Newly-budding romantic relationships are generally a time of excitement, lust, and low stress as you and your partner get to know one another in various ways. If that relationship continues to grow and becomes more serious, this may brew some anxious thoughts regarding when to share more vulnerable details about yourself. For 60% of adult men and 50% of adult women in the U.S., these details may be related to at least one trauma. If you are a woman, you are more likely to experience domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse. And if you are a woman of color, you are at an even higher risk of experiencing sexual trauma before the age of 18. Trauma is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in this country, and with it tends to come stigmatizing feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. I wish that I could lay out a very specific and well-researched formula that advises one on the right time to share their past traumas with a partner. However, doing that would be irresponsible of me as a clinician, as trauma is individualized and the reasons behind wanting or not wanting to share those details are endless. What I can provide is a guide that includes a few main (and highly important) points on whether or not sharing with your partner is right for you at this point in the relationship:
- What are your reasons behind wanting to disclose?
This could arguably be the most crucial and necessary part of the process. Take the time to think honestly and introspectively about the motive behind your idea to share these intimate details with your partner. A lot of times, we as people think that sharing our trauma with our partner is exposing the ‘bad’ or ‘broken’ parts of ourselves. It is as if we are saying, “Here are the ugliest and most shameful parts of myself. Do you still want to be with me after hearing that?” Implicity, this turns something that should be a moment for meaning-making into a moment of echoing the thought of trauma as baggage. The theory of meaning-making is popular in current psychology and offers sound research behind the usefulness of reconstructing meaning after a traumatic event. In other words, after a trauma that influences both our internal and external worlds, asking ourselves ‘why’ and restoring our thought and wider global valuations heal our mental. If disclosing your past traumas to your partner is not to ultimately contribute to your inner healing and restored balance, then why share at all?
- Do you trust your partner?
What does trusting a partner really mean? That feeling can be difficult for many to achieve, especially if romantic relationships have been a punishing experience in the past. Despite the difficulties, trust is essential to a happy and healthy romantic relationship. Trust ensures that there is a positive rapport, connection, and equity in the relationship. According to the research, experiences in important relationships throughout the lifespan contribute to shaping a person’s expectations about future relationships. Additionally, the level of trustworthiness in a specific partner’s behaviors collaborate to establish the overall trust in that romantic relationship. To ensure that you and your partner have built enough trust in one another, make sure that you both are prioritizing the well-being of the relationship through disclosing feelings, using positive body language, and behaviors. Continuing to invest in self-care and self-evaluation is essential as well in order to maintain the trust in the relationship. This means that you are sincerely evaluating any attachment issues within yourself and improving feelings of self-worth, which trauma can directly attack.
- Do you know your trauma responses (especially in your body)? And do you have a way to manage them?
Within the field of mental health, there is a common metaphor that describes the emotional overwhelm (better known as “triggers”) that accompanies trauma as it is being discussed, felt emotionally/mentally, or if something environmentally reminds the survivor of the traumatic event. Sometimes, nothing has to necessarily “trigger” the survivor, as it is common for survivors of trauma to struggle with soothing difficult emotions in everyday life. That emotional overwhelm can be thought of as a shaken bottle of soda – an extreme amount of pressure resides inside that bottle. The safest way to open that bottle is slowly and intentionally. Otherwise the soda will explode out, and the explosion can be thought of as intense emotional overwhelm. This overwhelm is equivalent to the survivor feeling like they are reliving the traumatic experience, and this is very harmful in both the short and long-term. In his book The Body Keeps the Score (2014), Dr. Bessel van der Kolk suggests that identifying “islands of safety” within the body as a form of grounding can be helpful when a survivor maybe feels stuck or scared. Commonly, survivors may feel bodily responses such as pressured breathing, tightened chest and throat, headaches, and an accelerated heart rate. If a survivor’s hands are not being affected (like they are not clammy or clamped tight), this person may focus on their hands by moving their fingers and noticing the lightness. This helps a person to physically separate themselves from their trauma. Whether or not a trauma has been well-processed, the truth is that emotional overwhelm can still happen when talking about the experience. That is why it is best to know your own trauma responses, particularly in your body, and have sound ways to manage them in the moment before they become overwhelming.
- Are you prepared for the fact that your partner may not have the “correct” or best response to your disclosure? How would you manage your partner not responding “correctly”?
While a shocking number of people experience some form of trauma in their lives, an also shocking amount are not trauma-informed. Trauma-informed, even when not talking clinically, means treating someone as a whole. This means taking into account past trauma and the subsequent coping mechanisms when trying to understand behaviors and offer support. Trauma is terribly hard to hold, and even harder when it is someone’s trauma whom you care deeply about and are intimate with. The details, or even the mere thought of what happened, can make loved ones feel uncomfortable and powerless over what has passed. They may even feel powerless over your current emotions and struggle surrounding the event. If your partner is one of those people who may have trouble listening, managing their own emotional reactions, does not know what to say or even responds with something not very helpful, how will you react? How will you manage what comes up for you? Patience is going to be key, and try to remember that everyone has coping strategies that they have learned in order to protect themselves from painful emotions and realities, even your partner. If you are comfortable and able to do so, it may be useful to gently teach your partner about the ways that they can best support you. Have healthy ways handy to grapple with what the response may bring up for you, whether that be outlets like writing, meditating, exercising, or talking to someone else that you trust.
- Ultimately, are you doing this for you?
Always refer to what I said at the beginning: trauma should be shared for the purpose of meaning-making to induce healing and restore inner balance. I cannot stress enough that telling as little or as much as you want/are able to is completely your choice and must be about your health. Trauma is personal, trauma is individual, and trauma needs to be treated as the opposite of its birth – as all about your well-being. Never forget the power and the control that you hold within your bodies, even if your reclamation of that starts with your story.