When you find a new partner you really vibe with, it’s supposed to be all sunshine and rainbows. But for people with trauma in their pasts, there’s a dark cloud hanging over every new relationship: Inevitably, they will have to tell their new love about the horrors of their past.
If you’re in that position, you’ve likely spent a lot of time thinking about the big moment. What if your new boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t want to deal with your lingering issues? What if they don’t understand? On the other hand, your relationship could suffer if you aren’t honest — especially if past trauma from a prior relationship is affecting how you relate to your new beau.
Be comfortable with yourself first
A common piece of advice for anyone joining a 12-step program is to avoid dating for a year to focus on recovery. This guidance is, of course, hotly contested. You can’t choose when you fall in love, right?
There’s wisdom there, though: When you experience anything traumatic, you run the risk of bringing your issues into a new relationship, or opening up before you’re ready, distracting yourself with the new lover, and failing to fully heal as a result. We won’t give you a hard timeframe, but to the best of your ability, you should try to work on healing before getting involved with anyone else — for your own benefit and theirs.
Danielle Sinay, a 29-year-old writer and journalist in Brooklyn, told Lifehacker that before she got into a relationship with her now-husband, she was diagnosed with herpes, and was devastated.
“I thought my life was over — and quite literally wanted it to be,” she recalled. “I had suicidal thoughts for at least a year because I truly believed having herpes was that much of a dating death sentence, so to speak, and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone. My mental health really took a nosedive that year; my already existing depression, anxiety, PTSD — everything got worse. It affected me much more than I would have expected.”
She’s worked through her feelings by researching and writing about her diagnosis.
Caitlin, a 29-year-old, a merchandising supervisor and makeup artist who declined to share her last name and location for obvious reasons, recalled that after leaving a psychologically and physically abusive relationship, she used martial arts classes to reclaim a sense of control.
Whether you start posting (or lurking) on forums for people who’ve been through what you’ve been through, seeing a therapist, journaling, talking to friends, or healing in any other way, make sure you’re in a good headspace before you worry about others. Try not to rush into a relationship. You and your health come first.
Of course, you can’t predict where or when you’ll meet someone, so don’t beat yourself up if you do.
Plan what you’ll say
Sometimes the lasting effects of trauma will be evident. You might be noticeably untrusting or nervous around your new boyfriend or girlfriend or react to triggers in front of them. Other times, the scars are totally invisible, and they may not have any idea you’ve gone through something.
Only you know your exact situation, both in relation to the source of your trauma and in your current relationship, so only you know exactly how to approach the inevitable conversation. No matter what, plan it out to the best of your ability in advance.
Plan to be as open as you can. Bearing your soul can suck, especially when you’re not sure how someone you care about will react. Sinay recalled being “terrified” to tell her now-husband about her herpes because “he was perfect” and she didn’t want to “lose him.” Remember, though, that you’re telling this person the full story of your life because you want to share that life with them.
Don’t dwell too much on what you’ll do if they react poorly or can’t offer you the support you need. It’s hard, but keep in mind that you deserve a partner who will support you, so don’t put off telling them your truth out of a fear of rejection. That rejection could turn out to be a positive in that it will let you separate yourself from someone who can’t provide what you need and, eventually, find someone who can.
Moreover, being honest about what you’ve been through has the serious potential to strengthen your partnership, especially if your trauma manifests itself in untrusting behaviour. It’s much better for the other person to know everything you’re comfortable sharing so they can understand why you might act a certain way and can be there for you if, say, you come home stressed from a therapy session or experience a flashback or panic attack.
Try to stay calm
This part is hard, but don’t go into the conversation with the drama knob cranked all the way up and don’t be sorry for telling them your story. Your trauma is playing a trick on you and trying to convince you you’ll be rejected, so you are forgiven for letting some of that panic seep into the conversation, but take solace in the fact that this person seems to like you enough that you want to make your relationship more serious. Do not worry. You are doing the right thing for yourself and for your relationship and sometimes the right thing is hard.
Sinay recalled the day she told her husband about the herpes diagnosis that had made her suicidal: “I kept putting it off, something of which I am very ashamed now (but we were careful and no, he still does not have herpes) and finally, after a few months of dating, we went to visit my family in LA. For some reason, sitting in my grandmother’s backyard of all places, I was suddenly overcome with guilt and decided I had to tell him right then and there,” she recalled. “And I did it completely wrong — my diagnosis was still recent and I still felt a lot of shame, so I kept repeating, ‘I have something really horrible to tell you,’ ‘I’m so sorry,’ [and] ‘You’re going to hate me,’ through hysterical tears. It took about 20 minutes for me to blurt out that I had herpes and he literally laughed! He was like, ‘I thought something actually bad happened. Why did you make such a big deal out of it?’”
We can’t promise everyone will roll with your revelation as quickly as Sinay’s then-boyfriend did, but we can promise that the conversation will go smoother if you ground yourself first, remind yourself why you’re doing it, and don’t let the outcome determine your happiness. You are important and you got this.
Keep the conversation going
Just because you tell your new partner about a past trauma one time doesn’t mean you never have to bring it up again. In fact, the best-case scenario here and the outcome we hope you get is that you’ll find yourself in a relationship where the other person checks on your wellbeing, recognises and avoids your triggers, and supports you in an ongoing way.
Caitlin, the makeup artist, actually ended up dating the man who owns the gym where she began practicing martial arts after she left her abusive relationship. When she first spoke to him about taking classes, she was up front about why she wanted to learn to defend herself, so by the time they began dating, he already knew a basic version of her history.
“Since then, he has heard my stories bit by bit, with me opening up when I know it’s finally time. I had to trust that he would continue being a safe place for my soul to rest. I was scared of even the idea of being so enamoured with someone who seemed to just fit. He is kind and listens. I have nightmares and panic attacks. He, from the beginning, just held me while I cried and talked whenever I needed to talk. We had open communication from the beginning and never shut down,” she said.
Remember you don’t have to say anything you don’t want
Whether it’s the first time you’re bringing up your trauma or part of an ongoing conversation, remember you never have to reveal more than you want to. Remember also that the person you’re talking to loves you and wants to support you, but they can be traumatized, too.
“There’s certain things he’d rather not see, like photos of the aftermath, and I respect his decision,” said Caitlin about how much she reveals to her boyfriend about her previous abuse and its lingering effects. “While we’re partners, I know that that part of me is hard to see. I respect him and he respects me, but our communication is always about honesty and being open.”
That goes both ways.
Just as you’re expecting your partner to listen to you, you need to listen to them. It can be hard to learn that someone you love has been through serious suffering, so give them grace, and be ready to work together. Communicate if they ask something too invasive or say something too critical. Stick to your boundaries and respect theirs. Then, go forth and let yourself be fully known.