A Long Time Ago, In A Relationship Far, Far Away
October 23, 2014 10:02 PM   Subscribe

When should I tell new partners about past abuse?

In college, I was in a three year abusive relationship (my first real relationship) that included physical and emotional abuse as well as rape. Luckily I got out of there, and I've done a lot of healing in the intervening decade or so.

In my twenties, I carried a lot of baggage and had a lot of triggers. Telling new sexual partners was a no brainer and generally came in the form of, "There's something really important I need to talk to you about."

But water has (thankfully!) passed under the bridge. At this point I'm a pretty well adjusted grown ass woman who can have all the usual kinds of sex and doesn't have a panic attack when you walk behind me going up a flight of stairs, or wear a certain cologne, anymore. This is great for me, emotionally, but becomes awkward when I start seeing someone new. It's a pretty big part of my past. And there's no ideal time to talk about it. I recently was in a relationship of a few months, it never came up organically, and the longer we dated the more of an elephant in the room it became.

I'm now starting to see someone new, and I'd like to handle it better this time. It's obviously not first date talk, and at this point it's not something I'd want to tell a one-off random hookup. But I felt like 3-4 months was too long to wait.

So, when's the best time to talk about this long-past complicated life stuff? And what's the best way to bring it up, seeing as it doesn't impact my everyday life anymore?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
if you are thinking of being monogamous with a new person that seems like the right time. (i'm assuming monogamy applies for you as an important boundary.) maybe it's the talk to have soon after the "where is this going / are you sleeping with or dating anyone else" talk.

when that happens in terms of months really depends on how fast you move with the particular person. seems like it would be different for each partner.

if i were dating you i would want to hear this earlier rather than later. if i were you, i would try to mention it earlier rather than later - that way if my partner said some judgmental or victim blaming nonsense, i could get out of there asap and not subject myself to spending time with someone who has harmful attitudes about abuse. those attitudes might not come out in the early stages of dating unless you bring something like this up.
posted by zdravo at 10:20 PM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is no ideal time to bring this up. And if you're on the other side of the relationship, there's no ideal time to hear it either. Bring it up too early and it feels awkward and too weighty for a new relationship; too late and ... I guess the downside here is he/she could feel like you didn't trust him/her enough to talk about it earlier. It's a big thing to tell a partner about prior abuse.

I'm a big fan of telling the story in parts, over time. That allows you to divulge information at a level that doesn't put pressure on a nascent relationship but also test the waters about the mutual comfort level with this kind of disclosure.

"yeah, well, my twenties sucked. Bad relationship." Opens the door for more info if he/she feels like asking about it, but also completely okay for him/her to do a sympathetic face and move on. You'll soon find the right time to tell the full story.
posted by yogalemon at 10:23 PM on October 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you're thinking about this enough to take the trouble to post this question, you want to tell him. Just tell him at any point. What's the worst that can happen — he responds badly? That's something you would want to find out as early as possible anyway.
posted by John Cohen at 10:31 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe the first time it shapes your behavior towards him? "Hey, I wanted to go back and explain why I was so on edge when we were cooking."
posted by salvia at 11:42 PM on October 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think it works to bring it up kind of casually at first, especially since it's water under the bridge. There is a lot of information in the news and other media about abuse and rape, and I think you could bring it up in that context. Maybe something like, "I saw this great [article, post, comic, movie, etc] about abusive relationships. I had the misfortune of being in a similar place in college, and I wish there had been more people talking about it back then because that would have helped me get over it sooner." That last part helps them know they're not about to get into a Super Heavy conversation, and that you're ok now. Also, if he seems uncomfortable and doesn't know the right way to respond, it would be easy for you to just say it sucked and then guide the conversation back to the news/movies/comics/whatever.

I don't know exactly when I would bring that up, but maybe a month or so? Long enough to know you want to keep going, but not so far in that it feels like hiding something.

Good luck!
posted by ohisee at 12:26 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think it's hard to pick a timeframe since every relationship is going to move at a different pace. So I'd say it's more a question of what phase of a relationship.

I'd say when you start talking with someone about being more serious together, talking about "this relationship feels like this is going somewhere" or talking about seeing each other exclusively maybe.

Good luck. Though you don't seem to need it! :-) Good for you for moving forward and making yourself an awesome life!
posted by Beti at 1:06 AM on October 24, 2014

It also depends on how you and your partner interact with each other generally. If you're the kind of couple that's open about emotional stuff and into discussing personal histories, then really any conversation in that ballpark would be a fair time to bring it up, especially if you've been seeing each other for a while. I once had a girl tell me about her ex's suicide attempts on a first date, just because that was the dynamic we seemed to have.

If you're less open than that (and I kind of hope you are), then you probably do need to choose the timing more carefully. But I also think it may be as much a question of how you say it as when. If I'd been dating you for, say, a month, and you seemed like a generally needy personality, I might take it as a red flag if you mentioned a history of abuse in the wrong context (needy, often, is not that far down the road from manipulative.) But if you didn't seem that way (and you don't come across as needy in this post), then I think I'd be fine if you just just jumped into any relatively serious conversation and nonchalantly said "you know, there's something about my past that never seems to come up but that I don't feel right keeping from you anymore."

I guess this is the sort of thing that does inherently make your relationship feel more "serious" than it was before, just because of the element of secrecy you seem to feel about it. So yeah, maybe either wait for a conversation about the future of your relationship or be sure that he's ok with going to a slightly deeper level of intimacy before you mention it. But if he's relatively laid back, and you're as nonchalant about the issue with him as you are in this post, I don't really see why it would cause any major problems for the two of you.
posted by urufu at 1:55 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do people still cuddle in bed after the first time they make love, and talk and share all manner of intimate things? If so, I would opt for then. I like the idea of breaking the story up, so it's not one huge data dump all at once. So maybe it's something your share over the course of four or five or six evenings.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:41 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the role and impact of this experience on your life and relationships with others has changed, with the telling of the story serving as less of the heads-up that it might have been in the past, and maybe instead as a way of deepening your own integration of what happened into your sense of yourself. It sounds like part of the story is now having gotten past the trauma, moving from victim to resilient survivor, and maybe that it's important to you to let him know about it because it's shaped you in important ways, and because you want to establish trust and closeness.

So, does it have to come out as a single announcement, the way it did in the past? I know for myself that some challenging experiences have become less definitive over time. I can call on them if I feel moved to or something comes up, but they've pulled back from centre stage - some of them feel like a fading dream. I feel I have much more flexibility in terms of how, when, and why I share them than I did immediately afterwards. Maybe something like this is starting to happen with you?

Were there perhaps other reasons for the elephant with your most recent ex? Maybe there was something else about that relationship that led to not wanting to tell him, something about him. Maybe with this partner, the right moment will come more easily. I think, tell him when you feel like telling him.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:48 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

First, great work sorting through this yourself! It sounds like you've done some real healing.

I agree with those saying you can share your story over time. There is so much in the media these days (including a very recent and controversial PSA using little girls to talk about women's rights). I'm not suggesting you use a billboard or TV commercial to make a contrived statement, but if something in the media hits you, why not say, "I find that really interesting/ offensive/ promising/ degrading, as a survivor of abuse myself."

This may not shock your partner as much as you expect, as abuse is sadly all too common. You don't need to let go of the reins after a comment like that; you can say it's deeply personal and you do or don't want to discuss it further at the moment, but are relieved to have shared that much. Explain that you understand that kind of revelation raises questions, and that you hope you'll both be increasingly comfortable talking about painful things over time.

I do see value in this, yet I'd be very careful about going this route:
"Hey, I wanted to go back and explain why I was so on edge when we were cooking."
Yes, it's great to recognize and address when our behavior is impacted by past experiences. That said, it may give the impression that you'll be using this as a cop-out for poor behavior in the future (it should indicate self-awareness, but sadly may not be understood that way). I spent years as "the one with issues" in a relationship, when ironically, I had worked hard to address my abusive past and my SO had never really examined his. I know that's just one piece of anectdata, but it became a hot mess because it became too easy for my history to be blamed for real issues in the current relationship (and believe me, it's one thing for you to make a connection like that; it's another thing when a partner feels they can make such connections, spoken or just assumed).

I am not trying to discourage you from sharing this. I'd just think twice before linking it to interactions with a current partner who also has a history (good or bad) that impacts how the two of you relate.

Wishing you all the best!
posted by whoiam at 6:45 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apologies if this is overbearing, but I was thinking about you and came back to say a few things.

What do you think went well and not-so-well in the past? I'm not asking that you answer here (feel free of course), but mostly I ask because you say you want to do things differently this time. So maybe think through what outcomes you disliked; clearly you're smart, so think how to sidestep those (and/or MeMail me if you want to brainstorm).

Another thing. Depending what's true in your case, it can really help to tell your new partner, "I'd prefer to be considered a survivor, not a victim." There was a time I didn't understand the value of that, but I've since found myself gently correcting the language (and hopefully the view) of those viewing me as "damaged" or some such. It can make a difference, but of course that's your call.

Lastly, there have been questions here from people who have been told about abuse and asked to keep it quiet. It is YOUR BUSINESS, and it's entirely fair that you divulge your story to only the people of your choosing. However, if this person really cares about you, it can be hard for them to process alone, especially if you have an understanding that you'll only talk about it when you're feeling up for it (very much your prerogative).

So maybe tell your SO that this is deeply personal and is your story to share, but if they need to process through conversations that you're not ready to have, that's okay with [stated boundaries].

Maybe you choose that it can only be shared with people that don't know you. Feel free to insist that your partner tells you if/when your personal information has been shared. If the relationship lasts a while, you may end up meeting a person or two that already knows; this is not a shame on you--again, it's something that happens way too often--but make sure your SO is not taking it as a gold medal either. S/he is not your savior or worthy of gold stars for sticking with someone with a history. We all have histories, and yours is not a negative reflection on you. So try to remember that and "allow" a certain amount of divulgence on your partner's part. It's entirely possible this is moot, and s/he will say, "Oh, something similar happened to my sister/ friend/ ex-lover," but some people are more naive about this kind of reality, and may benefit from talking it through.

Wow, I hope I don't come across as anything other than an advocate for you. You sound like a very strong person, and I hope your SO recognizes that as well.
posted by whoiam at 10:34 AM on October 24, 2014

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