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How Do I Tell My Boyfriend I Was Raped?

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keylos via asks:

Two years ago, I was raped by a boyfriend. I suppressed those feelings for a long time; I've only recently come to terms by calling it rape and I'm trying to be more open about my experience, in the hopes that it will help me heal. I've only told my two closest friends.

I'd like to tell my current significant other. I trust him, and I think it's fair he should know what problems I have before we get involved too deeply. I'm really nervous about this, though. How do I even start the conversation? What if he doesn't take it well? I'm definitely not in a place to discuss my rape in detail, but how do I talk about how rape affected my personal boundaries?

Robin Mandell replies:

This question comes up for a lot of people. In the past couple of weeks, I think I've talked to three or four different people about this issue, so I'm really glad you've asked this here, as it's clearly important to you and to many others.

It sounds like the journey you've taken to the point of healing you're at now has been a long and rough one, and it makes sense to me that it would feel vulnerable to share this with your partner. Anticipating what someone's reactions might be is nerve-wracking. It's also hard to shake the (very wrong and harmful) social messaging that tells us that having been raped is supposed to be a nasty little secret. It also makes sense to me that it's important to you that your partner know about this, both for honesty's sake and to forestall any hiccups that might occur as you navigate both this relationship and for coming to terms with how the rape has impacted your life.

You've already taken the leap of telling your friends. I'm really glad to hear that they've been supportive of you. I know it can be tough to tell someone else about this, both because it's something a lot of people find they'd just rather try to forget, and because it's hard to know how to respond if someone doesn't react supportively. While it feels just plain scary, reaching out and sharing with people can ultimately be helpful. Trauma tends to take on a life of it’s own when we keep it inside of us.

Know that while it can be good and healthy to be able to share important parts of ourselves with our partners, we never owe them such explanations. Sharing personal history can often bring people closer, and it can help you, help your partner know you better, and maybe even help the relationship, but you don't owe your partner any answers or any more information than you're willing to share with him at that point in time. Having said that, I do know from talking to many people that folks who've experienced rape or any sort of sexual assault find that it can be helpful for a current sexual partner to know if there is anything, sexual or otherwise, that could trigger bad memories, flashbacks, feelings of panic or upset, and the like. This doesn't obligate anyone to tell more than they're comfortable telling for the purposes of making things more comfortable and less scary. IN other words (and yes, I maybe starting to sound like a broken record) you get to decide what you say about your experience and how you say it.

I don't know all the things that are worrying you, but based on what you've said here, I think I can make some educated guesses about what some of them might be.

I don't know what you mean by wanting to tell him before things get too involved. Perhaps you mean before you get more involved sexually? If so, it's often sound for a partner to know if we have any past experiences or any thoughts or feelings, about sex or otherwise, that could impact our sexual interactions, just as it would be sound for us to want our partners to tell us if they've experienced anything that they feel is significant. Telling him for that reason is by no means a requirement. You always, always get to only tell whom you want, and for reasons that feel good to you.

Or, perhaps you mean before the relationship gets more involved? If so, I'm wondering if you're afraid that he won't want to be with you anymore and you want to protect yourself before things get deeper than they have already.

I've heard some people voice concerns that they need to tell their partner about past abuse so that their partner can make an informed decision about whether to be with them. Maybe you already know this, but I'm going to say this anyway: Please know that having experienced rape does not break you for any future relationships and anyone who ever tells you that it does is unequivocally wrong! Should your partner decide that this isn’t something he’s interested in having in his life right now, that’s way about him, not about you or what you have experienced. Should he decide that having been raped says something negative about you, that's about him being wrong and not having his facts straight. It doesn't make you a bad person, or a bad potential partner, that you've experienced rape. If anything, while no one would wish this experience as a form of growth, surviving and going through your healing process can and does make you a stronger person, and one who knows herself well.

You've expressed that you're concerned he'll take this badly, but I don't really know what you mean. What does him taking it badly look like? People have a variety of ways they respond to any sort of information they’re given, particularly troubling information. Some of these reactions include: being upset, being angry, expressing protectiveness.

What forms of him taking it badly do you feel like you can handle or are prepared for? What forms of him not taking it well do you feel like you can't handle? How has he reacted to bad or difficult news, of any sort, in the past? Did his responses scare or worry you?

It's pretty typical that someone who feels strong and positive emotions towards us is possibly going to have a negative reaction to hearing that someone hurt us. Sometimes that reaction can be tears or expressed guilt that the person wasn't there to protect us. Sometimes that reaction might be anger at the rapist or at the situation, anger that can sometimes feel like it's directed at us even if it's very clear that it's not. Expressions of anger can feel particularly scary if your current partner knows the person who raped you. It might help, in this case, to let your partner know that you don't need or want him to try to avenge you.

Sometimes, when people hear something they don't expect to hear or that they don't know how to react to, they are shocked into silence or numbness, a reaction that can possibly feel like rejection or disinterest.

We can, of course, never accurately predict what someone will do or how they'll react. It is entirely possible that your partner won't take this well, in which case, as I said above, that would be more about him and how much he was prepared to take on than about you. While not feeling like one can handle, or wants to handle, being in a relationship with someone who's experienced rape doesn't make someone a bad person, it may mean that that person isn't quite ready or prepared for having the kind of deep relationship with someone in which their personal history, whatever that history is, plays a part in the relationship. It's also entirely possible that he will respond supportively and helpfully.

You've described him as your significant other; I'm taking that to mean that the two of you have a lot of trust and caring between you. I think you also know--and if you don't know this, I'm telling you now--that being raped wasn't your fault, and that it is a prevalent experience. So prevalent that it may very well be that your significant other has known other people, even been close to other people, who have experienced rape or some other form of sexual assault or abuse.

Perhaps you're worried that your experience of rape will negatively impact your future experiences of sex,, of relationships, or both. Experiencing any sort of sexual assault can, for many people, change the way they relate to their bodies, to their sexualities, and to current or potential sexual partners. Some people find that they feel disconnected from their bodies, sexually and otherwise. Some people feel guilt or discomfort with emotional or physical sexual feelings. Some people worry that consensual sexual experience, either alone or with a partner, will feel traumatic or will prompt flashbacks of the rape. These feelings don't have to put your life on hold, sexually or otherwise. if handled with love and care from ourselves as well as from our loved ones, these feelings can change and lessen over time. One resource that many people find helpful in reclaiming their sexuality after abuse is Staci Haines’ book Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma.

It can be hard to show care and patience for oneself, particularly if one is eager to start a new relationship with all the exciting possibilities that has to offer. As you acknowledge your previous experience of rape more and more to yourself and to other people, and to yourself, you may find that it feels more overwhelming for a while, rather than less. Some people find that taking extra care of their bodies, such as through starting a yoga or martial arts practice, or taking up a sport, can help them feel like they're more in control of their lives, and help them feel more positive about their bodies and what they can do.

In terms of the practical "how" of telling your boyfriend, I think there are a few different directions you could go in with that. It's usually a sound idea to bring up important and serious things in a low-pressure environment where you won't be interrupted. So, you could bring it up during a time when you're planning to spend time together, alone, but with no big plans such as a date or other special activity. Depending on how you think both of you might react, it might be a good idea to plan things, if possible, so there is a fast escape for either of you; in other words, recognize that the two of you might need time alone to integrate this, that this isn't a negative thing, that if this ends up being the case this doesn't reflect anything bad about you, and that it's okay to need time alone after a heavy conversation of any kind.

It might feel less intimidating if you look at this as not necessarily a big discussion you need to have, but something you want to be able to tell your partner then discuss over time as you're both comfortable. Both you and your partner may need time to process this, so simply sharing that you were raped, that you wanted him to know, and that you'll share more about it as you feel comfortable may be enough for a first conversation. You could also let him know that if he's interested, you have resources that can help support him in his feelings about what he just learned. This article is a good place to start for partners of rape and sexual abuse survivors. It might also be worth thinking about how he can best help and support you, as this is something he may ask you. You might want him to support you by listening. Or by not bringing the topic up until or unless you do. Or, as I mentioned above, by not expressing anger or desire for vengeance. You get to say what you need, and your partner gets to say whether he can give you that.

Alternatively, if you're really scared that this might just not go well, or are feeling particularly vulnerable, how would it go for you to have one or both of your friends who know about the rape be with you and your boyfriend while you tell him? The same kind of set-up would apply, with spending some low-key time together. Naturally, if you, your boyfriend, and these friends aren't in the habit of hanging out together, this isn't going to work quite as well since it will seem odd that you're all hanging out all the sudden for no discernible reason.

It's worth thinking about, too, that if you feel really scared of your partner's
reactions, that it's worth considering whether your partner is a sound person for you to be in a relationship with. You're entitled to feel safe when discussing important things with a partner, and you're entitled to have a partner who, even if they wrestle with some emotional reactions, takes your past experiences at face value. So, if you are feeling scared or nervous, it might be worth you taking some time to suss out whether your fears are more generally about how to talk about this, or whether they're about talking about it with this specific person.

It's also up to you, and what you know about your relationship, as to whether to tell your partner ahead of time that you have something serious you've been wanting to talk to him about. I imagine that you've had serious conversations before, so you know, roughly, how those tend to go for the two of you, and whether advance preparation would be helpful or would just increase the anxiety level for one or both of you.

Since your two friends are the only other people who know right now, I'm gathering that you haven't sought any professional help in dealing with the aftermath of the rape. While some people do just fine without any counseling or other professional support, what we know about surviving and thriving after rape or other forms of sexual abuse is that professional support can be vastly helpful. One of the big ways it can benefit someone is that in speaking with a counselor, crisis line worker, or even in a professionally moderated peer support group, one is able to express one's thoughts and feelings freely, without being concerned or watchful of the thoughts and feelings the other person might have about their rape. IN other words, one doesn't have to deal with one's own emotions and the possible tears or anger or disbelief or any number of reactions from a friend or loved one. One can know that one will receive unconditional support from the listener, and that the listener is responsible for dealing with their own feelings about what you've told them in ways that don't involve you.

You have several options for seeking outside help. You could choose to enter one-on-one counseling. You could choose to seek the support of a sexual assault crisis line, either once, or as often as you feel like you need support from them. (Many people think that crisis lines are only for immediate emergencies. The majority of sexual assault hotlines will talk to someone at any point, whether the assault was five minutes, five weeks, or five years before, though they may have limits on how many times they talk to someone, or for how long they talk each time.) You could choose to enter group therapy or a less formal support group. Group therapy is available only in person, but peer support can be available online as well as in-person. You also can choose to utilize more than one service at the same time to get yourself the most support you can.

Here are some resources for finding more support:

  • Pandora’s Project runs online forums where survivors of rape support each other and share resources.
  • This search tool can help you find a sexual assault center in your area, where you can access individual counseling, group support, a support hotline, and information about other local resources.
  • The Scarleteen message boards are a place where you can talk about your feelings around the rape, and the impact it has on your relationships and your general well-being, with our staff and volunteers, and get support from peers who have had similar experiences.

I really encourage you to seek out specific sexual-assault-recovery support of some kind. No matter how talking to your partner goes, it can help you to have someone you can talk to, someone who can support you in figuring out what to do next. You might even opt to get support from one of these resources before sharing with your partner. Also, in accessing professional counseling, or calling a crisis line, or joining a support group or online forum, you're not obligated to continue if it ends up not being the kind of support you want or need. Having said that, sometimes getting help from people in the know can be tough, as they are, as I said, in the know, so they can tend to ask a lot of tough questions, and ask you to face things you've been trying not to face. In the long-run, this can be helpful but it certainly can be difficult or painful, and it’s always your choice how you want to approach your coping and healing processes.

Ultimately, it's up to you, but you have a lot of choices for support. I think it's important, too, to make sure that your partner doesn't end up being your primary support around this, as can happen sometimes when people love each other and want to help each other. Such an arrangement can tend to put strain on a relationship, and sometimes prevent both partners from fully experiencing and acknowledging thoughts and feelings out of a desire to protect the other.

I'd also like to check in with you about whether you had any medical care after the rape, or have had sexual healthcare in the time between then and now. STI testing is important, whether we've been consensually sexual with someone or whether the genital contact was against our will. Some STIs have no initial symptoms, or symptoms that are mild enough to be discounted as general discomfort. I don't bring this up to put yet one more thing on your plate, but only to encourage you to take care of yourself. If the idea of seeing a healthcare provider for sexual healthcare is scary to you, you might find the suggestions in this advice column to be helpful. It might help to remember that you're allowed to tell the healthcare provider what happened to you (know that if you're under 18, healthcare providers in most areas have an obligation, in some situations, to report sexual abuse to the police) and to ask for whatever you need to make you feel more comfortable; know too that you can always ask for an examination to stop if it's physically or emotionally too uncomfortable for you.

I hope that some of this here has been helpful to you. While I can give you suggestions and tell you what other people have found useful, i can't know what you will find useful or how your partner will react should you choose to tell him that you were raped. I think that even just thinking about all of this has probably given you, and will continue to give you, clarity.

I'd like to leave you with a few additional links for your consideration:

written 18 Jun 2012 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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