How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Past
Updated: May 19, 2020
I have no problem openly talking about my past. I can open up to friends, acquaintances and even large groups of strangers about my story. But when it comes to talking with a potential partner for the first time about the abuse I experienced, an emotional wall starts to go up. Why? Because there is something so vulnerable and intimate about a romantic relationship. It’s that vulnerability and intimacy that makes the relationship so beautiful and special but it’s also what makes talking about my past that much more intimidating.
After years of navigating this conversation for myself, I have compiled a few tips on how to feel heard, respected, supported and loved, and how to give your partner the opportunity to hold space for your story.
Talk about it when you want to
During my first relationship, it was very important for me to talk to him about the abuse I experienced before we had sex. He was the first man I was going to have sex with and I needed to feel connected with him and know that he could respectfully and lovingly hold that part of my past. My second relationship, I told him immediately about the abuse I experienced because I was stuck in a cycle of recreating my past by playing out a victim-role and seeking a sympathy reaction. My next interaction with a guy, I just wanted to have sex and not have any part of my past have anything to do with it. So I never told him.
Then I met someone I could really see a future with. I knew that I wanted to connect with him in a way that we both felt safe sharing our pasts. But I had also done a lot of my own work and healing so I was no longer playing a victim role or looking for someone to heal those wounds for me. I took my time getting to know him. I took my time feeling out the relationship. I took my time revealing parts of myself and talking with him about my past. My point is, there is no right or wrong time to have the conversation, simply do it when you feel comfortable, respected and safe.
For many years, I only thought about what I wanted to say to my partner. I had the script written, I probably planned when and where I wanted to have the conversation, but all of that preparation was for him. It was to make sure he felt comfortable. None of that prep-work focused on my needs.
Take time to meditate, before your conversation with your partner, about the most important aspects of this conversation: What do you want from this conversation? How do you want to feel? What do you need from your partner during this conversation?
Be clear about what you need
I am going to be entirely honest - none of my partners have ever met my expectations for this conversation. That was partly on them but it was also largely on me. I set incredibly high expectations for this conversation and I based my desire to continue with the relationship almost entirely on how they responded. I wanted him to say all the right things, I wanted him to make me feel a certain way (something no one can ever actually do), I wanted him to have the absolute perfect reaction. When he didn’t do all of those things, I resented him. One day I thought, “Why isn’t he reacting the way I want him to? I want him to…” Then I stopped. I realized that I had never actually decided what exactly I needed from my partner at that moment. I had set impossible expectations for my partner because I didn’t even know, for myself, what I needed from him.
Maybe you need your partner to hold you close and pet your head. Maybe you need your partner to get angry for you. Maybe you need your partner to simply listen. Maybe you need your partner to express empathy and understanding. Whatever it is that you need from your partner is perfect. You simply need to know what it is. So get clear about it.
Once you know what you need, communicate it clearly and directly. It can be as simple as, “(insert name), I want to talk to you about something that is important to me. But it’s a very vulnerable topic for me. So in order to feel cared for and heard I really would love for you to hold me while I talk, or reflect back to me the emotions you hear me state, or not say anything until I’ve finished what I have to say, etc.” This is you loving yourself by setting boundaries and making your needs known. This conversation also allows your partner the opportunity to respond to your needs and to connect with you during a very vulnerable moment in your relationship.
That said, not everyone will be able to meet your needs. Which brings me to my next point -
Know that not everyone will say the right things
Although it’s a vulnerable moment for me, articulating the fact that I experienced abuse is not difficult for me. I have done it hundreds of times in my life. My entire career is built around being open about abuse so the topic of sexual assault is not shocking to me. But it is shocking for a lot of people. I didn’t understand that for a long time and I was often hurt by the speechlessness of my partners - something I interpreted as a lack of empathy.
Now, I am not making excuses for anyone. There were a few partners who genuinely did have bad reactions (something I will talk about next). But there are some people who are simply not going to know what to say at that moment. Or, empathizing and articulating deep emotions is not a skill they possess. At that time, you can choose to help them by telling them something they could say that would be helpful to you, or you could give them some time to process what you told them and talk about it later, or you can accept that they may not be capable of providing support in the way that you want them to and ask them to support you in a way they feel most comfortable. Whatever you decide, make sure that it is what helps you both feel respected and heard.
Know that some people will react poorly
The only thing that you need to know about these people is that it has nothing to do with you. I repeat: anyone’s poor reaction to your story has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own shit. I told a partner that I had experienced sexual abuse and he said, “That makes sense.” I know a friend who shared her story of childhood sexual abuse and the man responded, “So, does this mean you’re into weird, kinky sex?” Those people have their own healing to do. Please do not take on the feelings they put towards you or your story. Instead, recognize that they are incapable of reacting in a loving manner and let them go. You have done the most courageous and beautiful thing a human can do - you allowed yourself to be vulnerable and offered someone the opportunity to connect with you. Be proud of yourself ! And please do not allow this person’s reaction to keep you from connecting with other’s in the future.
Focus on how you feel
There are going to be a lot of feelings swirling around, from both you and your partner, during this conversation: vulnerability, connection, fear, love, relief, etc. Try to take a few moments to sort through all those emotions and focus on how you feel about this conversation. Do you feel satisfied? Is there more you want to say? Do you feel disappointed? Do you feel hurt? You don’t have to find solutions to your emotions at that moment, simply take note of your true feelings.
If you feel supported, let your partner know
This is also a vulnerable conversation for your partner. If you are at the stage in your relationship where you feel close enough to have this conversation, your partner probably cares for your deeply and wants to respond in a way that makes you feel cared for. If you do feel supported and loved, let them know. Thank them for their support and let them know that you will be there for them during any difficult conversations as well.
Woo! You did it! Take a deep breath in and out and celebrate yourself. You may feel vulnerable but it is an incredibly powerful thing to allow someone to hold space for your past.
If you have any advice to share, I'd love to hear it! Share in the comments section below or inspire our tribe by visiting Katie Maloney Coaching on Facebook.