Having some trouble after hearing the details of my girlfriend's abuse
February 7, 2017 4:43 AM   Subscribe

My present girlfriend was in an abusive relationship that is very much in the past. But now that I've learned the details, I'm having some trouble dealing. Very general but possibly triggering details inside.

My girlfriend of about a year was in an abusive relationship, which ended a few years ago (I’m a man, we’re both early 30s). Although the abuse left scars, she has largely recovered . As we’ve gotten closer, she’s told me about it in more detail - this is something that was necessary to her and I think necessary for our relationship to progress, and for us to better understand each other.

A few weeks ago, she went into a lot more detail about what was done to her. I won’t recount it in detail, but suffice to say that there was a moderate level of violence/assault (nothing to put her in the hospital, but enough to instil real pain and fear), some sexual violence that probably qualifies as rape, assault by drugs, and hideous emotional abuse. It was important for her to tell me these details, and I told her - I believed honestly - that I could handle them. I think we both thought the conversation went well, and I was happy that she felt secure enough to share these things with me and that I could contribute to her recovery.

But it turns out I couldn’t handle the details very well. A few days after that conversation, my mind began inadvertently returning to the abuse, sometimes even imagining it. I end up upset, enraged, and zoned out in the middle of work meetings. I have violent fantasies about her abuser that I do not want to have. I sometimes think of these things when I’m with her and have to suppress them, because she wants neither my pity nor random reminders of what happened to her. She’s integrated what’s happened to her, moved past it, and does not want me to see her as damaged.

I don’t quite know what to do with my feelings. I definitely can’t work through them with her, because she was the victim and not me, and she’s done enough heavy lifting to get past this, I don’t want to add to that load. I also don’t want to make it about me. Seeking counselling also seems overblown and indulgent, nothing bad happened to me - and I feel the same way about discussing this with friends. So I end up kind of stuck and alone with this.

Sometimes I think the answer is to just ignore this and let time do the fixing, and I’m absolutely receptive to that answer. I’m writing this question because I’m anxious to ensure that her abuser does not succeed in sabotaging yet another good thing in her (and my) life without even lifting a finger, and I’m wondering what I can do to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Oh just get counseling! You need someone to talk to about this, so pay someone to let you talk to them about it if you have the resources to do so.
posted by mskyle at 4:49 AM on February 7, 2017 [57 favorites]

Seeking counselling also seems overblown and indulgent, nothing bad happened to me

my mind began... returning to the abuse

I end up upset, enraged, and zoned out in the middle of work meetings.

I have violent fantasies about her abuser that I do not want to have.

While the actual abuse didn't happen to you, you have still been traumatized by it. It's ok to ask for help if you need it.

If a friend came to you and said, "I keep obsessing about croissants. It's interfering with my work. I'm having violent fantasies involving bakers." what would your response be?

I absolutely promise you, for things like this, time does no fixing. Go get the help you need so her abuser doesn't continue to abuse you.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:53 AM on February 7, 2017 [14 favorites]

Yeah, I agree. Go see a counselor just to work through it. You'll be spinning in circles in your own mind about how to think about it, and it will help you take a shortcut through all that mental mess by just being able to talk to someone about it.
posted by uncannyslacks at 4:55 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You are a real stand up person. I've been abused and I can't imagine a future partner ever caring this much.

Get the counseling. It's absolutely the right response and is not at all overblown or indulgent.

Your girlfriend is lucky to have a partner with such a good head on their shoulders.
posted by sockermom at 5:04 AM on February 7, 2017 [52 favorites]

Secondary trauma is a real thing and many people seek counseling. There are very, very effective treatments available. Please don't hesitate to look for a therapist who specializes in trauma informed cognitive behavioral therapy, or in PTSD. (I'm not saying you have PTSD, but those people tend to know lots about secondary trauma too.)
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 5:07 AM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would recommend talking to someone professionally trained in these things and also make sure you are engaging in healthy self-care activities (means different things to different people). I have spent my entire professional career working with survivors of these types of violence and the front line staff who work with them. To be present for your partner you need to take care of yourself. Vicarious trauma is real. Take good care.
posted by anya32 at 5:12 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You’re having intrusive thoughts & having trouble dealing with them: This is what CBT is *for*. Go find a therapist and talk things through.

Remember the mantra that support flows in towards the victim? You are doing a stand-up job of supporting your partner & it’s fantastic that she feels able to talk about her past with you. This does not mean you’re expected to cope all by yourself - find some support & lean on it. I promise you that it’s OK to do so.
posted by pharm at 5:16 AM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Secondary trauma is a thing. What's more though, is you can set the standard for "team us" here - if something is intruding into your heart and mind, don't suffer needlessly. Get help, proudly, because there is no. shame. in getting help for the ripple effect of abuse - ever. Be the leader here.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:21 AM on February 7, 2017 [16 favorites]

Nthing counseling. There is nothing overblown or indulgent about it. In fact, it is a very mature, healthy, and loving way to deal with these thoughts and feelings. This is one of many ways you take power back from her abuser, who I guarantee you, would never have done such a thing.

I also think counseling is a better alternative to talking to friends because this is her experience to share and discuss with whomever and whenever she likes. She may not want this to be known among your circle of friends and random people the two of you see socially. On the other hand, she might be okay with you telling one of your closest friends but not another. If you want to share any of this with a friend, please make sure it's okay with her first and confirm what, if anything, should be kept confidential. Still, as everyone has said above, counseling will be your best tool for processing all of this and strengthening your relationship. Best of luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:51 AM on February 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Get counseling. If you are one of those guys that think they should be able to tough it out alone etc, get it because you love your girlfriend. Get it so you can learn to channel alll the protective and angry urges you are feeling into things that will actually protect and help her and you.
posted by wwax at 6:12 AM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Your reaction is completely normal. A close relative of mine suffered abuse during their childhood, and I remember the feelings of violent rage and fantasy I indulged in to this day, even though it was revealed to me over twenty years ago. In my case, it passed after a few days, but I wasn't involved in an intimate relationship with this person.

I think you should tell her that you are having a hard time with this. She opened up to you and took a pretty big risk; for you to hide your true feelings is going to preclude the level of intimacy she is likely seeking. Telling her "I'm having a hard time with this." is NOT being unsupportive. Acting the way you think you are supposed to act, and not in accordance with your feelings will do more harm than good to your relationship. If your relationship doesn't survive the feelings you find within you, then you need to understand that it's for the best. Your girlfriend took a big risk because she needs someone who can be with her who can deal with her past. If you cannot, that does not make you a monster. It makes you human, because that is what you are.

If you need someone to talk to, just to vent or for support, I would be perfectly willing to lend an ear. MeMail me, if so. I am not a therapist, not your therapist, and I have no formal training. I read your question and I see someone who is suffering. I would like there to be less suffering in the world, so that's where I'm coming from. You will get through this.
posted by Mr. Fig at 6:16 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

This seems like an appropriate thing to call RAIN or another rape survivors hotline for. You want to be as supportive as possible and you need help sorting out your feelings separately from your girlfriend. This is good! No shame in asking for help.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:27 AM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is secondary trauma. The only reason you need to get counseling is feeling like you want to, like you are dissatisfied by something.

If your girlfriend's done therapy, this might also help you relate to her.

Worst case scenario, you spend time learning to process these emotions and wind up using the skills and learning in another area of your life more than this one.

Wait, that's not bad at all.

Here's another way to think about it. Abusers sometimes minimize the victims' feelings and tell them not to trust themselves. There is also a sort of patriarchal thing where therapy seems... not macho? Don't buy into that. Don't let that attitude win. Protest those kinds of violence by going to therapy and honoring your feelings fully.
posted by ramenopres at 6:48 AM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Are you familiar with the ring theory? Comfort in, dump out. Your girlfriend is the center in this particular situation, and you're the closest ring in. In other words, you're absolutely correct that she can't and shouldn't help you process this, but you're still allowed to ask for help processing it from someone else. Counseling is always a good idea when you need somewhere to dump, no matter the circumstances; it's their job to be a further out ring for you.

You're being a fantastic partner for thinking this through and for wanting to process it in a way that doesn't add to the hurt. I wish you both the best.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:59 AM on February 7, 2017 [19 favorites]

Yes, counseling is not only appropriate, it's probably the best option because 1) you're having intrusive thoughts; 2) it's not your story to share with your closest friends and a therapist is a safe party for both you and for her; 3) you need to deal with your reactions before they start impacting her ability to continue to live with this (and I echo the sentiment above that it's impressive she told you and that is a trust you should work to maintain); 4) you deserve to have someone help you process something very disturbing. Be good to yourself.

If you witnessed a car accident and a bit of flying glass cut your cheek, you'd disinfect it, bandage it, maybe get checked to see if it needed stitches--even if someone in the accident needed major surgery to survive. So, go ahead and get yourself cared for. It's probably okay to tell your girlfriend that you appreciate her trust and honesty but you want help processing it and are looking for counseling but only if you can make it really clear that it's not her problem and not her fault.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:07 AM on February 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

Counseling is 100% appropriate here. You need, and deserve to have, a space in which you can talk about and work through these feelsing, and counseling is a great place for that. Your friends probably aren't, unless your girlfriend has said "it's entirely okay to share detailed accounts of my past abuse with your friends". And even then, it might be best to seek out a neutral third party trained in handling these discussions. Probably more productive for you, more protective of your girlfriend's privacy, and less likely to spread the secondary trauma around any further.

That said, secondary trauma is absolutely a thing. And a very typical part of the way it manifests is the feeling that your trauma doesn't count because you weren't directly involved in the original event. Your brain will tell you that, and some aspects of your culture may tell you that depending where you live, but it's not actually true. Your own feelings and difficulties in dealing with the knowledge of something terrible happening to a loved one are real and valid, and your brain can get stuck in some shitty patterns in dealing with that. Some outside help can really help.

If counselling isn't an option for you right now, I would look at CBT. Stupid as it sounds, I got a lot of mileage from a literal CBT For Dummies book when I was dealing with a secondary trauma myself. Flip through one and see if there is something there you can use. (That said, a couple of months later when my intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance still hadn't subsided and I went to a therapist, she very kindly said a variant of "you did a great job of first-aid on your misfiring brain, good job not running screaming into the wilderness, but I wish you'd come in sooner, there is more that we can do together," and she was right, and I wish I'd gone sooner. I'm a lot better now. You will be, too, eventually. Hang in there.)
posted by Stacey at 7:36 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing counseling, that's what it's for. There is nothing wrong with your mind's response to this - it is entirely appropriate for you to feel angry toward the person who hurt someone you care about, and to want (even fleetingly) to harm them in return.

But in case you want to act on it at all, think of this - your girlfriend got through it, got past it, got into a healthy relationship, and is able to talk about it. All of that shows incredible strength. If you come swooping in as her protector, you are saying that she's not strong enough to handle it all. She is. Recognizing her bravery and honesty and willingness to trust again is a great way to support her. It is counterintuitive but being a hero on her behalf has the opposite effect.

Good luck, you sound like a mensch.
posted by headnsouth at 8:28 AM on February 7, 2017

Secondary trauma is real. That's when you experience trauma by being exposed to traumatic things happening to other people, whether by witnessing it, hearing about it later, whatever. Secondary trauma IS trauma.

See a therapist; it can help. In particular, look for someone who does EMDR, which is a very effective treatment modality for trauma.
posted by spindrifter at 9:11 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Journaling and/or writing fiction to process may also be useful.
posted by Michele in California at 11:13 AM on February 7, 2017

nthing advice above. Ring theory FTW.
posted by lalochezia at 11:38 AM on February 7, 2017

As someone who has been (very roughly) in your girlfriend's position, please stick with your decision not to discuss it with your friends. I'm a little concerned about the way you worded it - as though the main reason not to do so is because it's "indulgent", not because it would be a horrific violation of her privacy that could very easily damage her relationship with your friends. I'm sure that this is just a wording error, but I'm pointing it out just in case you consider changing your mind on this.

And yes, the answer is therapy or whatever else you would use to work through emotional issues (introspection/journaling/long walks/whatever). It's very good that you recognize that this is your problem to solve, not hers (many people do not, sadly).
posted by randomnity at 11:39 AM on February 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Just to clarify this whole "seek counselling" thing: it is possible you will go see someone, relate all of what was said to you, and leave feeling so much better that you need never return.

You have been given the weight of shame and anger, and sometimes telling an appropriate person and having them validate what you're feeling is all that is needed to lighten the load.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:43 AM on February 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Seeking counselling also seems overblown and indulgent, nothing bad happened to me - and I feel the same way about discussing this with friends.

No, the counselor is just so you can have someone to talk it out with where it will be totally confidential. It's totally reasonable to want to talk to a neutral party who doesn't know your girlfriend so you can have someone to talk about the feelings this has brought up. It will help you support your girlfriend when she wants to talk about her feeling with you later -- you won't be able to be a good listener for her if you can't do anything with your own feelings.

Why you shouldn't talk to your friends because it would violate your girlfriend's privacy. These are people she's going to meet and socialize with at some point, if she hasn't already, and would not be fair to her if they knew her secrets. So, a few sessions with a counselor.

It's actually pretty common for people to see a counselor when someone close to them is either currently going through something tough or relating the past like this. I have seen a counselor for a session or two myself in these situations. (edit: and even though I don't find that counseling is generally helpful for me, and I don't feel that it's helpful in all situations, I would still see a counselor if I was the support person for someone dealing with things like your girlfriend is dealing with)
posted by yohko at 12:13 PM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

A different thought than most (all?) posters (I'm not American, though, but Northern European): you sound like you feel you can't talk to any of your closest people. I have endured abuse and have absolutely understood when my partner reacted and it has been very good for me. I want to share with them and want them to share with me, even (especially) about these same (important) things. It might then be something that is a part of your relationship-history. It didn't happen to you, but it did, in a way, because you are a team and now you know. It's your SO's history. I would personally find it pretty healing to hear how you relate (the anger, the sadness). I've felt very, very cared for and empowered by reactions of people I am close with. There's also some guilt, for confronting them with such bad, bad experiences, but in a relationship you burden each other (in good ways too), by definition. There's no way around that. Also I think therapy or counseling is an option, especially if you really feel you can't talk to your partner. But it's only been some weeks, and you both maybe haven't had the chance yet, to get together about this. Could it be possible to maybe mourn somewhat, together?
In my case, it's like that. Each time I've shared, I've mourned bits and pieces. The words of people and my partner, their looks, they are etched in my brain, they've become the better part of the bad memories. And I've gotten back with people on the subject, sometimes very brief, sometimes longer and more in-depth. All I can say is that their different (but caring) reactions have made me stronger, it's hard to explain. Especially when their reactions are so right like yours are. Just a data point, of course.

Maybe she does not (yet) want you to share this with your close people, because it is so intimate and personal. Or maybe you haven't talked about that yet? It would be understandable but not very good for you. Again, it's just me, but I'd want to know how someone feels after I disclose some of my history. Are you maybe too careful with her?

Secondary trauma, you can call it that. And you certainly can go to therapy. But I find it very understandable/normal that you get distracted by these thoughts or images, after having been told that your loved one has been in these bad circumstances. In my view you are processing in your own good way. You don't sound like you see her as damaged, but that you are processing the reality of the aggression that she was subjected to, as a human being (not so much as a victim). The shock of the realization that these things (can) happen, can happen to people we care about, maybe it does not change so much how you view her but how you view the world? It sounds like it's not good for you to be so alone with it. Take care of yourself in any way you feel you need to. But maybe you could ask her, if it would be ok or not ok for her? Maybe together you could call it a process. For me it brings things full circle and makes my whole life more complete, to hear reactions back, it does not make it worse for me at all, quite the opposite. She's not me, of course, and you're not my partner, so YMMV a lot.
posted by Litehouse at 3:09 PM on February 7, 2017

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