How would you react to this?
September 19, 2010 4:00 PM   Subscribe

How would you react if your long-term boyfriend/girlfriend told you they have a past history of extensive physical, sexual, and emotional abuse? Or do you say anything at all? Relevant details inside.

I have been with my boyfriend for a year, being friends for a few months before that. Our relationship is solid and we are each other's best friends. We plan to move in together soon, and if things continue on this path, we'd like to get married once I'm finished with law school.

FTR, I've already read all of the posts tagged with abuse, including this one: When to share the baggage? When to keep it to yourself? That post was extremely helpful, but I'm more interested in finding out how most people would react if their SO told them they suffered long-term abuse as a kid.

The reason I'm telling him at all is because it is something that still impacts me today, and therefore our relationship. I'd like to give him some insight as to why I act certain ways in certain situations, why I'm immensely bothered by certain topics or remarks, etc. I'm not comfortable sharing examples of some of the self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors I have or tendencies I exhibit, but they are all significant enough that they're owed some sort of "explanation." (And so it's not mentioned, I've been in therapy. I'm not interested in going back anytime soon.)

Additionally, I want/need him to understand that when we get married, I prefer to elope, and if he insists on having a formal wedding, my family will not be invited. IMO, that's a pretty significant demand on my part that isn't fully explained by the 'she doesn't get along with her parents' excuse. I'd like him to understand why the idea of being a parent scares me. I want him to understand and not believe I'm being dramatic when I ultimately cut all ties with my family. So some of the issues I'd like him to better understand are small (i.e., why I tend to worry and overanalyze everything), but some are larger and directly affect our relationship (i.e., the wedding issue).

What my partner knows is this: my relationship with my parents is deeply strained, and that most of the interaction I have with them leaves me crying and upset. In the past when I've said, "I'm so depressed. I talked to my mother today and she told me XYZ. Who says that?" or something along those lines, his response is usually: that's ridiculous, that's silly, just ignore them, etc.

I don't plan to tell him the specifics as far as what exactly happened during those years. I want to give him enough information that he is able to understand the severity and thus why I have certain issues or thought patterns, while not unfairly burdening him with horrific stories or freaking him out. My fear is that he'll freak out and leave me. I also don't want this to change our relationship as far as how he acts toward me, for example. He comes from a good family and is close to his parents, so I worry he won't understand.

I plan to explain all of this to him in writing, either letting him read the letter on his own, or using it as a guide when I tell him in person. What I want to tell him is that I have an extensive history of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. My abusers are related to me. A lot of the bad habits I have are related to the abuse. Sometimes when I'm down, it's not because I'm being too negative, but because I'm reminded of certain things in the past, things I feel I can rightfully be upset over.

What do you think? If your partner told you what I wrote in the preceding paragraph, how would you react? Should I bother telling him at all? This is, at the end of the day, for my own sanity. He doesn't exactly need to know, but I would think and hope it would allow him to understand certain things better. Would you rather not know? Would you treat your partner any differently?

My gut tells me that if he loves me and is truly committed to me and our relationship, he will stick around. But my paranoid mind says many people freak out over the thought of molestation, child abuse, etc. because they can't grasp them, so he may very well run.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have been in a similar position to your boyfriend -- and I was glad to be told. I was deeply upset, as I imagine he may well be, because for me it was like these things had just happened, though they happened years earlier. And I felt angry at the perpetrators and guilty at not having somehow prevented something which was clearly impossible for me to have prevented.

I'm just telling you these things, so that you'll be prepared for him having a strong emotional reaction, which is likely -- and the more he cares about you, the more it will probably affect him.

But I can't imagine him being afraid of these things. It's more likely to make him feel protective.
posted by jb at 4:13 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you have to deal with this. I don't have any experience from your side, but if someone were telling me this in a relationship, I'd want a little more specifics than the paragraph you included above. While I know you don't want to get into the gory details, this paragraph:

What I want to tell him is that I have an extensive history of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. My abusers are related to me. A lot of the bad habits I have are related to the abuse. Sometimes when I'm down, it's not because I'm being too negative, but because I'm reminded of certain things in the past, things I feel I can rightfully be upset over.

would raise more questions than it answered. I'd want to know who did this to you and when/how it ended. I'm not saying you have to tell him that, but if I cared about you, I'd want to know. I do not think you need to go into details, just for example "Between X and Y age, Z relative did this, and my family responded this way."

Again, you should do whatever you feel comfortable with, but from the other side that's what I'd want to know.

Otherwise, I think you're doing the right thing telling him, and I think that even if there is an initial shock he'll be able to move past it. Good luck.
posted by mercredi at 4:14 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If he runs, you either broached the topic in a confrontational way designed to push him away (a lot of people inadvertently do that, regardless of past issues) or he's not worth marrying.

FWIW, when a past GF told me about her abuse (we were 17 at the time) I said something like "wow, that sucks" and let it go. I'd like to think that today I'd be more supportive, but at the same time she never asked for any particular support or acted like she needed it. My current SO is very close to her family, but she doesn't give me any kind of a hard time about the fact I'm not particularly close with mine.

As with any relationship issue, don't expect schmoopy to read your mind. When you tell him this, ask him for what it is that you need/want from him. He probably will have no idea how to respond. It will make it easier on both of you if you don't expect him to guess about your needs and wants.

Beforehand, think carefully about what it is that you're comfortable revealing and what exactly you hope to gain and how to communicate your expectations about where you two go from there.
posted by wierdo at 4:17 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would, with as little drama possible, cut ties with your parents. Once that's a done, established thing, tell him. Reiterate that they won't be at the wedding.

And please, if you love him at all, if you believe that any part of you is worthy of his love, go to therapy. It will be hard. It will be inconvenient. You might have to sift through multiple therapists to find a good fit. It may be expensive. But you are an adult now (I presume), and the abuse is over, and it is crazy making and totally unfair for you to be down over "certain things in the past, things I feel I can rightfully be upset over".

I'm not minimizing, or saying that your grief is unfounded, but that's what therapy is for. To just be bummed, just there, bummed out, for your SO to deal with is not good. It will eat a hole in your life, in his, and it will be hard to have a functioning relationship because of it.

He might leave you. Maybe because of this, or because he's a flake, or because he's really the opposite sexual orientation. That's no reason not to tell him. If he is as serious about this relationship as you are, then he deserves the full truth.

Good luck to you.
posted by Leta at 4:18 PM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Anyone decent at all will say something like "I am so sorry you went through that. What can I do to help?" Anyone who responds by running away is *not* someone you want to spend your life with or who you will ever be happy with. That's not to say that some decent people might not be disturbed or upset-- but it's hard to imagine that you could have any kind of relationship at all with someone with whom you didn't feel safe sharing this information.

And absolutely, you should share it. This kind of stuff affects your behavior now and it is if you *don't* acknowledge it and don't deal with the way it affects you that it will cause problems. It is impossible for someone to be "understanding" if they don't know a very important part of what made you who you are.

That's not to say that you should ruminate on it or go searching for memories or poke around in any kind of way that makes you feel worse-- simply that this stuff has effects that are long lasting and profound and can suddenly hit you out of nowhere if you have no idea what "triggers" you. It's part of how you came to be you-- and someone who loves you needs to know about it and will almost certainly love you even more after knowing about it.

Basically, if you keep this information from him, you cannot have a truly intimate relationship with him. And if he's the kind of person who would leave you over it, it's better to know that now so you can find a decent human being to be with.

Btw, such experiences are unfortunately very common so it is unlikely that he'd be deeply shocked, even if he came from a "normal" family. In fact, coming from a genuinely good family would instill compassion and understanding about why that's important and why it's so hard for those who don't have those advantages.
posted by Maias at 4:20 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

My fear is that he'll freak out and leave me.

Aw, honey. It sounds like you have a good relationship; you're discussing marriage, yes? Don't be afraid.

He does need to be told, though, because your history will, as you've mentioned, impact your future. HOW he will react is impossible to know, but you asked for how WE would feel. To that end, if my beloved told me the story you're about to tell, I'd say, "Holy shit, that sucks! I'm so sorry. How can I help?"
posted by goblinbox at 4:20 PM on September 19, 2010

You sound like you have a good head on your shoulders about this.

As someone from a similar background, take care that you don't take explanations into excuse territory. Meaning that if you have behaviors that are affecting him negatively and unfairly, you should still be working to change them. You can expect him to maybe have more patience, but that doesn't mean he won't still be affected.

In other words, keep your expectations for yourself very high, be the best you can be, and you should be fine.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:23 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have been in this boat before. My history probably is not as intense or extensive as yours - my situation was an abusive relationship during college which I was able to get out of and move on from, have no contact with my abuser (nor would I be expected to). So different situation by far.

I usually tell people when things get serious. Like around the same time that we would have the "are we exclusive or not" conversation, or when talking about money or giving more than the basic details of past sexual/relationship stuff become appropriate.

Or sometimes it has to happen earlier, because something triggering happens and it needs to be explained in a sensible and adult way so that my partner doesn't get freaked out by it.

Every single time I have been through this, the person in question has been super awesome and supportive. Mostly they don't "understand" in the way that someone who has been through it would understand. But they're good about it, say the right things, make it clear that they're here for me and if that means I need them not to do X or never like to watch movies about Y, that's totally fine. I've never had anybody react in a negative or thoughtless way. Nobody has ever broken up with me in a way that I got the sense it was about my past.

I have explained my past abuse verbally, and ideally it's a talk we will have when we're both in an intimate, relaxed context. I try to be as open about it as possible - I don't want to scare them with specific stories that will make them feel bad, but if they have questions, that's fine. I try not to act like it's some big scary secret (then again, our pasts seem likely to be VERY different).

If this is someone you feel you are heading towards cohabitation, and maybe eventually marriage, with, I think that not only do you have to tell him, but you should be as open as you feel comfortable with. This is a part of you, and there may be things he needs to know down the line. It's better to start from a place of openness. This will also help for the future - that way it won't be some big announcement that you can't have whichever family members at the wedding; instead he will know and be able to plan these things along with you, in a way that works for both of you. Which is what relationships are about - you're on the same team, working together to make sure that both of you are safe and have what you need.

If you have any questions or want to talk more, feel free to memail me.
posted by Sara C. at 4:25 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

My gut tells me that if he loves me and is truly committed to me and our relationship, he will stick around. But my paranoid mind says many people freak out over the thought of molestation, child abuse, etc. because they can't grasp them, so he may very well run.

Both may have some truth. There are people who would really value that you'd told them, have concern and compassion, and ultimately be an additional source of strength for you; there are people who might initially have difficulties or say insensitive things but step up and learn; and there are people who might just freak out and for whatever reason and despite all their love, not be able to handle it in a way that works for you. My sense is that you need someone from the first two camps. You need and deserve to be with someone who is strong enough and who has the kind of boundaries and communication skills that will let them handle this information.

And from the thoughtfulness and wisdom in your post, my guess would be that you are seeking out the kind of partners who have it. You probably already have a good sense of how your partner handles bad or upsetting topics. How does he react when his friends are upset?

I'd also suggest that if your partner turns out to be in the second camp -- not handling it in ways that are most helpful to you but working to understand it -- you might want to go to couples counseling together. Couples therapists are particularly useful when something is so upsetting to one person that they are not able to patiently teach someone else how to hear them or be helpful to them. Even if all you can do is sit there mentally flipping out, s/he can help get across to him what you need him to know in a way he can hear, thereby speeding along the learning and adjusting process.
posted by salvia at 4:25 PM on September 19, 2010

I don't think you can't not tell him. Veiled answers and vague hints aren't going to work for a life partner.

If you can't trust yourself to tell him in a way that will give him all the information he needs to know, then write it down. True intimacy means sharing all the stuffHe can read it in bits, he can absorb it all at once, whatever. And if you don't want to discuss anything in the future, he should know that too. I think therapy would be a good idea, from that point on.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:26 PM on September 19, 2010

OH and for practical tips--

I forward the occasional batshit email/voice mail to my SO; helps him remember that yes, they really are that obnoxious. And it's great to get support and have someone I respect say "wow, what assholes". Yeah! People are nice to me now and I have my own awesome family

He's not going to leave you. He might be overwhelmed though so keep your expectations low. He might have no idea what to do or say. Roll with it and try to be patient. Talk to your therapist about it. Take lots of deep breaths. ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED. If you need hugs, ask for hugs. You'll probably feel extra vulnerable. Don't be afraid to tell him that.

I would probably have more trust in my partner for sharing something that was difficult for them to share. I might also look out more for abusive behavior from them, or from me, because I know that pattern often repeats itself without meaning to.

I would probably also want some couples counseling to process and deal, especially when it comes to issues like kids, major wedding issues, etc.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:30 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing to put in the "possible reactions to be prepared for" file. If he has an image of what his wedding would be like, or what his relationship with his in-laws would be like, there might be a natural adjustment period as he lets go of those.
posted by salvia at 4:41 PM on September 19, 2010

If he has an image of what his wedding would be like, or what his relationship with his in-laws would be like, there might be a natural adjustment period as he lets go of those.

All the more reason to get it all out in the open now, and not to be overly vague about it. Especially if you think this means you might not ever want children.
posted by Sara C. at 4:48 PM on September 19, 2010

I wish people would shy away from saying things like "if he felt x way about you he'll do this or that". Those are just false statements, completely unfounded, and totally unnecessary, as different people react differently to situations than everyone else.

I am so sorry that you have to endure such a painful history and such horrible treatment both during and after the abuse you suffered. I do hope that it gets better and that you're able to eventually move on with your life and hopefully not feel the sting and the pain of the abuse as acutely as you seem to now.

I would suggest that being as vague as possible, as your example above indicates you prefer to be, means that you're going to also need to set some ground rules - for what you're willing to tell him, as well as for what you will need and want from him after talking this through with him. In my experience and in my estimation of how I would reply to such a conversation, your example would lead me only to more questions.

If your explanation included information such as "I am incredibly uncomfortable detailing the specifics as far as what exactly happened during those years, but I want to give you enough information that you are able to understand the severity of what I have lived through." it might help him gauge the degree to which you're comfortable answering such questions. Perhaps ask him to think about what questions he has, write them down maybe and plan to talk through the questions at a near future time - a couple of days, a week or so later. Share with him that you're afraid of losing him by sharing this information, make sure he knows that his reaction will likely frighten you.

I would also think that this will change your relationship, but no one can tell you in which ways. It seems that you want him to understand you better by talking about this, and that alone will change your relationship.

This is not an easy conversation. This is not an easy topic to talk about. This takes a lot of courage and a lot of strength to do - both of which your clearly have in spades.
posted by kirstk at 4:51 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been on the receiving end with more than one partner. In each case, my partner told me exactly what happened (as far as I know). Not necessarily a blow-by-blow account of every single incident, since you'd eventually go past the point of diminishing returns on that. But she certainly told me who the abusers were, what they did in general, and details of some specific incidents.

Now, you're asking a very specific, clearly defined question (well, set of questions). You're asking us to predict how we would react if we were hearing what you're planning on saying. And as I said, I've been in that position before, multiple times, so I'll give you my answer.

There is no way I would even consider for a second not "sticking around" because of what has happened to you in the past. That wouldn't make any sense. Would I "treat my partner any differently"? No, except in the sense that I might be able to be more understanding of her. (You already feel that he's having a hard time understanding how you're really feeling sometimes because he doesn't know this background. You're the only one with the power to correct this lack of understanding.)

But as far as the paragraph you've proposed telling him? I agree with mercredi: it's way too vague. If you refused to be more specific than that, it would raise a red flag for me about why you weren't willing to straightforwardly tell me about what happened. Statements like "I have an extensive history of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse" and "My abusers are related to me" sound overly guarded, as if you were filling out a form for a doctor/psychiatrist appointment rather than opening up to your boyfriend. (If I'm reading too much into how you phrased it in this post and you'd actually expand more when talking to him, then of course go ahead and disregard this.)

I wouldn't have a problem if my partner didn't want to tell me something like this right away, in the early stages of dating. Actually, I have had a girlfriend tell me in detail about her experiences with abuse after just a few dates, and I didn't think this was at all odd; on the contrary, I was enormously appreciative and took it as a great sign about our relationship at the time. A year into a relationship, I don't think you should be keeping secrets from each other. And if you're going to get married and this is going to affect the whole nature of your wedding? I just don't think secrecy is an option.

I know some people think it's OK to keep huge, personal secrets in a relationship. I wouldn't go so far as to say there should be "no secrets" in a relationship/marriage. But there shouldn't be secrets that seriously put a strain on the relationship/marriage. You have basically nothing to lose, and you have a lot to gain -- if anything, he'll be able to do a better job of understanding you.

Would you want to find out if he had a secret like this?
posted by jejune at 4:54 PM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Two examples, I guess, of ways in which people react: I was in an abusive relationship in college and, when I was a child, my grandmother was very nasty and abusive in weird ways.

After I finally cut ties with abusive college boyfriend, I went to therapy in grad school and a thing that occupied my thoughts often was: how do I tell my next (if there is a next) SO about this? When do I tell them? Cue the fretting downward spiral: the first time we get into an argument, it's going to be painfully obvious from the way I'll physically react that something happened to me. We're going to have to talk about it. What am I going to say. Ack, ack, ack. And I wasn't even in a relationship at the time!

A little over two years after the aforementioned tie-cutting, in fact just a few weeks ago, I found my answer: apparently I would tell him the third time I would see him (after knowing him for three days) when we're sitting in the steps outside of my apartment chainsmoking because I am absolutely freaking out about dating and being in a relationship and blah blah blah.

This boy then hugged me. And he said I'm sorry. And the little bits and pieces that I've continued to share with him have all been met with understanding, with patience, with him telling me that there is nothing about me that he doesn't want to know and that includes the bad shit.

Example two: Then he shared with me the physical and emotional abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father. I was uncomfortable. I didn't know what to say. I immediately began harboring not-nice feelings toward his parents. I gave him hugs. At one point when he was very down he said something extremely self-deprecating concerning the abuse and I yelled at him about never saying something like that about himself again.

His reaction overall was probably better than my overall reaction. It is a thing that he is okay with hearing me talk about; I am not yet okay with hearing him talk about it so much though, but we're just a few weeks into this and I'm still here and he's still here and we're figuring it out.

I guess my point is, that's how I would (did) react. But I'm not leaving him because of it. And your guy, you've been together for so long--he'll stick around, or he's not worth your love and you're worth more than his.
posted by LokiBear at 4:54 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can not adivse you on what to do but I do have one observation. My wife told me about one of my habits in dealing with my former wife and my children by her. Too often I would write notes rather than speak directly to her or them. She felt this was weasling out in some way and not as helpful as directly speaking about what I had on my mind. I now know she was right.
posted by Postroad at 5:03 PM on September 19, 2010

You should tell him. It is far better to know now how your S.O. can handle this kind of information. Not everyone is cut out for this reality, but as others have pointed out, abuse is unfortunately common, and hopefully your S.O. is aware of these things in a sensible way.

Speaking as someone with a history of abuse who has always shared with her serious, long-term partners. If you are thinking of marrying this person, it is very important to know how they will cope with marrying someone with a complicated family history. How important is it for them to feel they are becoming part of a bigger family? Do they value having strong in-law relationships? How will they explain your [lack of] family to their own family? How does he feel about "no alone" rules with certain relatives of yours? Depending on what your story is, your expectations for how best to deal with your family may still be completely out of your S.O.'s realm - particularly because he is still unaware of this heavy history.
    This is, at the end of the day, for my own sanity. He doesn't exactly need to know,
Even if you're afraid of dumping on him, keep this in mind: how you and your S.O. handle your family history as a team will affect how you raise your family. Once children are thrown into the equation, your home environment might become a minefield of inexplicable triggers which you will need your husband - of all people on this planet - to understand.

It is in the future best interests of people beyond your current relationship to have this information on the table, and a strategy for managing it. The best way to avoid making your parents' mistakes? Be aware of [possibly] making them. This is much easier to do if your S.O. is on your team.

One last tidbit: point your S.O. towards some resources for spouses of abused adults (do some browsing on amazon). With this new load of information, he will need to understand his responsibility and role with it now - especially if it turns out his family is nice and "normal". Good luck with it!
posted by human ecologist at 5:15 PM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Like jb and others here, I've been on the receiving end of a few of these sorts of conversations. Maybe your guy is totally unlike me, but if we have anything in common, what would be enormously helpful for him is for you to not just tell him what you've gone through and why you are reacting this way, but also what you would like him to do.

It's incredibly emotional and difficult to hear how someone you love and would do anything to protect has been hurt. It's even harder to hear that, and not know what to do. Should I just give you a hug? Or is that totally wrong, and what you are asking for is space? Or maybe you want a buffer between you and your family? Or something totally different?

Remember, you've had years or decades to think about this, come to terms with it, and figure it out. He's going to have it dumped in his lap in one fell swoop, and you shouldn't expect him to absorb it and know how he feels about it instantly. Think of it as the first moment in a long conversation, not something that ends the moment you stop talking. Don't just drop it out there; be ready to say what you need and where you are with this.

To answer your specific question(s), and without being able to speak for him, I know that I would want to know. In my experience, knowing at least the big picture of someone's past allows me to understand why they react they way they do, how to help them when they are having trouble, and some little piece of how they became who they are today. To be told is an incredible expression of trust and closeness, and anyone worth your time will hopefully honor and respect that.

But having said that, unless he has his own history of this, or unless he has had previous partners tell him these kinds of things, don't expect him to know what to do or what to say. He'll be having intense emotions and stress, and might well say or do the absolutely wrong thing in that moment. Don't be reluctant to help him find the help he might need -- books, blogs, or someone to talk to, say. How many of us have the grace and ability to handle a totally new and incredibly difficult situation perfectly, on the first try, with no fore-warning? You've had therapy (which may or may not have worked for you); be ready to help him find those same resources if he needs them.
posted by Forktine at 5:38 PM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

I wouldn't feel pressured to get it all out in the open right now or to tell him in any particular manner just because other people think you should. Then again I think over-sharing is often as destructive to relationships as keeping secrets so YMMV. Tell him what you want to tell him now, in the manner in which you are most comfortable and if you want to tell him more in the future or he asks you can do it then. You have the rest of your lives after all.

And n'thing the recommendation to be clear about what you need and how you want him to react. He may be the best guy in the world and love you to pieces but have zero idea how to react to this. He may be afraid to touch you or afraid to say anything or he might get angry or want to confront your family or freeze in place or who knows. Plan ahead a bit, be prepared to tell him how you want him to react and don't get angry or upset with him if he doesn't react exactly how you imagined he would.

After the initial conversation maybe there's a book he can read or a group he can go to that will help him process the information. Especially if he's on of those guys who likes to Do Things About Stuff, you want to direct that constructively.
posted by fshgrl at 6:35 PM on September 19, 2010

Well, I've been in your shoes and a few times. Nobody has ever laughed at me, but I have had sexual partners (qualified because they turned out not to be life partner candidates) insist that I needed to 'get over' my family drama, and one suggested that 6 year old me probably liked giving those blow jobs. He had previously made some comments that I had brushed off as 'just joking around.' I didn't tell him what I endured as a teenager.

So it can be awful.

But mostly? Guys are a mix of pretty supportive and dumbstruck stunned. 'I'm sorry' is the most common thing I've heard. They hug me. They sometimes ask if I want to talk about it. And a few have been worried/extra attentive about sex. 'Are you sure you want to? Is this ok?' types of concerns.

My advice? Don't reveal in public, and don't reveal in particularly emotional times - fights, after you've both worked 16 hours w no lunch break, right after your kitten gets hit by a truck - try to reveal in neutral territory. Don't reveal any more than you're comfortable discussing, and don't make light of the things that you don't want him to joke about.
posted by bilabial at 6:45 PM on September 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is that he may not remember everything you say, no matter how simple you keep it; I know the last thing you want is to repeat the conversation, but, if he forgets, it's not a sign that he doesn't care. He may simply be in a sufficiently shocked state that some of the things you say don't fix in his mind, even if he seems to be reacting well at the time.
posted by endless_forms at 7:51 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If my sweetheart told me he endured serious, multilateral abuses as a child I would throw my arms around him, kiss him, tell him I loved him and tell him that I burned with fury at the ones who hurt my beloved.

I would not look at his revelation as an explanation of the whys and hows of his fucked-upness, a catalogue of why he's supposedly messed up in such and such way. No. I would look at him as someone with super-human grit, courage, perseverance and heart. I would be in awe of how hard he fought to keep his soul intact in the face of what was done to him. I would be floored that he got himself to law school, found a loving relationship and had enough self-awareness to understand who he is and why he is.

I would thank my fucking stars that someone so extraordinary decided they wanted to be with me.
posted by space_cookie at 7:59 PM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Outgrowing the Pain Together is a perfect resource for this very situation, for both of you.
posted by batmonkey at 8:44 PM on September 19, 2010

What do you think? If your partner told you what I wrote in the preceding paragraph, how would you react?

I would tell her I loved her and that I was here for her and that I was glad she shared that with me. I would tell her I knew sharing something like that was difficult and that I thought it was courageous for her to do so. I would tell her that I wanted to know how much sharing she wanted to do and how many questions she thought she would like me to ask. I would tell her I supported her recovery and that she should know that whatever help I could provide her and that she wanted, she would get.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:13 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're planning to be married to him, he needs to know. Telling him in general terms to introduce the topic is ok, but IMHO you should immediately follow that up with "These aren't things I share with other people, but if there's anything you want to know about it, ask me and I'll tell you" and then let him take the lead. I suspect he'll have questions (and you should answer them), but at least you're not force-feeding him information he may not want to know.

Having experienced abuse in a former marriage, this approach worked well for me. After 10 years in my new marriage, mr. NLG still sometimes brings up a question about my abuse, but overall, we've worked through the issues and it's gone away as a major topic of discussion. Best of all, I'm SAFE and happy in this marriage, so when questions come up or I notice myself reacting in an 'old life' way, we've given each other permanent permission to call a time out and discuss what's REALLY going on.

You can do it, and it can be wonderful if he's the right kind of partner... Best wishes for a happy life.
posted by northernlightgardener at 9:48 PM on September 19, 2010

I don't have much to say about this, but... When someone I was dating and very serious about (though it wasn't a long relationship) told me that she had been abused, I mostly felt incredibly angry - I still, as her friend, would easily kill her abuser. He's going to be upset, but he will probably appreciate knowing. It seems like his lack of information may have already given him cause for worry, when he was unable to understand your moods, so he will probably appreciate this insight. Good luck, and best wishes. I'm really sorry that you had to go through anything like that.
posted by SputnikSweetheart at 12:28 AM on September 20, 2010

Given my history of sexual abuse, assault, eating disorder, cheating and later recovery of alcoholism, I wanted to let my then-boyfriend know everything without having to drip feed information and prolong the process. He knew I had things in my history to tell him, so what we did was this: created a theme night.

We called it truth and reconciliation to give it the appropriate gravitas. I brought in food with names like "the pie of truth" and "the pizza of old history" and put some truly awful, wailing country music on in the background.

I told him everything. And told him to wait to ask questions and told him everything. It was heavy and hard but at the end, I knew he would understand my reactions to my family and particular situations. He knew what triggers to avoid. He became a champion of my recovery and knew when I was talking bullshit that he could ignore (I learned how to manipulate from early on; I need my partner to be aware of how so I can avoid doing it).

Making it so over the top serious and funny meant that we had conic relief when needed ("I'm going to need a tissue of Honest Intentions for my nose of Absolute Childhood Baggge.") And it meant that it was actually better than he expected it to be.

I never regretted it.
posted by katiecat at 2:12 AM on September 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

I wish people would shy away from saying things like "if he felt x way about you he'll do this or that". Those are just false statements, completely unfounded, and totally unnecessary, as different people react differently to situations than everyone else.

Yes, people do react differently but there are some situations in which one's reaction does say something about character and this is definitely one of them. If someone does not respond with compassion and support to a loved one who tells a story about having been hurt, that's a red flag that there's a serious problem with that person. And I don't mean judging people by their first, shocked reaction nor am I suggesting judging someone for not knowing what to say or what to do or for being awkward.

I'm saying that if someone responds to someone else's pain without compassion-- and there's nothing else going on to explain the lack of support and empathy-- that person is not a good candidate for being a spouse. A person who would react to someone's account of having been abused by rejecting the person who disclosed is not behaving humanely and, again, unless there's some other sensible explanation, this is not someone I would want as a partner and definitely not someone I would want as the parent of my child.
posted by Maias at 3:20 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

how would you react?

I'd be thanking you for telling me. I'd be asking whether you need active involvement from me, and if so, in what ways. I'd offer help as a matter of basic common decency, and not just because we were in a close relationship. But I'd also hope that I could maintain enough presence of mind to let you define the terms of that assistance.

My sense of this is that your healing is likely to be along paths best mapped and negotiated by you yourself. But if I was your partner, I'd be there for you when and how you wanted me to be.

And, from your description, it sounds like your partner cares for you enough to do something similar if that's you need him to do.

Take care and be well.
posted by Ahab at 7:40 AM on September 21, 2010

Yes, people do react differently but there are some situations in which one's reaction does say something about character and this is definitely one of them.

I know this is old but I want to clarify.

With: "I wish people would shy away from saying things like "if he felt x way about you he'll do this or that"." I meant people need to stop saying things like "If he really loved you, he'd react exactly like you want him to!" Or "If he reallllly cared about you, he'd jump over the moon." That kind of thing. I know no one said exactly those things because I don't want to point at any one exact answer and go, "STOP IT!" because that wasn't the point.

Yes people react differently, and this type of situation would tell you about someone's character, sure. But that's not what I was getting at. No one on the internet knows this girl's boyfriend and even if they did, they can't possibly say with any authority that if he did love her/care about her how he would *actually* react to this.
posted by kirstk at 6:42 PM on October 4, 2010

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