For many of us, intimate relationships feel incredibly challenging. We all have our own unique past, and sometimes it’s confusing to know when to share dark parts of our history with our partner. In my psychotherapy practice, my patients often express wanting to share with their partner but not knowing how. This is especially true for anyone who has been a victim of trauma, particularly relationship trauma.
Relationship trauma is the kind of (emotional, psychological, physical) trauma that occurs within the context of relationships. In our society, approximately one half of all individuals will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. This statistic does not take into account individuals who have experienced complex trauma. Typically, complex trauma exposure refers to the simultaneous or sequential occurrences of maltreatment—including emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and witnessing domestic violence.
Figuring out the right time to disclose past relationship trauma can be daunting. How does one know when it’s the right time to share? And how do we share it in a way that feels safe and authentic? How will my partner react? What do I do if they have an unfavorable response? When deciding whether now is a good time to share painful past experiences with your S.O., it’s important to do a little self-reflection first.
Consider Your Motivation
It’s important to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with talking about your past because it’s part of what deepens intimacy in a relationship. Sharing our past with our partner can be incredibly healing.
But, there are also aspects to consider before sharing your traumatic past with your partner. The most important piece to consider is motivation. I encourage you to sit and reflect while asking yourself the following questions:
How will sharing this information serve me? What am I hoping to get out of my disclosure? Am I trying to warn them? Am I trying to draw sympathy? Am I trying to draw empathy? Am I being manipulative in that I hope this newfound knowledge will quietly coerce them into changing their position or even their behavior/character?
No matter what your answers are to these questions try not to be judgmental or critical of yourself. This exercise is to help take inventory to increase your own understanding of your process around sharing. The more mindful we can be about owning our motivation, the better.
Evaluate Your Level of Trust and Commitment
Once you have addressed your motivation, you can begin to think about when to share this with your partner. As with sharing any other highly personal and sensitive information, it makes sense to wait until you have established a foundation of genuinely knowing and trusting each other.
- Does my partner know me well enough to see this information as important but not totally defining who I am?
- Do I have enough information to know whether I can trust them to have a sincere and thoughtful response?
- Whatever initial response they have, and however I react to you that, does my relationship so far suggest that I’ll be able to get past any misunderstandings or hurt feelings?
How to Open Up with Your Partner
When thinking about how and what to say, consider the fact that there is no “perfect formula.” I suggest writing it out beforehand. Not because I suggest you read from a script, but because it gives you a chance to sit with yourself and your own ideas on how you want to share. I encourage my patients to follow these three rules around important disclosures:
01. Share it when you are both sober.
I deeply understand the desire to lower your inhibitions around such a scary conversation. Of course you want to use any tool you can to make it easier. But substances and alcohol are not the resources to call upon. They lower our ability to be present, to filter language we didn’t intend to use, can make our reactions, (whatever they are), feel very big and out of our control. In a nutshell they makes us more emotional and less rational.
02. Call in the troops.
Let a friend, your therapist, or any trusted person know when you plan to share this information with your partner. Having a safety net of support to fall back on if you need it will be incredibly helpful since you will likely need/want to process your feelings afterward separate from your partner.
03. Be concise and own it.
Ideally you want to be in a place where you have worked through some of your own feelings about your past before sharing it with your partner. Is it crucial to do so? No. But the benefit is your own increased understanding of how the impact of trauma plays out in your life and relationships and what your needs are around it. You can start out with a simple statement that feels comfortable. For example, “I have something important to tell you, and I feel nervous. I was sexually assaulted and it feels important that you know.” From there you can gauge your partners response and also your own.
Try not to force a protracted discussion until you get a sense of how this information landed. Being on the receiving end of this kind of disclosure can be challenging too, so try to give your partner a chance to digest what you said before taking it further. Ask them, “How do you feel after hearing this?” And move slowly from there.
Most importantly, if you find yourself in this position, remember that you are a warrior. You have survived your entire life up until this point—trauma, heartbreak, devastation, and the different phases of life. And here you are, stepping into your bravery to speak your truth. You, my dear, are amazing.
Photo Credit: Purple Fern Photography