The decision to tell a partner about a history of sexual trauma is a deeply personal choice. It can bring up mixed emotions that are hard to sort through.
If you feel ready to have this conversation with your partner, I’m offering some advice to help you feel even more prepared.
I’m writing from the perspective of someone who works in mental health with experience of having this exact conversation.
When it comes to this discussion there is no one-size-fits-all approach. I hope by sharing some of the things I learned along the way, you feel more empowered to share your own story.
First, ask yourself a few questions
It can help to ask yourself a few questions before sharing your experience with a partner:
- Do I trust this person to be with me when I’m in a vulnerable state?
- Do I feel respected and loved by this person?
- Is not disclosing this causing stress and tension in this relationship?
The answers to these questions can guide you in your decision to share or not share your story at this time. You deserve to feel safe and respected when sharing a vulnerable experience.
Give yourself enough time
It’s worth planning to have the conversation when both you and your partner have plenty of time. It can be distressing when you share something difficult and the conversation is interrupted. Or, when you feel you must anxiously watch the clock.
Set boundaries before the conversation
It’s up to you how much or how little to share. In the moment, it can be difficult to set these boundaries. It helps going into the conversation to have a sense of what you feel comfortable sharing and what you do not want to share.
You may find it helpful to write down your story and read it out. This helps you get an idea of what you feel comfortable sharing. It also makes it less likely you will feel ‘stuck’ during the conversation.
Think about what you need
Ask yourself what you need from your partner in sharing your story and let them know this. This can help you to feel supported and assists your partner who may not know how to respond in this situation.
Remember, this might be new territory for your partner. Giving them a sense of how they can support you could be welcome information. Even if it is as simple as “I just need to be held right now.”
Recognise everyone responds their own way
Everyone responds differently to difficult news and a range of emotions may come up. Your partner might respond with shock, sadness, confusion or anger. It can be difficult not to take these responses personally.
If anger comes up it is often towards what happened or the perpetrator, not towards you. However, while a range of emotions can be expected, abuse and aggression are never okay. Do not hesitate to remove yourself from a situation where you feel threatened or unsafe.
Know that sharing your story may be triggering
Even if you have not experienced a trigger in some time, sharing this information can cause unexpected memories and emotions to arise. Check in with yourself regularly and look out for signs that you may be getting distressed.
Plan for the possibility that the discussion is too triggering. It is completely okay to say at any time, "I find this really hard to talk about and could use a break".
Plan to do something soothing immediately after the discussion. This could be spending some time outside, speaking with a friend, or engaging in one of your favourite self-care strategies.
Consider seeking support - for each of you
Speaking with a counsellor can help you understand and manage your experience and the same can be true for your partner. It can be reassuring to know your partner has someone outside the situation that they can get support from.
Phew! That was a lot of information. Let's break it down into a few key points:
Take away points
- Ask yourself whether you feel safe in sharing this information.
- Choose a time you know will not be interrupted.
- Prepare what you are going to say in advance and set boundaries around what you feel comfortable sharing.
- During the conversation, let your emotions guide you as to when you might need a break.
- Spend some time afterwards engaging in a soothing activity and seek support if you need to.
Last of all, treat yourself with kindness – even if your conversation doesn’t go as expected. At the end of the day, you have done a brave thing. From one survivor to another – I am (virtually) standing with you.
If you need support
If you have been impacted by sexual assault or abuse the following services are there to help:
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service
1800 737 732 (24/7)
Blue Knot Foundation
National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma
1300 657 380, Monday to Sunday 9am-5pm (AEST)