In a culture where “vulnerability” can sometimes feel like relational currency, it’s easy to fall into a trap of telling someone about our trauma stories before a new relationship has the roots to make it a positive experience.
Especially when we’ve had trauma in past relationships, it can be tempting to “test” new relationships to justify leaving or to get the other person to prove they will stick around.
Healthy boundaries mean developing the courage and self-control to focus on the here-and-now of building relationships instead of testing. Communicate with your partner before taking them farther, emotionally, than they feel ready to go with you. See how it feels mutually disclosing smaller trauma before engaging the big stuff.
Disclosing Trauma: Tiered Approach
When I posted the image above, the feedback received helped form an important conversation. It also contributed to my process of creating this image below on how to tell people about the trauma you’ve experienced.
One common question about the image above was how to feel like we are present and honest to the other person when we haven’t yet told them our trauma story.
The answer? Something called tiered disclosure. Layers of talking about our trauma that give space for trust to develop without overwhelming teller or listener.
You can be honest about your life without unfurling the details of your past trauma and overwhelming your partner by moving too quickly into disclosing the trauma you have experienced. Instead of spilling the full story all at once, start small.
Using levels of disclosure, you can try out how it feels to tell your friend or partner about your trauma before you go into detail. This allows you to try out your internal reaction and gently experiment with how well your partner is able to engage.
Before telling a trauma story, you might start by simply saying that you have a story. If that goes well, at a later point in time – it might be five minutes later, or it might be a year later – you can share one or two sentences without any details. If that goes well and trust continues to grow, you can tell a story with a few more details. This image has four levels, but in reality, in long-term relationships, there are many, many levels of disclosure.
2 Exceptions to this Rule of Thumb for Telling People about Trauma:
If your trauma is unprocessed, you might have difficulty thinking clearly about it. Finding the words to tell someone about your trauma in a way that lets you share small pieces appropriate for certain contexts may also be tough. This is typical to the nature-of-trauma, and a natural result of how trauma impacts brains.
One of the primary goals of trauma therapy is integrating trauma stories into our life narrative. Through therapy to diffuse triggers and understand our stories, choosing how much and how deeply to disclose our trauma to someone becomes much easier. It may help to journal on the topic and practice ways of phrasing that are brief but still feel kind (to both yourself and the listener) and accurate.
When You Need What They Can’t Offer:
Even in really, really healthy and close relationships, not everyone will be able to hold the details of your trauma – and that’s ok. If you need a witness to the grit, therapy can be a safe place to access that kind of care. (And while we are talking about trauma stories and therapy: allow me to correct the misconception that you have to tell everything in the first session of therapy. It’s ok to give a top-level summary and take your time with the rest.)
Letting Trust Grow
There’s no timeline here. Every relationship is different. Slow disclosure that leaves space for the grey area between total vulnerability and total secrecy is the space where trust (and thus, intimacy) grow. It’s easy to see this issue as a binary (tell/don’t-tell, secrecy/vulnerability, etc.), but it’s not. Letting ourselves be seen at a pace that honors us, our story, and the listener actually makes space for trust to grow big enough to hold more and more of our stories.
Purchase a copy of this illustration series for personal, professional, or educational use:
Detailed Image Descriptions for Screen Readers
Image #1: Background of image is a pale green/blue color. Image is titled “How to not f*ck up a new relationship by sharing trauma too soon.” There is a flow chart depicting the different approaches to disclosing trauma stories. There is a white box to the side that says “Don’t begin here” that is pointing to a white box that reads “telling a trauma story.” The flow chart depicts that telling a trauma story too early can create distance, which can dissolve a relationship. Instead, the flowchart suggests starting with developing a relationship. After developing a relationship, tell the trauma story and receive care.
Image #2: Image is multicolored, with horizontal blocks of color: red on top, yellow next, then green, blue, and purple on the bottom. The image title sits in the red block and reads: “How to talk about trauma in your relationships.” The next block, which i s yellow, says “Start here” with a white box containing the words “Something bad happened to me.” The next block, which is green, says “A bit later…” with a white box containing the words “One sentence without details.” The next block, which is blue, says “As trust grows…” with a white box containing the words “30 second summary.” The last block, which is purple, says “Eventually….” with a white box containing the words “Tragic backstory.”
Image #3: Background of image is peach-colored with a scale in the center depicting where trust and intimacy grow. The left side of the scale is red and reads: “testing someone’s commitment by telling ALLLLLL your secrets.” The scale fades to grey, then turns blue on the far right side, which reads, “never opening up so they can’t hurt you.” Intimacy and trust grow in the middle.
Why Consent Matters When Telling People About Our Trauma
When it comes to disclosing trauma stories, the focus is usually on the teller/survivor. In a therapeutic context, that’s exactly where the focus should be. However, in a peer relationship (friend to friend, or romantic partner to romantic partner), you can protect your relationship from developing a – ultimately destructive – caregiver/receiver dynamic by checking in with your partner before disclosing trauma stories.
Explicit consent can be helpful. One way to do this is simply by prefacing a story with, “I’d like for you to know about a thing that happened to me. It’s pretty intense. I wonder if you have the space to hold that with me right now?” Checking in first shows kindness to yourself and the other person and lays the groundwork for an even stronger relationship going forward. Sometimes, our attachment style can play a significant role in when we feel ready to disclose our trauma.
This graphic illustrates what can be a common experience for some, but not all, trauma survivors in relationships. The image depicts two intersecting cycles, illustrating the potential consequences and benefits of disclosing trauma. In the first cycle, depicted in red, the first stage is building a relationship. Then, when a trauma story is told in that relationship, there is enough trust in the relationship that the storyteller is more likely to be able to receive care. This contributes to developing a stronger relationship, which can then hold more stories.
In the alternate cycle, shown in yellow, the cycle starts with a trauma story before a significant amount of trust is built in the relationship. Story before relationship often serves to create distance instead of care. That distance can lead to dissolving a relationship, potentially creating more painful stories to take into future relationships.