better place.
Having him say these or similar statements to you could be a way of him supporting you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:56 AM on August 12, 2009

I agree with a lot of what's been said already: instead of figuring it all out then telling your partner what you need, see if you can take it back a step to a simpler setup. Tell him that you're anxious, and you need his support, but that you don't know exactly how that's going to work. Tell him that you don't expect him to fix your past, but if he could think of something soothing and positive to say or do today, that'd be awesome. Let him feel helpful by coming up with some ideas, and even if they're less than perfect, just enjoy having him demonstrate his love in this way for you.

Maybe too, until you get to see your therapist, write down what you're afraid of happening on your trip. I dealt with a similar fear this way, and it's not a solution, but it really does help to see your fears in black and white, instead of feeling a nebulous fearsome looming anxiety. Then you can look at each one, and work out what you'd do to get out of those situations before they get too bad. This is something else your partner can help with. Having a plan can help you feel more confident that even if something happens that you don't want, you've got the skills now to deal with that stuff.
posted by harriet vane at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2009

Is there something specific (key phrase, or something pinpointing an aspect of your emotions you share in sessions) your therapist says that your partner could echo, especially over the phone while you're away? A quick examples: "You've moved on and moved away, and you're going to do it again in x number of days" or "You're visiting your past, and all they can see is the person you were, they haven't met/gotten to know who you are". I suppose you could call it an affirmation, but it doesn't have to be one in the literal sense of the word.

I do love the expression 'paper tiger' though, and being a visual person I've found thinking of people with relationships like those you speak of relative to me as origami people helps. Overly literal, but there's my method FWIW.
posted by variella at 8:00 AM on August 12, 2009

I think it might be good to hear a pep-talk from my partner, but I don't know what sorts of things would be good to hear, and I feel like I'm being unfair when I ask for general support without having some idea in mind about what form that support should take.

Trust that he has the resources to figure this out. Just ask.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:52 AM on August 12, 2009

Maybe you'd like his help planning ways to diminish this trip's emotional potential? He knows you better than MeFites, after all. But some brainstorms to get you going are:
- making you/helping you make music CDs or podcasts to listen to so as to keep you anchored to present day and your current life - no old songs to trigger memories.
- coming up with mental games you can play on the trip to keep you occupied - like focusing on front porch design of houses or gardens or dog breeds...
- helping you pick out what to wear while you're there so that you feel like the current you, less likely to get bogged down in memories.
- going through a mental version of the trip with you beforehand (a rehearsal) where you talk about the different place and people triggers you'll encounter. This might diffuse some of their power because you take away their ability to surprise you.
posted by xo at 9:28 AM on August 12, 2009

ask him to listen without judgment (which i suspect he will do anyway) while you are there. if you are panicky, you may need to just call him and express all the rational and irrational thoughts that are racing through your head, just to get them OUT.

make a little kit to take with you -- it might contain a smooth stone or shell (i use by boyfriend's AF coins sometimes) that you can take out and focus on when you get upset. maybe it includes a t-shirt that smells like your current boyfriend. anything that will both soothe you and bring you zipping back to the moment, instead of getting caught up in the racing thoughts and knee-jerk emotional reactions.

and, if you need it, don't be afraid to ask your doctor for some meds. there are certain places that i have to go on occasion that still trigger me, and half a klonipin is a lifesaver. (of course, i am also not med-averse, etc)

good luck -- you ARE strong enough to do this.
posted by unlucky.lisp at 11:25 AM on August 12, 2009

Seems like there's two issues: How to talk to your partner in a way that will feel right, and how to make it through this trip. The former is something you should take up with your therapist when she gets back.

It sounds like your trip is triggering anxiety breakthroughs or panic attacks, which is a quite normal part of post-traumatic life. You'll work on them with your therapist and they're quite treatable. What kinds of things have helped you with your anxiety so far? Common aids for anxiety include meditation, distraction, exercise, long walks, bubble baths, etc. Many people talk to their doctors about using anti-anxiety medications to head off the panic attack - is that something you've considered?
posted by jasper411 at 12:04 PM on August 12, 2009

Maybe it would help to write him a letter expressing how you feel. Sometimes I find it easier to communicate my feelings through writing as opposed to talking. I get flustered and can't put words together. Writing seems to help. I don't get as flustered. I suggest writing some of your feelings down regarding your upcoming visit. Then, possibly showing it to your SO. The things you write don't have to be perfect. Just express yourself. You don't have to justify WHY you feel how you feel.

Another suggestion - How about letting him read this post? I think there have been a lot of good answers here that might help your SO understand what's happening.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:18 PM on August 12, 2009

« Older How do I find accountants and financial advisers...   |   Bringing legally prescribed controlled substances... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.