As more Harvey Weinstein stories come to light, I can't help but join our nation in one giant collective sigh reacting to the horrific, recurring narrative of sexual abuse against women. Especially because the narrative isn't just prolific in Hollywood—and it's not a story that ends once the act is done. It lives on in a victim's life and becomes a part of how she handles her future. At least, that's been my experience.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that one in six American women has been the victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. This means that too many women are left with the responsibility of healing, finding a healthy place for this wound in her life story, and, possibly, sharing it with those who she wants to have an intimate relationship with. No part of this process is easy, but finding the right way to share your traumatic assault with someone you're now getting serious with can be both isolating and daunting. There's not exactly a guidebook.
Only through listening and learning from the experiences of other women who went through the same thing I did, was I able to have the courage to share it with my boyfriend—the man who would later become my husband. Because no healing process is the same, I also spoke with two other brave women—Kayla and Rachel*—about their experiences of navigating this tricky but inevitable conversation with their significant others.
Here’s what we want other women to know.
There’s No Right Amount of Information to Share
As my relationship with my now husband started getting serious, I felt like it was time for him to know this one traumatic experience in my life—something he could never have known about me otherwise. One night while we were comfortably sitting on my couch talking, I opened up by saying there was something he should know: That I had been raped in college. He responded calmly and invited me to continue.
Because he responded so openly and lovingly, I ended up telling him as many details as I could remember about the incident—something I had not done with most listeners before. Honestly, how well he received this information and how he responded to me was a big part of why I thought I could marry him.
In contrast, Kayla did not feel that she needed to share every detail of her assault with her boyfriend in order for him to understand what happened to her. “When we were a few months into dating, I felt that I needed to tell him the most 'necessary' details about it—not because it was something he wanted to hear, but because it was very much part of my identity at the time," she shares. "I didn't go into any explicit details." Ultimately Kayla didn't want to relive the experience by putting it into words.
Rachel, on the other hand, wanted to be entirely transparent, especially since her sexual assault occurred during the time she was starting to get to know her boyfriend. “I told my boyfriend every detail about my sexual assault—it was a decision we made together and it ended up being the most healthy for us. The total transparency was painful but so important.”
So, when you're deciding what to reveal, do what comes naturally to you and your significant other. It will be painful no matter how much or little you disclose, but it's up to you to decide what you think your boyfriend needs to hear, so he can provide the best support he can.
His Reactions Won’t Fit a Script
There is no way to predict how people will react to hearing about a sexual traumatic experience—especially when it involves someone they love.
In my past, I had unfortunate experiences with others reacting poorly to me sharing this part of my life, so before I went into detail, I made sure to proceed slowly to make sure he was prepared to hear it. To my relief, when I told him what happened, his initial reaction was exactly what I needed to feel comfortable to continue the whole story.
Just because this is your story to tell, it doesn’t mean it won’t be hard for your significant other to hear about. Kayla admits that “it was really hard on him to learn and still upsets him to this day.”
But we all found that working with our boyfriends to process this news by being as open and honest as possible was helpful. As Rachel shares, “My boyfriend lived through my sexual assault with me, which is painful for the two of us on several different levels. I asked him to be completely transparent about how he felt. This was difficult, but I wanted us to be able to talk about it. It's a hard topic, but it isn't banned.”
Ultimately, letting him express how he feels is of paramount importance for both your own personal growth and the growth of your relationship.
We Needed Him to Understand the Lasting Impact
“Sexual assault left me feeling worthless, ashamed, and broken," Rachel says. "[My boyfriend] knows that he cannot fix this for me, but he can support me."
Explaining the impact of our experiences was crucial for each of us to feel like our significant others could fully understanding us—and our healing. As Kayla explains, “When we started dating, I was less than a year removed from it. Looking back now—eight years later—telling him was the most freeing thing. He was my best friend, the person I trusted most in the world, and my confidant, so it felt right to finally tell him." By telling him how she felt, he actually was the one who encouraged her to seek the help and therapy she needed.
As for me, I don’t think it was a coincidence that I needed to be several years removed from the assault to be ready to find my husband. There was a lot of growth and healing that needed to happen in that time. Now, there are still days that I react to a trigger or I have a hard time processing something as a result of my assault many years ago. But since he knows how it affected me, I know that everything is going to be alright, especially since he still responds with the same compassion and love that he did the first day that I told him everything.
*Name has been changed.