My fiance Cyrus just quit his investment analyst job to start his own consulting firm. He was very much in “new leaf – out with the old” mode so I was helping him clear his closets and donate clothes from college & graduate school to the Salvation Army. Something about the process of cleaning his closets and folding clothes dredged up painful memories for him. Cyrus talked about his father for the first time during the 3 years of our relationship. He vomited the narrative out in pieces, snatches of recollections of how cruel and controlling his father had been when his academic family had lived in Africa. His hands were shaking while he folded a closet full of preppy sweaters and he recounted being forced by Dad to fold “all the clothes exactly right.” He portrayed it as pure, hellfire torture. It sounded like such a mundane chore but the way he talked about it made it seem like his Dad had flayed all the skin off his body. At least psychologically. Perhaps there was corporal punishment. But it’s the sort of marrow-deep revelation you know not to interrupt with too many questions or comments. I knew then why I had not yet met Cyrus’s father.
Eric is a really successful private equity guy. He and his brother and his buddies throw an annual barbecue at their compound on the south side of Las Vegas. Great food, loads of friends, barrels of alcohol. I had known this circle of guys ever since I was a puppy. I grew up with them. Eric and I had a best guy friend Samson in common so dating Eric seemed beyond easy, beyond a good idea. I knew his parents had never married but his beauty queen Mom was really successful on Wall Street. I figured he and his brother had grown up as city latchkey kids like me. But until the night of that barbecue, I hadn’t realized the extent of his drinking. Or his trauma. Homeboy was beyond wasted – like alcohol poisoning, slurring words, drooling while I tried to put him to bed around 6am after most guests had departed. And he’s babbling some disjointed snippets about “Are you really only 14 years old?” “My babysitter was really nice to me and my brother…” and “It was really okay my first time-” The whole confused conversation gave me straight-up chills. Translation: he and the brother got molested and deflowered by the babysitter when he was 14 years old. Um, trauma way beyond my paygrade. Confirmed years later when Eric attempted suicide.
There’s something visceral, even primative about intimate relationships. Especially when you share physical affection or sexual exploration. The depth of connection opens people right up like flower blossoms. Which is good. The whole point is to really get to know someone. And trust is an essential element.
But what is your level of responsibility to someone 3o or 40 years into a deep, cataclysmic trauma like child abuse or sexual molestation? Not being a professional therapist or even a fellow survivor, what can you hope to give to your loved one besides your love and a listening ear? Probably not much.
But here’s the other sticky part of the situation: are you compelled by the revelation to stay and “unpack” their trauma? Or should you feel free to read the gulf between your life experiences as incompatability?
I know that sounds terribly cold-blooded but…
It is a tough call that utterly depends on you and what you are looking for. Some women get off on nurturing the “bird with a broken wing.” Similarly, some men also gravitate toward and not away from victims of rape, incest, and domestic violence. Some call it co-dependence that leads the child of an alcoholic or an abuser to seek out the like in a partner. This co-dependence can evince an unhealthy love and a tendency to behave in overly caretaking ways that negatively impact your quality of life. It means you’ll be passive a lot and reacting to his trauma a lot. You might feel like that is okay because your man is so needy for the special love that only you can give. He has, after all, deemed you worthy of his trust. Your needs will take a backseat since co-dependence demands placing a lower priority on your needs, while being excessively preoccupied with his. There simply may not be room in the relationship for your issues, your triumphs or your normalcy. Your relative lack of trauma or silence about your pain may crystallize a dynamic where you’re less important overall. You may be needed but less important than he is. I once had a long-term fiancee whose father died. Our relationship had been fairly balanced until that trauma that re-defined us into co-dependent me super-focused on helping him get through the pain of losing his father. Nevermind that my father had died when I was a second-grader; our relationship became about his father, his family, his anger, his desires to remake his life in homage to his father. I became merely the handmaiden to his “important” ambitions. I was there for him, and he no longer held any interest in reciprocating.
Please remember, the point of being a grown -up is to make choices to do better. And getting stuck in a relationship where there’s no room, time, attention or discussion for you sucks. So let’s not nurse the fantasy that our partner’s trauma translates into articulate or even sympathetic behaviour. Trauma, like grief, can take on angry, ugly, abusive, self-harming, alienating, violent facets as well. And “I love you” may more accurately translate as “Here’s what I want you to do for me.”
Clearly, by exposing his trauma your lover is giving you fair warning. It is fair for you to extrapolate what their long-term anger, pain, daddy issues, drinking, promiscuity and other acting out patterns will mean for your relationship. That’s not even extending the math into bringing children into the world together.
Truly, forewarned is forearmed. So put on your big girl pants and decide what is best for you rather than letting circumstance, guilt or someone else make the choice for you. Is the back-seat to your lover’s pain what you want long-term? Are you merely the guest star in his show? Or do you deserve a relationship where you might have a shot at equal billing, care and time at centerstage?