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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Start To Talk About My Abusive Ex?

A woman wonders when it’s appropriate to disclose her abusive relationship. (Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash)
A woman wonders when it’s appropriate to disclose her abusive relationship. (Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

Last April I broke up with an abusive boyfriend that I had been dating for years. He moved here to work at a museum, a few months after I started a graduate program. He was not violent before we moved to Boston and I felt utterly helpless and alone when it began. Since I left him, I have made some amazing friends, started seeing a therapist, and am completing my Master’s degree next month. I have grown so much in the last year but I struggle with “telling” my story.

I want to be both open about what happened to gain agency, and to hide it to avoid pity. I have not dated since and am not currently interested in dating, but I do realize I will want to share this experience with someone in the future. I am not sure how to go about sharing it, even in new friendships.

I want to be both open about what happened to gain agency, and to hide it to avoid pity.

I also have a desire to reach out to his dad and step-mom, with whom I was very close with before we broke up. I asked my ex to leave the apartment we shared after we broke up when he slept with a woman from his work in our bed. I believe his family thinks I cold-heartedly broke up with him and then kicked him out.

Is it unacceptable to clarify for them what actually happened? I don’t want to shatter their image of their son but I also know they have helped him overcome and have supported him with issues in the past. I worry about what he will do to another woman and I am sad to think that his family still does not know what happened.

Signed,
To Tell Or Not to Tell

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Dear To Tell,

You were involved with an abusive boyfriend. You got out of the relationship. You got into therapy. You made new friends. You are about to complete your master’s degree. Please read these sentences over again, a few times if necessary. They represent the Big Picture here, the tremendous amount of hard work you have done in moving from a life of fear to one of fulfillment.

I’m not dismissing the questions you’re asking. I’m merely urging you to remain focused on everything you’re doing right, rather than worrying about what you might do wrong.

As for the question of when and how to start speaking about your experiences, your therapist would be the best resource. He or she knows far more about the nature of the abuse, and the relationship in which it took place, not to mention your own psychology. I do think that framing the act of disclosure as “gaining agency” versus “hiding” may be saddling you with a burden you don’t need.

The best reason to talk about a painful part of your past is simply so that someone you know and trust can come to know you better, not so that they can pity you, or affirm your resilience. I do believe that silence can be a breeding ground for shame. But I also think that your ability to discuss these experiences in a therapeutic setting is what matters most.

The best reason to talk about a painful part of your past is simply so that someone you know and trust can come to know you better, not so that they can pity you, or affirm your resilience.

If you do feel impelled to tell friends, you must accept that you can’t control their reactions — and that these reactions will have more to do with them than you. Some friends will be able to listen in the way you desire. Others may not. You can’t blame yourself. My best counsel is to consult your therapist and trust your instincts. It sounds to me as if you have pretty good judgment. As an example, you’ve clearly figured out that you aren’t ready to begin dating again.

As to the question of telling your ex’s dad and step-mom, I would be extremely wary of saying anything. It’s certainly disappointing to lose them because you left the relationship. And it’s true that telling them might lead to your ex getting some help.

But please recognize that such a disclosure — for whatever good it might effect — also invites your ex back into your life at a moment when you’re making vital and positive change. As for the question of who was to blame for the dissolution of the relationship, this strikes me as a relatively minor concern compared to getting away from a partner who was abusive. Ultimately, you’re responsible for taking care of yourself, not your ex, his next partner, or his parents.

Stay strong and aim for mercy,
Steve

Author's note: This is such a wrenching situation. I hope that readers who have been in an abusive relationship will weigh in here. What’s your advice? Send your thoughts along in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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