Doctor’s Note: Today’s column includes discussion of familial sexual abuse.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: 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.
DEAR UNTOLD STORIES: 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 re-traumatizing 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.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org