In a culture where “vulnerability” can sometimes feel like relational currency, it’s easy to fall into a trap of disclosing 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 mutually disclosing trauma that is smaller 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 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 groundwork both 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.
Disclosing Trauma: Tiered Approach
Feedback on the image above contributed to this image below. 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 nature-of-trauma that you might have difficulty thinking clearly about how to word your story in a way that lets you 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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