Doctors’ Note: Today’s column includes a discussion of familial sexual abuse.
I have a situation that I’m not quite sure how to handle. TL;DR: There’s a pretty heavy subject I am contemplating raising with my partner but I’m not sure how to go about it.
To explain, I (he/him) have been seeing my girlfriend since last fall. We’re both in our early 40s. Overall things have been great and we have been very good at communicating with each other. We’ve both been open about the fact that we think our relationship has long-term potential and we made the joint decision, fairly early on, to be exclusive.
About a month into things, she opened up about the fact that she was coping with some pretty significant past trauma issues. She wasn’t specific, and, to be honest, she still hasn’t really directly told me what this past trauma consists of. She’s mentioned a strained relationship with her parents, specifically her mother (I’ve met them both several times, and I get along with them really well); the way she tells it, the strain comes from them 1.) being extremely emotionally distant during her childhood (her words) and 2.) having to bail her out of some past mental health crises and losing patience with her (again, her words).
She also has an older brother (they’re a year apart in age) who lives several hours away (she and her parents live in the same town), and apparently they go through long periods of not speaking (when we started dating, she hadn’t spoken to him in almost 5 years and hadn’t seen him in 8). This is where my question/concern comes in. She’s made a lot of statements about her brother that make me wonder if this trauma is centered around him. For example, we were planning to join her parents on a trip to spend the holidays with him and his family, but at the last second she canceled the whole trip because she couldn’t find an acceptable place to stay in the area. This seemed kind of weird to me, because I’d found several possibilities, but she nixed them all for one reason or another. I could tell the trip was causing a ton of anxiety for her so I just let the whole thing drop and went with what she wanted without making a big deal out of it.
She’s also told me on more than one occasion that she has always been afraid of her brother, that growing up he had a really bad temper, and once she even commented, “When we were kids my brother would lie in wait so he could attack me.” Which… just struck me as a really strange (i.e., concerning) way to talk about their childhood conflicts. Finally, she’s also told me she’s had a recurring nightmare for several years in which her brother is sexually assaulting her.
I suppose you can guess where I’m going with this. I strongly suspect her brother has sexually assaulted her but I’m not sure how to go about asking her about this.
I’m feeling this trauma tension within our sex life. Sometimes after particularly great sex, when I’ve really felt us connect during the act, she becomes really anxious and withdrawn afterwards. This feels so much worse than if the sex was just not good, you know? I have asked her if there is anything I might be doing that makes her feel uncomfortable, or triggered, but she has always denied that, saying she feels very comfortable with me, and that she ”love[s] our sex,” but that past experiences come up sometimes that have nothing to do with me. (She put it as, “I have some issues around sex that I am still processing”).
This has happened a few times, and I’ll be honest, it’s heartbreaking, to see her face go from pleasure to pain like that, and to know that I might be (unintentionally) the cause. I try to take her at her word, but … I still wonder if I actually am a trigger and that she doesn’t know how (or doesn’t want) to tell me.
Doc, I’m not sure how to talk to her about this because I don’t want to trigger a trauma reaction if it’s true (or even if it’s not). I should add that she does have a therapist, as do I. I guess I am just asking for your perspective on how to approach this topic with her. Is this a conversation that should maybe be had in couples counseling, rather than me try to do it on my own? And, though I’m afraid to ask, do you think this situation, if the things I suspect are true, might end up being one of those deal-breaking situations where the relationship has to end because there’s an insurmountable issue that is no one’s fault? (God, I hope not.)
Thanks for any thoughts you might have.
This is going to sound like a weird digression, but stick with me for a second.
I’m a fan of mysteries. TV shows, movies, novels; I love a good whodunnit, a good whydunnit and especially a howdunnit. And despite being almost dangerously genre savvy, I get the who or how wrong at least 50% of the time. The problem is… well, I’m a bit too genre savvy and I keep thinking “Nah, that can’t be where things are going, it’s gotta be more clever than that.” Except, more often than not, the author, director or showrunner isn’t creating the story for someone like me, who’s read and seen so many stories, they’re writing for a mass audience. I keep trying to be more clever than the source actually is calling for and as a result, I usually get wrapped around the axle of my pet crazy theory that ends up being completely wrong.
The reason I bring this up is because I think you’re doing the same thing; you’re taking what she’s saying and trying to make leaps based on your personal theories and not about what she’s actually told you. The problem is that because you’ve got these theories in your mind, they’re starting to affect your relationship… and to a certain extent, you’re starting to make it about you more than about her.
Let’s break down what we actually know, and then I’ll point out precisely where things are going wrong.
We know — because she told you — that your girlfriend has dealt with some pretty significant trauma. We know that she has a complicated relationship with her parents that makes it hard for her to trust them. We know that they weren’t necessarily the most affectionate or attentive, and that they treated her mental health as an inconvenience to them.
We also know that she has a strained, at best, relationship with her brother. We know her brother as aggressive towards her and possibly physically violent — not just in the way that siblings can be, but causing actual harm. We also know that she has recurring nightmares about her brother assaulting her sexually.
The part where things go wrong is where you leap from the known to speculation. And in fairness, some of what you bring up fits an all-to-familiar pattern. A survivor of familial sexual abuse, whose family either tried to ignore or deny that the abuse was happening and/or treats the victim’s trauma as an inconvenience is, unfortunately, distressingly common. But while it can feel like this is the right answer, you don’t know. You don’t know what her mental health crises were. You don’t know why she suddenly had an anxiety attack about the trip, you don’t know what her issues around sex are.
Could they be responses to sexual trauma? Sure, it’s plausible. But it’s also plausible that this could be anything from having been raped by a boyfriend, a miscarriage, or a profoundly sex-negative upbringing that left her feeling conflicted about sex and her own sexuality. Or it could even be as mundane as a relationship that went bad and she’s not entirely over it.
The problem is that you’re not just leaping to conclusions, but you’re starting to bend all the evidence towards the conclusion you’ve decided on. And, just as importantly, you’re also starting to make this more about you than about her. Because now it’s becoming about how you are triggering this and what your responsibility is in all of this and what do you need to do about it?
And here’s why that’s a problem: the way you’re going about this is effectively saying that you don’t trust your girlfriend. You aren’t trusting her girlfriend to know herself and her trauma, you apparently aren’t trusting her to tell you the truth about how she feels, and you apparently aren’t trusting her to not do something that hurts her. Because you’re more than half-convinced that she’s been molested by her brother — which, again, you don’t know — you’re actively looking for signs that things are wrong. So when she tells you that no, she thinks the sex is great, you’ve got it in the back of your mind that she’s lying to you. Because… reasons. And you’re taking on unnecessary guilt and responsibility because, well, you’ve built a narrative in your head. While it may be about her, it’s focusing on you and taking away her agency.
I mean, I’m sure you’re a great guy, don’t get me wrong, but I’m kind of doubting that you’re SO amazing that she’s going to be ok with retraumatizing herself over and over just to keep dating you. It’s very clear that she’s put a lot of effort into dealing with her trauma and her history. You have to trust that, as a grown-ass woman, she knows what she’s doing. Especially as a grown-ass woman who is aware of her trauma, is working with a therapist and has been putting in the work to heal herself.
And not to put too fine a point on it: if we assume that she was raped by her brother, you’re falling into the trope that survivors of sexual violence are effectively made of spun glass and that the slightest thing will destroy them again. That isn’t the case in general and — again, assuming that’s what happened — it certainly isn’t the case with your girlfriend. She’s clearly stronger than you’re giving her credit for.
Plus, while it’s admirable that you worry that you may be causing her unintentional harm, asking her “hey, did your brother molest you?” isn’t the way to go about it. Even if you’re 100% correct, it’s pretty clear that she’s not ready to tell you what happened. Pushing her to tell you before she’s ready is incredibly inconsiderate at best, and potentially harmful at worst. Especially if you’re wrong.
Here’s what you do:
First: DO NOT ASK HER IF SHE WAS ABUSED BY HER BROTHER. Do not hint at it, do not ask around it or ask about her trauma. If she feels the time is right for you to know — or if she even wants to discuss it with you at all — then she’ll decide when, where and how.
Second: Trust your girlfriend to know herself well enough to take care of herself. She doesn’t need you treating her like she’s damaged or broken or fragile. She needs you to act like her partner.
Third: Be patient. If you want her to trust you and open up to you about what happened, then you’re going to need to let her do this in her own time and at her own pace. Earn her trust by proving worthy of it… and by trusting her.
Fourth: If you want to help her, then be the help she needs. Tell her “hey, if there’s anything you need from me or there’s anything I can do or you need me to do differently, then all you have to do is ask.” And keep in mind that what she is more likely to need from you is for you to just listen, without judgment, without comment or without offering solutions or ideas. Sometimes the best way you can help someone is to simply listen and believe.
Your girlfriend’s history is hers. It’s her story to tell as she chooses, or chooses not to. Trying to force the issue, even in the name of concern for her and your relationship is only going to go badly for everybody.
I literally have one of the most trivial problems of all time, but it’s something that has been very difficult for me to forget/get over, which is obviously why I’m writing.
So, of course, I’m a big nerd, and one of my nerdy passions is TV and film. I admit that my tastes can edge toward the snobby side, but I’m not opposed to some ridiculous, crude, absurd stuff either. (Think Tim and Eric and the like.)
I’ve been dating this guy for about 2 months, and it’s become clear that we really don’t have the same tastes in this regard, which was fine- we can watch our stuff separately, no need to involve the other.
So here’s my super trivial problem: The other night we got together to watch a movie. He showed me a trailer, and it was awful. He seemed to think it was funny, so I was kind and gentle when he asked me about it, though I did voice that I didn’t think it looked very good and I didn’t want to watch it. He immediately proceeds to buy the movie and start playing it for us to watch together.
It was more terrible than the preview even made it out to be! And I’m not talking bad, like MST3K or campy/cult bad (which is good!), I’m talking bad like all you could really do was stare at the TV and feel complete pity for every single actor involved. Not even one single chuckle – just staring straight ahead, wondering how on earth this steaming pile of shit ever came to be in the first place, and how on earth anyone who signed on thought it would be a good idea.
So, a scene comes up that happens to feature one of my favorite British comedians. I ask if we can please stop it, because by this point I know I will never be able to un-see this and I will lose major respect for this person I really admire. He stops it, then asks me “Will this make you hate him forever?” and I answer truthfully, “Yes, probably…”. So he plays the rest of the movie anyway.
Here’s the worst of it- he starts kissing me after the movie, obviously thinking we’re going to have sex, but this movie was so bad that it was an absolute lady-boner killer, and I am dry as a desert and clenched up like a vice. I make some small excuse so as to not hurt his feelings, and we cuddle and go to sleep for the night.
Now the problem – he is insistent it is an amazing movie and won’t stop talking about it. He even went to the theatre to see it when it was originally released, so he’d seen it before! He said he bought it and played it because he thought I would like it. Now I feel like he just doesn’t understand my tastes in the slightest, that he doesn’t listen to me, and I am also questioning his judgment and our compatibility, because it turns out most of the movies and TV he enjoys are right along this level.
I know this sounds trivial and ridiculous, but one of my favorite things in life is having a partner who I can have real discussions with about the things we watch. This may be the lamest reason in the world to break up with someone, but I am starting to feel like it’s what I need to do. I have confided in some friends, and they all think it’s ridiculous, but I reminded them that they haven’t seen this movie or been forced to watch it, and honestly I think they’d make some hard life decisions too if they had. (Being somewhat facetious, but also not, here…)
So, what? Am I the biggest snob in the world, or can this awful taste in cinema be enough for me to call it quits?
Signed- Move on 43?
You can break up with someone for literally any reason. If you decide that something is a dealbreaker, then hey, that’s a dealbreaker. There is no High Council of Relationships that will decide that your reason for breaking up with someone is insufficient and thus you are forced to stay with him. Can’t stand his politics? Go for it. Don’t like his parents? Yeah, I can see how that’d be a problem. Dude’s nose whistles when he breathes and it drives you crazy? You do you.
This doesn’t mean that there won’t be people out there who may think you reason is bad or stupid or what-not. Hell, half of the appeal of Reddit’s “Am I The Asshole” forum is for strangers to sit in voyeuristic judgement of other people’s relationships. But the judgement of strangers — or even your friends — isn’t a meaningful metric to decide what you should and shouldn’t do with your relationship. Relationships aren’t a democracy, nor are they a forum for public participation. People can have their opinions and they can also keep their opinions to themselves.
Now to be fair: it’s certainly possible to be picky or finicky to the point that you’ve filtered your potential dating pool down to single digits. If you’re regularly breaking up with people for seemingly shallow reasons, or leaving relationships you otherwise enjoy because of some minor problem, then it can be a good idea to interrogate just why you’re being so picky and whether you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But by the same token: if that seemingly small or shallow thing has makes dating them intolerable, then you aren’t doing yourself or your partner any favors by trying to stick around to prove that you’re a “better” person.
Look at it this way: by breaking up with this dude, you’re setting him free so that he can find himself a girlfriend who loves the same cringe humor and lowbrow comedy he does. Really, when you think about it, you’re doing him a favor. He’s now free to enjoy the movies he loves without feeling the hate radiating off you like gamma rays and you’re able to find somebody who’s tastes and sense of humor are more compatible with yours.