Q: Should you tell a new partner you’ve been abused in the past? I’m always scared to do it, but then I feel like I’m keeping a secret from them. - Anonymous
A: After trauma, starting a new relationship can be a little nerve-wracking. Opening up to a new person about who you are—your experiences, feelings and memories— is something called self-disclosure. It can deepen your relationship, but it’s also a very vulnerable choice to make. Much like physical intimacy, emotional intimacy in a relationship is something many people feel like they can only engage in with someone they trust.
The question would be, can you trust the new person? That might not be an easy thing to answer as a survivor. You may have thought you could trust a previous partner who turned out to be abusive, or perhaps, were abused by a family member who was supposed to love and care for you. You may have walls up no matter how seemingly nice this new person is.
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It’s OK—that’s normal. The most important thing is to take it slow. If this new partner is going to stick around, they’re not going to rush you to take down those walls. If they do, I’d consider that a red flag.
As psychotherapist Lisa Aronson Fontes wrote in “Dating After Domestic Violence: Critical Questions to Ask,” a healthy partner respects boundaries and makes you feel good about yourself. “They reflect your strengths back to you and you bring out the best in each other.”
If you want to open up to your new partner but are afraid, simply try being honest and saying just that. If they respond with some version of “Take your time; I’m here to listen when you’re ready,” it’s a good indicator that this person respects your boundaries. If they make fun of you or try to pressure you—“What’s the big deal? Just tell me.”—you know that they’re probably not going to honor what you went through.
Disclosing abuse in your past can be retraumatizing. We posed this question to the DomesticShelters.org Victims and Survivors Facebook community and their answers were filled with wisdom from lived experience. One survivor wrote, “Not everyone deserves to hear your story.” Disclosing abuse shouldn’t be considered an icebreaker topic but rather something you’ve carefully considered and decided on with no outside pressure or influence from your partner or other friends or family. Unlike when you were with the abusive partner, once out, you are in control of what you do and what you say—no one else.
However, this advice is not once-size-fits-all. As another survivor wrote in the Facebook group, “I told men my baggage pretty quickly because if they ran the other way, then forget them. You want someone who can deal with the fact that you may be emotionally broken.”
Now, I personally don’t believe people are “broken” because that word denotes something is wrong with them. If anything, survivors are far stronger and more resilient than before their trauma. They have walked through fire and come out the other side. If someone “runs the other way,” it is not a reflection of the survivor, but rather the new person.
Just like talking about trauma can be triggering, hearing about it can be as well. That’s why many people use the phrase “holding space” for someone who is disclosing their past—trauma takes up some space in a relationship, and not everyone is equipped to make the space that’s necessary.
Still, this survivor’s litmus test for new partners might have worked for her. She wanted to know right off the bat whether or not this was a deal-breaker. But I wonder, was that fair to the new partner—to expect them to be the ideal support person from the first meeting before they even had a chance to get to know her and what kind of support she needed? Respect should be reciprocal in a healthy relationship, which means letting the other person share their honest feelings as well as listen to yours.
You’re wondering if you even need to tell your new partner at all. It can be intimidating, for sure, but there are also other factors at play. Some survivors could live in a small town where everyone knows everyone, or their previous partner and new partner might be acquaintances. This might put their safety at risk, and these are all things to think about before sharing. While honesty is always a good foundation to build a healthy relationship on, your safety is first and foremost the top priority.
Just remember that disclosing past trauma, even with limited details, can help your new partner understand you better. It reminds me of Jimmy Spooner’s essay on DomesticShelters.org when he wrote about marrying a survivor of domestic violence and how things weren’t the easiest at first. She lashed out early on, the anger from her previous trauma pouring over into their healthy relationship.
“She would be aggravated by something I had done, and instead of just being able to talk to me about it like we do now, she would just lose it with me,” he wrote. “It wasn’t that she was that mad at me, but she had to release the anger she had held inside for years.”
But Spooner said knowing what she had been through helped him understand it wasn’t his fault.
“More than anything, she needed to know that it was ok to express herself without fear of retribution from me.”
What if you’ve already told your partner about your past and now, you’re not so sure it was a good idea? What if your partner didn’t support you after you disclosed, or worse, what if they begin using your past against you? Phrases like, “You’re just being paranoid because of your past,” when you’re feeling insecure are signs that this new partner isn’t respecting your disclosure.
What if you’ve even started to see similarities in this partner with the abuser in your past?
This can be a devastating realization, but don’t blame yourself. You are not the reason someone else is a crappy person (we could also call them an “unsafe person”). But now you have a choice—stick it out and see if this person will change (did that work out for you with the abuser?) or leave before you get in too deep. In hopes that you go with the latter, here are some tips for leaving an abuser when you live apart. You can also always reach out to a domestic violence hotline for feedback and support—find one near you on our Find Help page.
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If something feels off with the new partner, it’s also OK to take a step back. You might want to consider checking in with someone else—a trusted friend or family member, an advocate, a therapist, a support group—and get their opinion on the new partner. An outsider may see something you’re blocking out because abusive tactics were once a “normal” part of your life.
Good luck, and don’t give up. There are good people out there, we promise.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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