Telling Someone (or Not) About What Happened

It's a big decision, with potentially huge consequences.
Here are some tools for thinking it through and planning it out.

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A Lot at Stake

Telling someone about something you’ve held a secret for a long time is a big deal.

You may have good reasons to fear a bad response. You may be putting an important relationship and yourself at risk: Will she reject me? Will he shame me? Say it can’t be true? Say I’m just making excuses?

Planning and preparation are essential.

Maybe you have fears that don’t actually reflect what the other person will think, feel or say. After all, how can you know for sure? At the same time, you may have more control than you think over how it will go and what the results will be.

We understand. And we’ve got some good information and advice to help you decide and, should you choose to tell, maximize the odds of success. (See also, Should I Tell My Partner?)

Ways of Telling

For men who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences as children or teenagers, telling someone else may happen right away, but often it’s not until years later.

Whenever telling someone else happens, it fits into one of these types:

Forced: You have no intention of telling but it comes out in some other way. For example, a perpetrator of sexual abuse is arrested for abusing another child and he or she confesses to abusing you. Or a sibling or other child abused says you were abused by the same person who abused her or him.

Accidental: Again, you have no intention of telling anyone but someone discovers evidence that reveals what happened. For example, someone reads a journal or diary that mentions it. Or someone suspects it based on your writings, artwork or behaviors, and questions you about it.

Impulsive: You suddenly tell someone without having intended to. For example, you blurt it out something when triggers the memories while you’re drunk. or a parent says about how you were as a teenager, or asks why you did something, and you suddenly feel the only way to explain is to say you were dealing with the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.

Planned: You decide that you want to tell a particular person and (at least to some extent) you think through when, where, how you will do it.

From here on we focus on the planned telling of another person, because to maximize the odds of good outcomes and minimize the odds of bad ones, you really need to think it through in advance.

Planning: Reasons and Goals

Most importantly, there should be good reasons and realistic goals for telling.

Thinking through one’s reasons for telling, and the goals one hopes to accomplish, is a critical first step in the planning process.

Here are the most common reasons and goals:

Validation and moral support. The goal is acknowledgment and support from significant others. It may help your healing to know that you are believed by someone, that what happened to you is understood and appreciated by someone important to you. For some, one aspect of validation is confirmation from the other person, if they are in a position to provide it, that memories of yours are probably or definitely true. For example, you might tell another family member who confirms that he or she had similar experiences, or even witnessed some of what happened to you.

Explain past or present behaviors. The goal is to give others a better understanding of why you may have certain problems, such as problems with sexual performance, trusting people, depression, or seemingly irrational fears. This doesn’t mean you have no responsibility for dealing with those problems now, but that there’s a good reason you have them and that they aren’t easy to overcome.

Sympathy. The goal here is different than explaining past behaviors. Though one might not be fully aware of it, the goal is to “justify” or “excuse” one’s failures to do certain things. It may also be about creating a “victim identity.” A man who tells everyone about his abuse may be doing it to get sympathy.

Protecting others. The goal is to let someone know that his or her children may not be safe around the person who used or abused you.

Revenge. The goal is, basically, to make the person who used or abused you suffer, as in, “You made me suffer, now it’s your turn.”

“Getting it out.” The goals are breaking the secret and the burden of keeping it, and reducing shame. For many men, these words of Richard Gartner ring true: “Telling what happened, putting the unutterable into words, is a large part of healing. As you tell other people, you’re also telling yourself. You’re putting together the full story of your life. The most important person who needs to know that story is you” (Beyond Betrayal, p. 168).

Preparation for a confrontation. The goal is to tell key people who will be available for support, should you decide on a planned confrontation – with the person who used or abused you, or someone who allowed it to happen or didn’t protect you.

There are other reasons, some positive and others possibly self-defeating, for telling others about unwanted boyhood sexual experiences. Unless it’s done to protect children from an unrevealed perpetrator, it should be for the benefit of the person who is doing the telling.

Think it through: Who? Where? When? How? Why?

It should never be done to promote someone else’s agenda (including a therapist who is pushing a client to tell or confront.) Any decision to tell, and to whom, should be made by the person whose experiences are being revealed.

And it’s worth repeating that telling someone else is most successful when the man has good reasons to do so.

Planning: Strategies

Some men consider telling an important person in their lives for many years before doing so. Others may have not given it much thought, or just blurted it out.

It’s critical to weigh the pros and cons of telling before you do it.

For example, it’s not a good idea to announce to everyone at a family reunion that Uncle Bill sexually abused you 30 years ago. And telling someone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is generally a bad idea (although some people do find that they can only say emotionally charged things with help from substances).

Who you tell, where and when you say it, how you bring it up, as well as why you are doing so – all are important planning considerations.

Thinking very carefully about these things will give your plan a much greater chance of success.

Who do you want to know?

Choose someone who is most likely to believe and support you, even if that means waiting until later to tell them.

For example, if you need to tell your mother that your father abused you, and you are unsure of her reaction, then telling a partner, friend or relative may provide you with support before addressing the issue with your mother.

As Richard Gartner cautions, ‘Be selective… You’ll know in your gut who [is most likely to be supportive]. Even so, be prepared for letdowns. Not everyone can handle what you have to say. For example, if they… suffered from childhood abuse and haven’t dealt with it, they may not be as receptive as you had hoped’ (Beyond Betrayal, p. 167).

When it comes to telling family members, Mic Hunter is even more cautionary: ‘Be prepared to be punished if you tell the secret. It is not fair, but it often happens. This is one reason why having a strong support network is so important: so that if you are rejected by your family, you will have supportive people to turn to… If you are planning to tell your siblings or other family members about what happened and what you are doing about it, remember how difficult it was for you to accept [what happened] and its impact – your family [could] have at least as much denial.’ (Abused Boys, p.117).

Where are you going to tell?

As a general rule, private places are better than public places. But if you fear a negative or perhaps threatening or dangerous reaction, a public place will probably be safer.

When are you going to tell?

You will want the person’s full attention, and time to process the news. When the person is heading out the door to work, or intoxicated, or about to go to sleep, are not good times to tell.

How are you going to tell?

It can be face-to-face, over the phone, or in a letter. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages.

Some feel that breaking serious news needs to be done face-to-face. However, in some situations, particularly where there might be a negative reaction, or the person may take you away from the direction you are trying to go, a phone call or letter may be better.

A letter may be a good choice if you have difficulty expressing yourself with words while feeling under pressure, or if the person being told has a tendency to interrupt or side-track conversations.The letter format, or writing out what you want to say ahead of time, can really help with saying clearly and precisely what needs to be said.

Also, something in writing can be revised, many times, until it expresses just what you want to say. Writing it out ahead of time may also allow it to be read, whether face-to-face or over the phone, without interruption.

Why do you want to tell?

This is about identifying your goal(s) for telling. Why are you telling this particular person? And why now?

Sometimes a person tells many others at the same time. When a celebrity tells the media of being abused as a child, it may be to bring public attention to the problem. If you are considering telling multiple people or ‘broadcasting’ it in some way, you might want to consult with several other people about why you’re considering this approach and what the results might be.

The Benefits of Planning It Well

Once you’ve gone through this process – of thinking through the goals and various aspects of your plan – you can tell someone with confidence that you’re likely to be successful.

Of course there are no guarantees, because we can never control how other people respond to what we tell them. But good planning greatly increases the odds of good outcomes.

When telling someone is successful, it brings healing to you, including increasing your sense of personal power and your knowledge that your experiences really matter and your needs can be met.

Even if you don’t tell anyone in your family, it can be very helpful to you. It can bring more support and understanding from friends and other important people in your life.

Finally, it can be very helpful to discuss your goals and plans with a therapist who has lots of experience in this area, especially one who knows you well and who you really trust. Therapists can help not only with sorting through your goals and plans, but with practicing and providing support if it doesn’t go well or has unintended and challenging consequences.

This page is adapted from an online article by Ken Singer, LCSW.