In a culture where “vulnerability” can sometimes feel like relational currency, it’s easy to fall into a trap of sharing trauma stories before a new relationship has the roots to support it. Especially when we’ve had trauma in past relationships, it can be tempting to “test” new relationships in order 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 relationship instead of testing. Communicate with your partner before taking them farther, emotionally, than they feel ready to go with you, and see how it feels to mutually disclose small traumas before engaging the big stuff.
Trauma Story Telling and Consent
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, but 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 you share a trauma story. 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 groundwork both for an even stronger relationship going forward.
Feedback on the image above contributed to this image. One theme in the feedback centered around how to feel like we are present and honest to the other person when our trauma story is not out in front. Here’s one way to engage that: layers of disclosure 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. There’s no timeline here, because every relationship is different, but slow disclosure that leaves space for the grey area between total vulnerability and total secrecy is the space where trust (and thus, intimacy) grow.
If your trauma is unprocessed, it’s typical to the natural-of-trauma that you might have difficulty thinking clearly about how to word your story in a way that lets you can tell portions or depths that are appropriate for certain contexts. One of the primary goals of trauma therapy is integrating trauma into our life narrative so this practice of understanding and disclosing becomes much easier. It may help to journal on the topic, and practice ways of phrasing that are brief but still feel kind (to yourself and the listener) and accurate.
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
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 the trust in the relationship to grow big enough to hold more of our stories.
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Sometimes when we are building new relationships as trauma survivors it can be tempting to test out how our partner might hold our story before there’s a relational framework to hold it. This graphic illustrates what can be a common experience for some, but not all, trauma survivors in relationship: The image depicts two intersecting cycles, both illustrating potential consequences/benefits of telling a trauma story. 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 like more likely to be able to receive care, which 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, and that distance can lead to dissolving a relationship, potentially creating more painful stories to take into future relationships.
Disclosing trauma. 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 you ever tell 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 that has a few more details. This image has four levels, but in reality, in long-term relationships, there are many, many levels of disclosure.