Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
I have been with an amazing guy and two stepkids for four years. I love him dearly, and he is so good to me. He is very supportive and respectful. He often gives me “sandwiches of love,” gestures and small gifts (inexpensive, but very personal that show he listens to me). He is fun, cheeky, and adventurous. Boundaries and consent are very important to him and he makes an effort to teach them to his kids. He is everything I ever wanted in a man.
He was with his ex/baby-mama for seven years, and according to him, she left him out of nowhere. She is nice and I get along with her just fine. At one point early in the relationship, he mentioned that she had some kind of issue, and that she would sometimes go into the bathroom and sob hysterically and rip pieces of paper into lots of tiny pieces, then come out acting like everything was fine. I asked if he ever talked to her about what was wrong, and he told me that he didn’t because those kinds of things make him uncomfortable.
At another point, he mentioned that his ex’s father was an alcoholic. At another point, he mentioned that his ex’s sister is institutionalized. At another point, he mentioned that his ex’s other sister accused her father of physical abuse, but “she must be lying” because her father is such a nice guy that he can’t imagine him abusing anyone.
So early in the relationship, I concluded that I shouldn’t tell him about my past trauma because he won’t want to hear it and he might even think I’m lying. That’s fine, I thought. It’s my problem, not his. I had PTSD, which is officially considered “cured” since I have panic attacks less than once a month now, but it can still flare up at times, like if I have a lot of stress at work. I have told him that I have PTSD, and he is very caring about it, but expresses no interest in knowing what caused it.
I’m trying to be cool about this, but it’s eating away at me. I feel so rejected that he doesn’t want to know about this major thing and how it has affected me. I don’t want to confront him about it because then I would just be pressuring him into acting like he wants to hear it. Besides, it’s my issue, not his!
Please help me screw my head back on straight.
Hung Up On A Silly Detail
Dear Hung Up On A Silly Detail:
When you’re in a relationship you always want to keep your partner thinking that you’re nothing but pure amazing for as long as possible. When I moved in with a boyfriend I was so nervous about impressing him that I stopped pooping for a few weeks and ended up in the ER with intense abdominal pain. I hadn’t actively decided to stop pooping, but I was so uncomfortable in my new surroundings and so eager to impress him and get him to marry me that my body just turned off the pooping function until it had to be medically switched back on.
We all live in fear of our partners realizing that we aren’t as great as we first appear, but the truth is this realization can’t be avoided. I mean, it can be if you break up first, but it doesn’t sound like you want to do that. It sounds like this is a kind, caring man who you love very much who also has a huge blind spot regarding trauma and you want me to give you a way to justify not telling him about your traumatic past. But I don’t have one.
You sign your letter “hung up on a silly detail,” and you don’t go into specifics about what caused your PTSD, but I know for sure that if PTSD was the result then what occurred was not “a silly detail.” What occurred forever changed your life and it’s something that you have been grappling with ever since. Now, this trauma is by no means the whole of you, but it’s still there, always with you, like a tattoo. You can cover it up with long sleeves or makeup, you can go weeks without ever even looking at it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there, it exists, and one day you will glance down and see it, and remember.
You are doing a lot of work to get through this, but one panic attack a month is still a lot for you to bear. You mention that you’re trying to be cool about this, which I must admit gets my back up. You don’t have to recover from trauma and also be cool about anything. You don’t need to be the cool girl who is light and airy and fun and fine and never needs or wants anything. The cool girl isn’t real, she’s a figment, and trying to be her is doing you, the real girl, harm. You’re a real person and real people have real shit that the people who love them need to deal with.
Your partner sounds like a great guy who is uncomfortable with issues around trauma. Why does it make him uncomfortable? It may be because of something in his past that you don’t know—maybe someone once told him about a traumatic event and he responded in a way that he felt made it worse. Maybe he’s been a victim of trauma and pushing all of it away is the only way he knows how to cope. Maybe he just thinks that traumatic events only happen to “other people” and that by denying the existence of traumatic events he can protect those he loves from suffering. You won’t know his reasons until you have the conversation, and you really need to have the conversation.
Not having the conversation isn’t protecting him—it’s keeping him ignorant while making your life more difficult. It’s like you’re carrying around a giant backpack full of heavy books and you have them all the time. You go to work, go to the grocery store, go for a walk, all while this backpack tugs on your shoulders, pulls down against you, and it takes so much effort to move through your day. And he’s right there with you, next to you, but he can’t see the backpack so he doesn’t know it’s there and you try to pretend it’s not there and meanwhile it’s slowly crushing your spinal cord.
Relationships aren’t just the good parts of you—they’re every part of you. The great and the gross and the wonderful and the scary. By not sharing this part of yourself with this man you’re limiting how much of you he can truly know. You’re also walking through the world with this load that he could, and should, help you carry.
You don’t need to protect him from your truth. Grown adults don’t need to be protected from the truth. This is how support works—you’re in the blast zone, and you tell him. This upsets him, but then he can turn around and seek help as well and, in doing so, better help you. He can talk to a counselor, or just Google “supporting a partner with PTSD” and find amazing resources like this and this and this.
You’re taking the example of him dismissing his ex-girlfriend’s trauma as a template, but his ex-girlfriend isn’t you. Your relationship with him isn’t the same as his relationship with her. I agree with you that he’s wrong to dismiss the possibility that she was abused, if for no other reason than 1) she was experiencing repercussions of trauma, 2) So many people are abused. How many? So. Many.
It may be that he would rather not know about your trauma, that he’s fine with the way things are, that he’s comfortable with you suffering silently beside him. And, if that’s true, then you need to know for sure so you can either opt to stay with someone who refuses to understand the most painful part of your life, or you can decide to go, on your own terms, and find someone who can.
Tell him. He may not like it, you may not like his reaction, but not telling him is hurting you and you’ve already hurt enough. Tell him what happened, and tell him he doesn’t have to fix it, which is great news because he can’t fix it. Tell him. Tell him the facts, tell him why you didn’t tell him for so long, and tell him what you need from him. Tell him he has to accept this basic fact about your existence, that bad things happened and they affected you and they will continue to affect you. Let him know you, all of you, not just the fun stuff, but the muck and the mess and heartache that is the stuff that makes up the very deep center of love. Tell him and lighten your load.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.