How to discuss my past abusive relationship?
October 28, 2013 1:49 PM   Subscribe

About five months ago, I left a verbal abuser and moved back to my hometown. I've managed to recover from most of the issues I posted about in my last AskMes. I'm seriously looking for work and have made some healthy friendships. If I'm pretty close to someone, I feel that disclosing my relationship history is part of getting to know them. Especially since my relationship and recovery have led me on a markedly different life path.

The other night I went out to dinner with a guy that I am getting to be good friends with. I've known him for about three months and we hang out all the time, alone and with other people. He brought up a couple of issues I had told him I was insecure about. These issues would be considered minor by most people, but the reason I'm insecure is that these were two things my abusive ex raged at me for, creating PTSD. When other people notice them, I become triggered. I'm really aware of it and have been working on it with EMDR, and I've gotten a lot better.

The reason my friend brought this up was because he wanted to tell me that I shouldn't be feeling insecure about these things. He was trying to bolster my confidence, and I appreciated that. I tried to explain to him that even though those two things were kind of trivial and not really something I should feel bad about, I did because of the torture my ex had put me through over them.

But during the conversation, it became apparent to me that my friend didn't understand the phenomenon of "triggering." My impression was that he thought I had been so in love with my ex that I didn't have a mind of my own during the relationship, and bought into the things my ex told me because of how important he was to me. This wasn't the case. I felt trapped in the relationship and tried to fight all my ex's negativity, but abuse is abuse, and it affected me anyway.

Part of this conversation involved my friend nearly demanding to know whether or not I would ever want to be in a relationship like that again. I was surprised that he would think that was even a remote possibility, and I assured him that I'd never be with a guy like my ex again. I was kind of hurt because I thought I'd made that obvious all along and I felt like maybe my friend hadn't been listening.

I also felt bad that he seemed to think of me as spineless and I tried to explain what abuse, PTSD, and triggering were all about. He apologized profusely for making me feel bad and told me he didn't think of me that way. I didn't hold it against him at all. It seems like it might not be that unusual for people like me to be misunderstood that way by those who have never gone through it.

This led me to realize that I have to learn to talk about the abuse I experienced, and its aftermath, in a way that doesn't make me look like a mindless sycophant who was blinded by love to believe the most ridiculous things about herself. But how? If you've never experienced this yourself, is there a way someone could explain it where you would still respect them even though they had been in that kind of relationship?

Also, do you think that this is something I should bring up again and try to explain to my friend, or just leave it alone and hope one attempt was enough?
posted by Rainflower to Human Relations (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your past should remain in the past. If you are uncomfortable with certain topics, inform folks of that fact, without injecting emotion into it.

"I'd really rather not discuss that , it has a bad association for me." Is a perfectly acceptible way of doing so.

I hate to say this but people you are just getting to know shouldn't be privvy to your deepest feelings, fears and concerns. Some folks will never really want to know you that well, and that's their perogative.

If you put it on the table for discussion, then some people may not react the way you wish they would.

Some folks don't understand abuse or abusive relationships and even discussing it with them, may cause you to be triggered.

Don't put this on your new friends. Not just yet. If someone accidentally touches a nerve, simply say, "Oh, that's a troubling subject for me, let's talk about something else." When you really know and trust them, perhaps you can open up to them. But to be sharing a pizza at a pub, and to dump a pretty terrible experience you had on them, without warning, can make people uncomfortable and awkward.

I'm sure you don't want to do this.

So no, let it alone with your friend. Let your actions show him what kind of person you are.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:02 PM on October 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Rainflower: This led me to realize that I have to learn to talk about the abuse I experienced, and its aftermath, in a way that doesn't make me look like a mindless sycophant who was blinded by love to believe the most ridiculous things about herself. But how? If you've never experienced this yourself, is there a way someone could explain it where you would still respect them even though they had been in that kind of relationship?

I'm afraid this isn't always going to be possible. Some people have really horrible ideas about abuse and victims of abuse, and (like many horrible ideas people hold) it may not be easy or simple to educate them otherwise. It is up to you as to whether you want to try and see if you can work with this person to amend their preconceived notions or if you just want to cut bait and find a person who does not bring difficult baggage to the table, but life is short, you know?
posted by Rock Steady at 2:03 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can always, always tell somebody who is triggering you about something, "please stop talking about that. I don't want to talk about that anymore." If they don't respect your boundary, that tells you something about them.

...I have to learn to talk about the abuse I experienced, and its aftermath, in a way that doesn't make me look like a mindless sycophant...

Personally, I think you should tell your story in a way that seems true to you. Let other people think what they think; they weren't there and they don't know.

It sounds to me like you still have a lot of shame around this relationship and around the topic of relationships generally. This is totally normal and to be expected -- plenty of smart, capable, strong people who break free of their abusive relationships feel ashamed that they allowed their abuser to have such power over them. In the cold light of day, it's weird, isn't it? I asked myself that, after a toxic relationship -- why would I keep going back to someone who said and did such terrible things? I don't know. But I did. So did you. But it doesn't make us failures or stupid or shameful. It makes us human. And we came out of our terrible relationships. That means we are strong, you and I. Good for you. You should be proud of yourself.

Also, do you think that this is something I should bring up again and try to explain to my friend, or just leave it alone and hope one attempt was enough?

I think you don't owe your friend any explanation or anything. In fact I think your friend might owe you an apology. Talking about people's insecurities is generally never a great thing to do, and a person of good will who is doing so should take particular care to notice whether the insecure person is becoming uncomfortable and, if so, should change the subject smoothly and immediately.

The fact that this person did not do so doesn't mean they are a bad person necessarily, but it does mean that they are not, perhaps, the sort of person to whom you can safely bare your soul. They aren't going to handle it kindly, even if they are well-intentioned (which I'm not entirely sure they are, in this case.) So now you know that about them. You can still be friends if you want, but now you know a thing about what you can share with them.

This truth about you, this thing that is your story: it's not for everyone. You don't have to share it with people who don't seem like they can handle it. You can just say, "oh, I was living in [New York] and [training circus dogs] [with my boyfriend/partner/ex] but stuff changed and now I'm here. Life is a funny thing." That's all the story anybody needs, and you can leave out basically all of it except how you used to live in New York or wherever and how you're here now. The truth of your relationship is not some shameful secret, but it's also a place that is still healing in you, and you don't need people poking and prodding at things that are healing.
posted by gauche at 2:12 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I feel that disclosing my relationship history is part of getting to know them.

What if you didn't talk about this 2 year relationship as you are meeting people. Why not talk about it AFTER you have known them for a while?
posted by hal_c_on at 2:16 PM on October 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Some people will understand what you've been through and some won't. I think it is more about them than how you explain it. Maybe it is the way you worded it but I don't like how you say this guy was telling you how you should or shouldn't feel. In addition to the timing of telling someone about this just be aware of the person you are telling this history to. I'm not at all sure this guy is safe for you emotionally. He sounds controlling so try to pick safe people to open up to and get involved with.
posted by wildflower at 2:29 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you feel you must talk about your past abusive relationship, find a therapist. Your new friends might consider your sad stories to be a massive turn off. You know how people dodge the old woman who can't talk about anything but her ill-health history and her latest operation? Don't be that person.
posted by Cranberry at 2:32 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I promise not to thread-sit, but I do want to say that, going forward, with people I've just met, I probably wouldn't bring this up. However, with this particular person, it's too late because he already knows and we have had a number of talks about it. We're close friends. There were a couple of things that happened early on when we met that wouldn't have made sense had I not explained my past, and he is a good-hearted guy who put me at ease confiding in him up to the point that I have--which is by no means everything. He's absolutely not controlling and was trying to be supportive by telling me I had nothing to be insecure about.

I also don't bring this up. I was responding to something he brought up. I feel there's a derail going on here.
posted by Rainflower at 2:33 PM on October 28, 2013

One thing that will happen, no matter what, is that if you tell certain types of stories, people me immediately map your story to a similar story they know all about. So,for instance, if you tell a story about being mugged by three people in an atrium office building lobby, they will map that to the story they know about their sister being robbed at gun point by one guy in a hotel lobby.

When you are comfortable talking, you'll just have to work at showing how the stories are and are not the same. And when you are not comfortable, you need to be firm about your boundaries.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:37 PM on October 28, 2013

I feel that disclosing my relationship history is part of getting to know them.

I felt this quite strongly for a while after my own PTS-inducing experiences, for quite a while they looked very large in the foreground of my mind and it seemed sort of dishonest towards others and not true to myself to not mention them, or try to explain them, or share the insights I had gained etc. The need abated after a while, and now it is virtually gone. I hardly mention that aspect of my life, with Metafilter being the one big exception. I'd still need to feel that I CAN share with someone for true, real intimacy to be formed (not that I necessarily would - I'd just need to feel that understanding is possible), but that need is reserved only for deepest friendship or for a romantic relationship.

I graduated towards my current, much more reserved state for two main reasons:

1. I noticed that people mostly just don't get it, and I ended up explaining myself a lot (in fact, a lot of the conversations were because an initial, fairly innocuous, thing I'd said wasn't understood, so I'd fill in some background/ give an explanation, which led to the need for more background/ explanation etc, until I was faced with what felt like a mountain of explanation, background info etc, and I ended up feeling like I had to justify my suffering, my confusion, my very existence, it seemed). Frequently, this didn't change even when my interlocutor had their own traumatic experiences - so it's not always the case that a person who went through something similar is a good audience. Who knows why, but sometimes people who had it rough one way or the other themselves can be the most insensitive. Sometimes suffering is so very private and personal, and so difficult to empathise with, that I just kept re-injuring myself by talking about it with others (and in the process discovered one of the things that is truly valuable to me - being understood. When that happens now, I feel inordinately grateful, cause I know it cannot be taken for granted).

2. As I gained my distance from my own experiences, and I wasn't so invested any more in communicating myself, in sharing my experience with others, and in exchanging stories with co-sufferers, I also noticed that I myself became less empathetic and less tactful when dealing with other people's trauma (though still more empathetic than I would have been without it!). As Ruthless Bunny said above, I now am more likely to feel overwhelmed by other people's suffering (as in "Should I do something here?", "What should I do?" "Am I expected to commiserate, kick into action, just accept that the world is a shitty place - what exactly?"), but also in the sense that I fear to look into the darkness which might be brought back into the forefront of my mind by opening myself up truly to another's painful experience. I think a lot more people have this kind of self-defensive move when confronted with another's trauma. Even professionals need to have defenses in place to be able to deal with it. From a new acquaintance, I wouldn't be able to take it easily, and certainly not as a full-length story dump. Even if, as I mentioned, I felt the same need at some point myself.

Because I remember how strongly I felt that it needs to happen, me communicating myself, I'd recommend therapy. I think that, for many people getting out of difficult situations, it is actually necessary and healthy to turn experience into language, to get a handle on it by way of narrative. Therapy seems the ideal place to do so, but in a controlled manner, so you don't get frozen in a narrative which ends up being counter-productive. It also saves your other relationships from the stress of having to deal with the ongoing fall-out from tough stuff that happened in the past, albeit the recent past. Especially young relationships, such as a three-month old friendship, cannot handle that well.

It is also wise, for reasons of self-protection, to not disclose so much of yourself at the drop of a hat. Now it feels so liberating, so necessary, to lay yourself bare, as it were, but I can promise you there will come a point when, for one reason or the other, you will regret having been quite so open.

Other posters will no doubt give you good tips on how to deflect the conversation in such a way that you communicate that there is a boundary there for you, without needing to go into every single detail of your story and without coming across as abrupt and unfriendly either.
posted by miorita at 2:42 PM on October 28, 2013 [13 favorites]

You should just be able to tell someone that something isn't a subject you're comfortable with, and have them drop it without having to explain your reasons and/or subject them to their approval or disapproval.

Also, can you look at not discussing this relationship with new friends as a thing you're doing to empower yourself? I feel like there's negativity involved with thinking that it's something people have to know about you to know the real you, or that it's something you have to keep from people to protect them from unpleasantness, or that you have to keep silent because of people's inherent tendency to be judgmental and not understand. Both of those are rather bleak.

I'm not saying that you're necessarily doing either of those things, but I've grappled with baggage and how to disclose it to new people in my life and found myself thinking along those lines. For me personally the best thing to do was to keep quiet about that stuff with new people as a way of not giving power to those issues, to keep from defining myself in terms of them, and to keep them from polluting new relationships. I think that's a more positive way to look at it.
posted by alphanerd at 2:42 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not too late to tell someone you don't want to talk about something with them. Or not to tell them, but simply to not engage on the topic. You are in control of what you wish to talk about. Sometimes you exercise that control by getting up and leaving, but unless you're the subject of an intervention you can always not talk about something anymore.
posted by gauche at 2:43 PM on October 28, 2013

I've found that there are very kind and well-intentioned people who are quite ignorant when it comes to the dynamics of abuse and the challenges of survivors. Their reactions to stories of abuse or having triggered someone can be careless and damaging. Not because they intend to cause pain, but because their opinions are ill-informed. But, their good intentions do not prevent damage to survivors.

For this situation specifically, I wouldn't bring it up again. If your friend brings it up, I'd recommend that you refer them to things that they can read if they're interested in learning more, but make yourself clear that you'd like to change the subject immediately. Enforce your boundaries and protect the space you've created for healing the trauma. If this is a good friend, you can even develop a shorthand for when you'd like to change the subject due to triggers. Best of luck to you.
posted by quince at 2:45 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

He's absolutely not controlling and was trying to be supportive by telling me I had nothing to be insecure about.

I'm sure he means well, but no one should tell you how to feel, whether positive or negative emotions.
posted by Carol Anne at 2:46 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's always a bad idea to let people know about your past (assuming that you, as was the case here, know them reasonably well). You just may also need to develop the ability to let it go if it seems like they're not getting it, rather than continuing to explain/engage/defend.

At pretty much any point in a conversation where it's seeming like the other person is telling you how you should feel rather than asking you how you do feel, that's a good time to say, "Yeah, it's fine. Let's talk about something else!" or "OK, I get what you're saying. Let's talk about something else!" or "This is just making me feel worse. Let's talk about something else!"
posted by jaguar at 2:52 PM on October 28, 2013

Response by poster: I was looking for ways to explain what PTSD is like to people who have never experienced it. I can see that this anecdote about this conversation with my friend is a red herring. Of course I know that "telling someone how they should feel" is not considered good protocol but I don't hold that against my friend. It's really not the point and I'm sure he'd be receptive to being told not to put it that way should he do it again. And neither is whether I owe anyone an explanation or not. There are some people who would get an "I don't want to talk about it" and others I trust enough to choose -- because I want to -- to get more in-depth and confiding.

That's the last threadsit for me. Hope it clarifies things.
posted by Rainflower at 3:01 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "It's like going to a haunted house or watching a scary movie -- you know the monster's about to jump out from behind the door and you know it's not a real monster but it still scares you and makes your heart race and makes you all fight-or-flight. And no matter how much you tell yourself it isn't real in the moment, it still feels real."
posted by jaguar at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In light of your update, scratch my previous answer, except for the idea that one might feel impelled to explain/ disclose too much when one is still in close proximity to the traumatic period. And "too much", in my book, is defined as "too much for the current stage of the relationship", "too much for the other person to digest in one sitting", "or too much for me to be comfortable with tomorrow".

With regard to the insecurity issue, divorced from the PTSD - I don't know, I think with age comes the realisation that insecurities don't have to be widely recognised as "valid". They don't of necessity have to be understood, explained, argued away, or even validated. They are frequently the result of a chain of causation that is entirely fuzzy even to the holder of the insecurity, may seem completely motiveless, or disproportionate with whatever reality they are founded on. Some of them are fairly benign things, a sort of gentle companion (like I think that my nose is either too big of too small, I don't know which, sort of wrong, but I am not much fussed either way), or they can be pretty disruptive. During social interaction it is frequently assumed that you're dealing with the gentle version, and for many people it is polite to dispute statements that hint at the insecurity (the whole "my bum looks big in this", "no, it doesn't, it looks perfect" school of conversation). Other issues are more complicated and demand a different response, though, and this is the case for anything that is connected to bad experiences, or which has a stronger effect on you, for whatever reason. I think any decent person would end up understanding that x is a taboo subject, if you seriously presented it as such, and you need not tell anyone more than "Look, this is quite a difficult issue for me - long story, tell you another time - and whilst I theoretically know that I have nothing to be insecure about, that insight hasn't quite trickled down yet. I just don't feel comfortable discussing this at this point, so let's talk about something else" or some such for them to know that this is a topic that is best avoided.

Basically, I think trying to "sooth" you out of your insecurity and thereby give you some affirmation is fairly ingrained and benign - not really a mark of a controlling person trying to tell you what you should feel. At the same time, when it comes up against something that is quite complicated for you, you CAN request a change of subject, and I think it would be quite churlish for anyone to try to push you further, even if it is not on PTSD-related issues.
posted by miorita at 3:19 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not the best analogy, but I would explain triggering/PTSD things by saying it's like having gotten a really bad case of food poisoning after eating a particular kind of food. Say, prawns. Even though you know not all prawns will give you food poisoning, and who knows, maybe it was actually the garlic mayonnaise you dipped them in that made you ill, you associate prawns with illness and would prefer not to eat them. You'll pick them out of a dish and if you accidentally eat one, might feel a bit ill just because of the strength of the association.

Similarly, not all conversations about [cleaning your ears] are abusive, blaming conversations, but you prefer not to talk about [cleaning your ears] because of the horrible experience you had in the past when you were abused for [how you clean your ears]. Besides, [ear-cleaning] isn't really that interesting anyway, let's talk about something else!
posted by Athanassiel at 3:41 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's very hard for someone who's never witnessed an abusive relationship to understand virtually anything about it. Don't keep answering and explaining in the hope that you'll get him to understand it. What he needs to understand and believe is that emotionally destructive things happened and as a result, there are certain things that upset you in ways that might seem out of proportion.

There are a lot of well-meaning people who like to help a friend fix things or solve a problem. If they have this habit, it takes effort on your part and theirs to get them to be supportive in the way that you need. It really is okay to say very directly, "Please don't try to fix it. I'd feel like you're being a friend if you just say, "I'm sorry you went through that." Oddly, even when I flat out request that someone say, "That sucks. sorry it's happening," it still makes me feel better when they do say it. And "Here's what you gotta do..." is never welcome -- unless I ask for advice.
posted by wryly at 5:13 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Kinda late to the party here, but I just wanted to echo what has already been mentioned about being very selective about who to share that part of your experience with. As an abuse and abusive relationship survivor, there are very few people with whom I would feel comfortable and safe enough to share such information with. And especially where PTSD and triggers are concerned, you can never be too careful about the company you keep.

As far as potential friendships and relationships after abusive relationships, taking good care of yourself needs to be your first priority. And anyone with true friendship or relationship potential will take the time to understand the trauma you have been through.

Hugs. :)
posted by strelitzia at 3:49 PM on October 29, 2013

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