This is a very important question, and we can help you sort it out.
What will make sense for you depends on several factors, especially these:
How new or old is the relationship?
If it’s early in the relationship, it’s possible the other person could become scared and pull back in a big way. This is particularly true of those who believe the myth that most people who were sexually abused will go on to abuse others.
As with sharing any other highly personal and sensitive information, it makes sense to wait until you have established a foundation of genuinely knowing and trusting each other.
- Do they know you well enough to see this information as important but not totally defining who you are?
- Do you have enough information to know whether you can trust them to have a sincere and thoughtful response?
- Whatever initial response they have, and however you react to that, does your relationship so far suggest that you’ll be able to get past any misunderstandings or hurt feelings?
If the relationship is many months or even years old, then you probably have a good sense of how they’ll react. If you don’t, then maybe you don’t know each other as well as you thought, and it might be worth thinking about why that’s the case.
If your relationship is well-established, if you feel pretty confident about getting a supportive response, and if you feel ready to tell them, then it’s probably OK. Still, it’s a good idea to plan how and when you’re going to bring it up.
Telling Someone (or Not) What Happened provides some useful information and suggestions to help you plan and maximize the chances that it will go well.
Does (or might) the other person have a history of abuse or trauma?
This can cut both ways. If they have acknowledged what happened and made progress in understanding and dealing with the effects, they are more likely to be supportive.
But if they have not recognized or acknowledged abuse that has negatively effected them, then they freak out or even get angry about having to deal with your experience. The classic feared response here is, “Listen, I got over it. You should too.”
Even someone who’s made real progress dealing with their own rough past may feel like, “It’s enough to deal with the effects of my own past, I just can’t take on yours too.”
If you think this is possible, timing could be very important. In general, it’s not a good idea to bring it up when the other person is stressed or overwhelmed about other things in their life or their relationship with you. But if they’re feeling pretty good and confident, they’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by anything you might tell them.
Of course, for some men, only when a crisis hits the relationship do they think, “Maybe telling about those experiences could be helpful.”
This can especially be true if the crisis was brought on by behaviors resulting from unwanted or abusive boyhood sexual experiences. It can feel like you have to tell, so the other person will “understand why I did that” or realize “I’ve been hiding a secret that’s created a wall between us.”
Even or especially in situations like that, it’s best not to tell in an unplanned or impulsive way.
What responses and outcomes are you hoping for,
short-term and long-term?
It’s really important to reflect on your motives and goals for disclosing what happened. As you think it through, you may realize that some motives aren’t healthy or helpful, and that some goals may be unrealistic and set ups for disappointment or worse.
Also, if you really understand why you want to disclose, and what you hope will come of it, you’re much better positioned to do it in the most effective way.
In some cases, this means accepting that you have multiple motives and goals, not all of them so healthy, and doing your best not to let the unhealthy ones run the show.
Or it may mean preparing in advance for a response that is inevitably disappointing in some way, because you know the other person isn’t likely to respond exactly as you hope.
Finally, immediate and short-term responses can be very different from long-term ones. Remembering this right before and after disclosure can give you valuable perspective. It can help you to respond to any initial fallout in ways that lead to overall positives for the relationship over time.
The key issues and considerations for disclosing unwanted or abusive sexual experiences to anyone are covered in detail in Telling Someone (or Not) About What Happened.
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