How open should I be?
November 5, 2016 11:57 PM   Subscribe

I've been on a five dates with a guy and not sure when to tell him certain things about my life.

Basically I have suffered a lot in my life. For a year and a half now I have been going through some changes and feel like a completely different person, for the better! I feel happy and comfortable in my own skin, finally.
My parents (mainly mother) put me through some tough situations growing up since the age of 12, including sexual abuse, alcoholism, and having to live with my mums abusive boyfriend. He would randomly beat women up in the streets, kill my cat while forcing me to watch when he got angry, etc, and meanwhile my mum would shout abuse at me as a way of letting out her hurt. This caused me to have an eating disorder for almost 6 years, that took me until last year to recover from. I had to have an operation because of it as well, so scars are visible when I'm naked. I have never told anybody except my best friend about this stuff, but I will be sleeping with this new guy soon and he will see the scars.
I feel differently about this guy compared to anyone else I've dated. We are quite similar in a lot of ways and he is very easy to talk to, and he wants to know all about me which has not happened before but I like it. I'm attracted to him and really happy I met him, regardless of what happens between us in the future.

I also think I've attracted a decent person because I am ready to be with someone I deserve, and am more open with my feelings and enjoying my own life. I am not afraid to show and tell him that I like him, to be affectionate and make plans to see him (in the past I would wait for the guy to make the plans because it's how I thought it was done). He's been really receptive to all of this as well which is good :).

My question is sort of related to a recent question posted in ask metafilter about emotional connections. I am really not sure how much to tell him about my past, and when to do so. If I tell him, could that deepen the connection, or isn't that telling him too much about myself too soon? Nobody would ever guess that I have been through all of these things in my life, it isn't noticeable because I like to keep it hidden. I have almost completely moved on and forgiven everyone, and also have an amazing relationship with my parents.

But I think I need to tell him about my scars and the reason I have them before we sleep together, because I don't want to lie. But it is quite scary and maybe I should just do it in a lighthearted manner. What do you think?
I like to find out a lot about a guy and tell him about only my present situation before I begin to tell him things about my past life. How is it normally done? I feel that telling him about my past does not contribute to our emotional connection, because it would just make him feel sorry for me which I don't want to happen, but maybe I'm wrong. Any advice is appreciated, thank you.
posted by akita to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is that people with trauma histories often struggle with the issue you're talking about - how much to reveal, when to reveal, and so on.

It's a very difficult challenge and people often oscillate between telling nothing and spilling everything. Both extremes are stressful for both parties.

I'd suggest you take the disclosure slowly. Tell him that you're self conscious about your body and particularly about some scars you have. Tell him it's a long and difficult story to talk about and that someday maybe he'll hear the whole thing. But for now, you want to be with him, in the present. Is that OK with him.

Get to know him first and let him get to know you, so you can build the trust that the relationship is solid enough for you to be able to talk about your past without freaking him out.
posted by jasper411 at 12:41 AM on November 6, 2016 [22 favorites]

I would have a brief but serious conversation about your scars.. just to let your partner know that they are there and that you can (or cannot) share some information about them now.
And a promise to them that while you may need to keep some information secret, anything you do share will be the truth.
posted by calgirl at 12:42 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

From an anonymous commenter:
I've been on the 'receiving end' of this in a relationship (hence the anon!) And yeah, it can be a lot to process. For my partner, it was a big thing to tell me, there were tears. They chose to tell me before we started officially 'going out' as they felt it was important for me to know. (Abuse, and some other stuff.)
(For context, we're both fairly conservative Christians and haven't slept with each other yet- I know this can make a big difference in relationship questions so please take what I say with a grain of salt.)
There was definitely a process in telling me- they told me a basic version of the facts, and then as we continued together I asked more questions as they came up, or they would tell me more information. One that surprised me was that I hadn't realised that there had been multiple instances of abuse, so I had to process some more when they clarified that.

I have tried to be mindful that my shock and pain on behalf of my partner isn't as much as obviously, their's, as well as realising that they have processed a lot of their past, so aren't so upset by it anymore. Something that helped is having a safe person that I was allowed to tell/process with - my partner is a very private person so I wasn't able to talk through this with anyone else, and obviously it's not fair to 'debrief in' with the affected person all the time. We have a mutual friend who knew the situation also, so they chose that person.

I have appreciated the honesty of my partner. They have decided not to give me 100% of the details (names, etc) especially of other victims involved. I've wrestled with that but respect it. I have been sad, I have been angry, I have been upset- not with my partner but that this has happened to them.

It is a bit of a 'mood-killer' to talk about this sort of thing- I don't mean that I wasn't attracted to my partner, but the sexy became more caring for a bit, if that makes sense.

If you are talking about the possibility of sleeping together in the near future, you might say something like "hey, I have some scars that you'll see as a result of some surgery I had for x reason (maybe say as a result of an eating disorder if you want)" - you may or may not want to talk about the abuse at this point.

I had known my partner for over a year before they told me, you've known this guy for a lot less? I wouldn't rush in to telling all the details, gauge his reaction as you go, and be gentle to yourself and him. My partner said they wanted to make sure they could trust me first- that is something important.

All the best.
posted by taz at 12:42 AM on November 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

Nobody would ever guess that I have been through all of these things in my life, it isn't noticeable because I like to keep it hidden. I have almost completely moved on and forgiven everyone, and also have an amazing relationship with my parents.

If you do choose to tell him, be it all of it or just as much as you need to explain the scars, please make sure to frame it with what I've quoted above in mind... and emphasise that you've decided you want to tell him because of the current, not like before emotional connection you feel in your deepening relationship.

You can most help him process the shock and negative burden of learning about this awful time in your past by making it as clear as possible that this isn't about you finding new ways of dealing with the bad stuff, it's about building as strong a foundation as possible for future times together that you're super excited and happy about.

I hope you keep going from strength to strength, both in your personal journey away from the bad times, and this new journey together towards...? :)
posted by protorp at 1:47 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you probably should say something before getting naked, just because you'll be feeling super-vulnerable then, and if he asks about them you might get very emotional or upset at a really awkward time. But I think at this point you don't have to say much, unless of course you want to.

You could just say something along the lines of, I really like you a lot, I'm excited about where this is going, but I'm anxious about you seeing these scars I have, I got them from a surgery that was pretty traumatic for a lot of reasons, I don't really want to go into all that now but I just thought I'd feel less anxious about it if I told you I have them before you see them.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:59 AM on November 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

The sun came up and streamed in through the blinds and there were multitudes of slightly discolored perfect little squares on her back and I asked about that. She'd blocked it out and didn't remember and then she did and went into a fugue and told me all about it. I called in sick and was overprotective for years because that was just so horrible.

You don't seem so unaware of the consequences. I'd suggest asking him what the worst thing that ever happened to him was and gauging that for honesty before you tell him yours. Some men will run and you don't need that.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:13 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

It is not a lie to keep the detailed reasons for those scars to yourself. You could just say 'I have scars from a surgery years ago,' and then when you two have developed more of a connection you can tell him the rest when you feel comfortable. I have been in a position where I learned someone's history very very early, and in many ways I feel it was too early, too pressurizing, and in retrospect it made it hard to develop a connection that was about more than the trauma. I also stayed with them for years longer than I otherwise would have, because I felt bound by responsibility as one of very few people who knew. It truthfully felt a bit unfair to have been placed in that role when I barely knew the person. Not explaining your history is not a non-truth or subterfuge, and I would look it at without that particular lens. You have the option to grow together a little more and develop more connection and mutual history before you introduce this important information. On the other hand, if you already feel like you have that, then do whatever feels right. As an aside, I have my own traumas and health concerns, and I take the slow route, and I feel that's been better for me. Good luck with whatever you choose, there is no perfect answer.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:53 AM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm going to have to diverge from most of the advice thus far. I don't think you should open yourself sexually to him until you've told him about all of this stuff, not just the scars but the reasons for them. See how he reacts to what you've said. If he treats you with respect and compassion, then go ahead and sleep with him. But don't open yourself sexually, don't become naked and vulnerable, with someone you're not sure would deal well with knowing your history.

He seems like a great guy, and he indeed may be a great guy. But you never really know for sure until you go through something difficult with someone and watch how they act. If he doesn't react well, it will hurt MUCH more to see that if you've already had sex with him.

People you date who seem wonderful at first--people you are absolutely convinced are awesome--can become unawesome in a heartbeat when they are faced with something difficult.

I don't have the same history you do, but I've chosen to reveal very personal and vulnerability-inducing things to dates multiple times, and if there's one thing I've gotten out of that, it is that you CANNOT predict beforehand who will deal with it lovingly, and who will become a self-obsessed asshole...or a ghost. I've had men berate me for *when* I've chosen to tell them things. I've had men become obsessed with the impact what I've told them has on *them* rather than expressing any concern whatsoever over me. And I'm far from alone in the negative reactions I've received. A couple of the worst ones were men whose compassion I had every confidence in. A couple of the decent reactions were men who I was worried wouldn't react well. You just don't know. Things will get really real, really fast, when you tell. You will see his true character.

So: Reveal All The Things. Slowly, gradually, sure, but definitely BEFORE you sleep with him. Don't make the decision about whether he's worthy of you until you see how he reacts to hearing about your history.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 3:07 AM on November 6, 2016 [21 favorites]

I'm a police abuse survivor and have a bunch of scars between my lower back and the back of my knee from this, which means they are only visible in the doctor's office or if I show someone deliberately. I've had to go through telling a number of new partners about them and trying to gauge what a good way to do that is. I know my situation is different from yours in a number of notable ways, but for what it's worth, I think it's good to disclose before you get naked with someone. You don't have to tell him everything, but a basic outline - that you have a difficult history, that you've had surgery and there are scars - would be good. I think it's good to gauge people's reactions, and how he responds will let you know about him as a person.

If he's cool, he'll be supportive and concerned about what your emotional needs are here. If he's not cool, he'll expect you to comfort him and make the experience all about him, at which point you should go find someone who will be more awesome. I've found most people are cool, and the only ones who make any notice of my scars during sex are the ones who think scars are sexy, everyone else is just like yes hot action omg yes and it's no big deal.

So I advocate disclosing sooner rather than later. You don't have to tell him all the details, but this is part of who you are as a person, it's an important part of your history and how you've gotten to where you are.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:26 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was in this situation very recently--dating a guy for about a month and a half and feeling that for him to truly know me, he would have to know about my trauma history. I also have scars from self-harm. I've been in this situation a few times before with other potential partners, as well. I feel as though the biggest mistake I've made is blurting it out emotionally in an intimate situation (like before having sex--and this is especially true if it's sexual abuse). This makes the person that I'm telling feel uncomfortable and also makes me lose control over my narrative. I think you should decide when you want to tell him in advance and maybe write some sort of script--not something you have to follow strictly but just a general sense of what you want to convey to him. And you don't have to tell him *everything* in one go. Then, during the night of the date when you want to tell him, wait for it to come up organically (for example, when you are both discussing your families or how often you visit home or things that happened while you were growing up--things that come up very often in early dating situations) and tell him then.

His reaction to you telling him all this, in my experience, really determines the future of the relationship. If all this high-stakes personal disclosure does not make me feel closer to someone, it makes me sure that I am not emotionally compatible with them.

Also, I totally agree with mysterious_stranger on feeling a need to disclose stuff with someone I was sexually intimate with. The nature of your trauma is somewhat different and of course, everyone processes these things different but for me personally, I couldn't see myself ever having a truly comfortable sexual relationship with someone who didn't know about the things that most informed my sexuality.
posted by armadillo1224 at 7:56 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my experience revealing what is deeply at your core too soon creates a false intimacy. It's overwhelming for people who have no experience with such abuse, and it can be attractive to exactly the kind of person that you no longer want to attract. After only five dates, you don't yet know which this person is.

If you feel you must explain your scars (you really don't have to you know) just say you had a surgery. It's only a big deal if you make it a big deal. I don't mean to minimize your experience, but again I think it's best to avoid that false intimacy.

Once this relationship has some miles behind it you will have a better idea of whether this really is a good person and if they are someone that you can trust with your painful memories. There's nothing worse than confiding the deepest parts of yourself and having someone use those things as reasons to reject you. Don't be afraid to go slow and make them earn your trust.
posted by vignettist at 8:34 AM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

My first bit of advice is pretty straightforward: always be the sum of your experiences and growth. You've been through a lot of trauma and come back from it which means approaching life experiences as if you've never experienced extreme hardship would be inauthentic. One way this manifested for me is being particular about unsolicited sexual touching (e.g. Never spring fondling on me even in an enthusiastic physical relationship). It's a thing about me that my husband accepted while we were dating and I think he got the explanation a long while after we'd been together.

The second bit of advice is to share details/history slowly. I shared the biggest, least difficult issues from my past first. Ones that are the most universal (like the various loved ones who have died, the estrangement from my dad, that I went to a lot of schools, that we were poor, etc.) are ones that I'll tell someone (anyone) freely and as appropriate. Going into second level details (specific types of abuse, implications of having been poor, bullying, various emotional impacts that's had) are only shared when it makes sense to share (such as commiserating with a close friend) and with someone I trust enough to not share the information widely and not think less of me. The last layer of sharing is the most intimate level where the person can carry the weight of knowing everything without being hindered by it. I'm pretty sure I told my husband all the scandalous details of my life by a year and a half together,around the time we were engaged.

I do think it's important not to lie when something is directly brought up. I would put the fact that you've cut at level one with why and how long as a deeper, down the road share.
posted by toomanycurls at 8:40 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

But I think I need to tell him about my scars and the reason I have them before we sleep together, because I don't want to lie.

Privacy isn't a lie. this really bothers me. If you're close enough to someone to want to sleep with them, you are entitled to have them listen to you if you need to talk about something like this, and you should expect him to be interested (I mean, riveted because this is personal information about someone he cares for and everything about you interests him. not interested like it's a thrilling book he's reading. if you get a bad feeling about him having the wrong kind of interest, it's a warning sign.)

but this is your private personal history. If you tell him "I have no scars and no history of abuse or eating disorders," that's a lie. If you just tell him "I have some old surgical scars so don't be alarmed," that's not a lie. If you tell him nothing, that's not a lie. (I wouldn't do this only because I would be anxious about him showing surprise or asking questions, but it isn't reasonable for him or anybody to assume an unmarked body on any adult. people get hurt and have medical treatments that leave marks. that's very normal.)

anyway, yes, it might bring you closer together but that's not a reason to do it if you're not comfortable, or before you feel ready. Privacy isn't deceit and this is your life to talk about as and when you want to. if you want to do it before you sleep with him but you don't feel ready, you can wait (and tell him why, that you want to talk about some past history with him first but need to know him a little better before you can do that.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:43 AM on November 6, 2016 [10 favorites]

Seconding vignettist as I've had this exact experience and suffered from being too emotionally involved too soon with someone who turned out to be very much like my past abuser. Sadly, there are people out there who get off on exploiting the trauma of those who have been abused. Give yourself more time to find out what really motivates this guy, maybe even let him open up first. Good luck, you're right that you do deserve someone special.
posted by siouxsiesmith at 9:24 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been on the receiving end of your story. toomanycurls' version of reality makes the best sense to me. Your story will affect your partner in ways that are beyond your control. Levels of intimacy apply here.

You are entitled to your privacy, so balancing intimacy with privacy will always involve a tension born of uncertainty. Keep it simple. Trust is not a wish to impose on another person, it's an understanding about how your partner probably will act under various circumstances. Let your revelations about your past come in reasonable packets of information. You might explain your scars that way: surgery as a result of an eating disorder generated by years of abuse; you don't want to go into all the details right now. Let the details come later. Explain this to your partner, then observe their reaction. This is where trust and intimacy must work together. You will be breaking new ground.

Imagine that your partner's life is as detailed as your own, and you each will gain a more refined understanding as time passes, and you grow to know one another in a loving context. In the unlikely event that your partner doesn't understand the gravity of your situation, you can rethink the terms of your relationship, to see just how much of your life you presently want to share with this person. Some people are more casual (than others) about sexual intimacy as it relates to emotional intimacy. Anyhow, it may be best to discuss the scars and what they represent before you guys get undressed.

Keep in mind that my idealistic notions are based on experience--reality for me usually has been negotiable. Some folks just can't handle the truth when it involves traumatic events. In a different context, I was on your side of this equation as well as on the other (Ex-soldiers sometimes have context issues with gentle civilians).

I wish you well.
posted by mule98J at 2:13 PM on November 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Update: I told him what most of you recommended, that I have scars from a surgery that was pretty traumatic for a lot of reasons, and that for now I don't want to talk too much about it. He then disclosed some very personal things himself! I was very surprised, but really happy he was so open and honest. So thank you all very much!
posted by akita at 5:35 AM on November 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

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