Andrew Lawes has some advice on supporting your partner as they open up about a difficult past.
There are few things harder than knowing that someone you love has been damaged by their past. Discovering they have suffered traumas or abuses, or performed acts that they regret, inspires the protective side in us, the need to find a solution for the person we love. You can’t change what has happened, but you hope you can support them to come to terms with it and move on emotionally.
The difficulty is that such emotions are so hard to talk about for the individual, and the wrong approach can lead to people shutting down and blocking out their feelings instead. I hope this advice can help you support your loved one to accept their history and look to the future.
#1 – Be honest with your partner … and yourself.
In many cases, this conversation is held with a new romantic partner. If that’s the case for you, then part of you will want to know about their history, not just to support them, but to know if their past is something you can cope with. If what the person may tell you is likely to lead to the end of the relationship, under no circumstances should you tell them that you’ll be there “however bad the truth is”. Building up a level of trust, only to find you can’t cope with the truth, is unfair on the person opening up and could damage them further. Be honest with yourself about your motives beforehand, and do not promise anything you cannot honor.
Instead of saying “I’ll be there, no matter what”, tell them what your boundaries are. If you couldn’t cope with a porn-star past, for example, then admit that to your partner before they open up. They’ve been through enough – the last thing they need is condemnation.
#2 – Avoid adding pressure.
However pure your intentions are, if you pressure someone to open up it will have long-lasting damage on the relationship. Abuse and trauma are intensely personal things. Quite often, people will have either confided in someone before, someone who didn’t give the response the person needed, or they will never have spoken a word of it. The memories of these abuses, while just a part of the person you love, have shaped their very being. They are the most intimate, personal experiences of their life, and that far outweighs your desire to know what the details.
What you need to do, instead of trying to find the right combination of words that unlocks the secrets within the person, focus on making the person feel comfortable enough to talk about it in their own time. Explain that you are there for the person if they wish to talk. Say that you would like to know what they have been through so that you can know them more completely and help them to overcome the issues, but that there is no rush for them to open up. Reassure them that if they confide in you, you will listen without judgement, and that no matter what horror stories you hear, they will not change how you feel towards the person.
#3 – Remember the goal.
The aim isn’t to get the person to open up. The aim is to make the person feel safe enough with you that they open up themselves. Even if it takes days, weeks or months, that’s ok. This is a person you are hoping to build a future with, so there is no rush.
So many people get hung up on the idea of “The Big Talk”, that life-changing conversation where everything is revealed and everything is different afterwards. Let’s get one thing clear: “The Big Talk” is a construct of television and film, designed to maximize dramatic and emotional effect whilst fitting in with a schedule. Life has no end credits. There is no season finale. After you have “The Big Talk”, there is no theme song to wrap things up for the week. The day will go on, the week will go on and life will go on.
“The Big Talk” doesn’t happen in reality. You may think you are going to have it, but you won’t. If somebody is so guarded, so vulnerable, they aren’t going to tell you everything at once, not if there is a risk of losing you. They will only mention what they think they can safely say without being rejected by you. This is why patience is the key – it won’t be a big conversation, but little bits and pieces revealed over time, at a pace the confider is comfortable with. These are very personal experiences being discussed, and nobody takes the risk of revealing their truest selves unless they feel safe enough that they won’t be rejected.
Being open isn’t about knowing every aspect of your partners’ history. It’s about developing a deeper bond between you both. That is something that takes time and cannot be forced.
#4 – Be prepared for emotional transference.
Whilst confiding these traumatic memories in you, reliving the horror will evoke the emotions they felt at the time, and the person may subconsciously project onto you. Be prepared for this. Don’t take it personally. Reassure and support the person. Don’t tell them you are different to everyone else – show them through your actions.
I have been guilty of transferring emotions from the past onto innocent people. When you are used to people acting a certain way, you tend to look for warning signs, and it is something that happens subconsciously. Sometimes, it was something as small as a throwaway phrase that reminded me of my past; the sense of smell is also known to provoke flashbacks. The way I acted was a reaction to the trigger, not to the person I was talking to, so I imagine it would be similar for other people too.
#5 – Listen … then support.
I’ve spoken about the importance of listening to people with depression, and I’ve explained how to listen effectively to someone struggling with emotional issues, and in this situation it is equally important. The only words you need to use are words of reassurance and comfort – opinions and advice should be available, but they should never be forced upon someone.
Six years ago, I became involved with someone who hurt me deeply. I was unable to speak about the true extent of the damage my inability to process those emotions had inflicted upon me until last December. The person I confided in didn’t say a word; at times, it seemed like there were 15-minute spells of silence. Whether it was intentional, or whether they just felt too awkward to say anything, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Their silence allowed me to speak at my own pace, to compose myself and to tell the story the way I needed to tell it.
To open up about something so personal was scary, and it drained me emotionally and physically. Afterwards, my confidante gave me a hug, told me that it was fine, she didn’t think I was a freak, and then we watched a movie. This gave me time to settle my emotions afterwards with no pressure. The approach of my partner was in stark contrast to that I had known in the past, but it was what I needed to feel able to open up. How each individual needs support is different, so ask your partner what they would like from you afterwards. If they are anything like me, they’ll just want to know you still care, and that is the best support you can give anyone.
One of the constant themes with emotional issues is the lack of control the victim had at the time. You need to give them control of this situation. You aren’t there to break down the barriers – you are there to support the person to overcome them in their own time. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, not if you intend to be there long-term. What they tell you, they may not have told anyone before, or if they had, they may have been rejected for it. It is the most personal thing they have, and it will take a long time to truly trust someone enough to share that with them. They will feel vulnerable, and it is your job to make them feel safe, secure, valued and special. Treat them with love, kindness, patience and respect. Listen without judgement or interruption.
As important as their past may seem to you, it is far more important to your partner. Never forget that.
Photo: Flickr/ Jeff Smallwood