Could He Handle My Secret Past?

It was time to tell him what I’d been through, but I worried I’d scare him away. Here’s how I trusted my new guy with my banged-up heart.

By Stella Scott

didn’t want to tell him. Ever. But it came up. One night in bed, he slipped a hand over my shoulder and felt where the bones had healed unevenly. I froze, then shifted positions, and tried to distract him with my feminine wiles. But I wasn’t as wily as I’d thought. A few days later he came home as I was washing dishes in the sink. He kissed the back of my neck and massaged my shoulders—both of them.

“Did you break this?” he asked, as his hand rested on the ugly shard that was part
My ex had returned to some old bad habits—drinking, drugs…
of me.

The sink dissolved into iridescent flashes as my stomach dipped into my intestines. I took a deep breath, still looking forward. “It was broken, but I didn’t break it,” I told him. “Someone else broke my shoulder.”

To hell and back
Nearly a year before, I had been at the bitter end of an eight-year abusive relationship. The first few years had been fine, but as my ex had gone through a personal crisis, he had returned to some former bad habits — drinking, drugs — and developed some new ones, like beating the holy hell out of me. I’d tried to stick it out by going to Al-Anon, couples counseling, and partners-of-depressed-spouses websites. But when his rage sent me to the emergency room, I’d packed my bags and headed across the country, too afraid to press charges, too hurried to take any of my belongings.

Since resettling, I’d hooked up with a great therapist and gotten oodles of support from an online bulletin board populated by survivors like me. But when I started dating R, I wondered what to do. Should I tell him what I’d been through? The advice from the board was mixed. Some said never to tell—they’d had the information used against them, or it “scared him off.” But others had moved on to healthy, happy relationships. I wanted to be in the latter group.

“You should tell, as a general rule, as soon as you start developing feelings for that person,” says Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of You Don’t Have to Take It Anymore: How to Turn a Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One (Free Press, ’05). “It’s an important thing about you that anyone deeply involved with you needs to know.”

Filling him in, says Stosny, was my chance to gather more information about him before I got in too deep. If the revelation scared him off, good riddance. If it evoked an angry, vengeful, knight-in-shining-armor response, that would be a red flag, too.
If my past scared my new guy off, good riddance.
“Anyone who responds with anger and aggression will eventually turn that anger and aggression on you,” says Stosny. I needed to look for a compassionate response, the sign of a partner more concerned with my recovery than anything else.

This was echoed in advice from two women I knew who had moved on to healthy relationships after long battles with abusive husbands. One of them, code-named Tallulah, said she even depended on her now-boyfriend as a sounding board. “He was with me through the divorce,” she told me recently. “I knew he was non-judgmental and fair-minded.”

But it wasn’t all up to Tallulah’s boyfriend. “I had to put a stop to my codependent behavior,” she says. That, says Stosny, is key. As long as women like Tallulah and me respect ourselves, we’ll be attracted to people who respect us, too. If not, well, that same broken part of us may seek out a matching broken bit in someone else.

“After you’ve been hurt, you put up subtle barriers for self-protection. Non-abusive people will recognize and support those barriers by backing off,” notes Stosny. “But a person likely to mistreat you will either not recognize those barriers or completely disregard them.” He’ll come after you, possibly in a seemingly-awfully-romantic way. When Stosny said that, my brain lit up like a Christmas tree: My ex had powered through my boundaries in a romantic fury, unable to live without me—very “you complete me,” from Jerry Maguire, mixed with “STELLA!” from Streetcar Named Desire. My new guy wasn’t like that. I felt swept away by feelings for him, sure, but not by a tidal wave of emotion or by his over-the-top antics.

Leap of faith
In the end, it came down to this: I didn’t want to be with someone who would think less of me because of what I’d been through. And I also didn’t want to accidentally get triggered, freak out at my new boyfriend, and hurt his feelings. He had to know that I was still recovering, and, while I didn’t need him to fix things, I might need him to understand.

And we were at that point in the relationship. Not too early, but not yet committed. I felt like we had to get past this hurdle or we wouldn’t go any further.

I explained it quietly, without looking at him, and finished by saying that it wasn’t his job to rescue me from this or make up for the bad things I’d been through. As I told him, I also silently told myself these things. And in the end, he passed my “test” — not just in the moment, when he said “I thought it was something bad, I’m so glad you got out safely,” and held me quietly without pressuring me for more information — but also down the road, when he handled a little post-traumatic freakout of mine with a long hug and some much-needed space. My revelation didn’t become the central theme of our relationship either. It was just one more piece of the me-puzzle. And his reaction was a huge, necessary him-piece for me. With the air cleared, we could step a few paces forward and see how the next level looked for us.

Thanks to some time alone, a good therapist, and some serious self-examination, I’d picked a good egg. And that was no small victory. My crooked little shoulder might not be ready for a tank top, but it sits a little taller, and might even be ready to feel the reassuring pressure of a friendly hand.

Stella Scott is a pseudonym for obvious reasons. The woman behind the name writes for Happen and other magazines, online and off, and hums the Chumbawumba song “Tubthumpers” when she’s feeling low.
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