Getting to know someone at the start of a relationship can often feel like a test of boundaries: how much information do you divulge and how soon? When do you tell them you still sleep with your childhood toy, that you really don’t like the taste of sushi and that your favourite album is still Avril Lavigne’s ‘Let Go’.
And what about those things that are far more personal, those formative experiences that have not only made you the person you are, but also inform the way you meet new people, handle relationships and build intimacy.
In May 2019 viewers praised the openness of one contestant on Channel 4′s First Dates, who told her date she had been a victim of rape despite only having known him a couple of hours, Sinoa, 29, told Liam that she had been sexually assaulted after having her drink spiked at university.
Sinoa’s date, and the internet, admired her honesty, but it prompts the question, when is the best time to bring up past traumas – assaults, abusive relationships, cheating – when getting to know someone? Is it ever too soon? And what sort of response should you be hoping for when you do? We asked two therapists and a relationship expert for their advice.
When should you tell someone?
Psychosexual therapist Murray Blacket says it definitely doesn’t need to be on the first date. “On a first meeting only share what you are comfortable sharing – it’s not a share-athon. Laying it all out in the first date might feel cathartic but it might also be a game breaker. Anything challenging or more traumatic can wait until you have a connection. Plus you don’t know what trauma your date might have experienced too.”
Tracey Cox, author and sex columnist, agrees that deciding when to tell someone is a highly personal choice – “that’s like saying how long is a piece of string” – and you shouldn’t feel compelled to put all your cards on the table straight away. “Some people might take years before confessing something traumatic. Others might feel comfortable talking about highly personal things after a few months,” she says.
How do you know when it is the right time?
Cox says that a lot of this will depend on how serious the issue is and how well you are coping with keeping it under wraps. “The right time to share is when you feel completely comfortable doing so and you trust the person to react in an appropriate way.
“If something significant has happened to you and you don’t tell a long-term partner, it can be hard to achieve closeness and true intimacy. I wouldn’t advise anyone to share anything traumatic or highly personal with anyone they don’t know well. I would wait a few months at least.”
And Blacket says rather than thinking there is a ‘good time’ you might want to find what is an ‘easier time’ so when you’re both in a good place, feel a sense of trust and connection has been established and have time to talk privately.
How do you go about sharing?
Aoife Drury, sex and relationship therapist says: “Create time and space for the conversation; choose somewhere you feel safe and secure.” And don’t get drunk beforehand to calm your nerves. She says: “As tempting as it might be to have a few drinks to give yourself courage, try to avoid it. Take it slowly and show yourself compassion.”
What response should you expect?
Once you’ve decided you want to share, what are you hoping to get back from your partner? Blacket says often people just want someone to listen to what they have to say: “You don’t need someone to fix things. You’ll need the space to say what you need to say – and in your own time.”
This doesn’t mean you won’t get questions. Blacket says a partner might want to know more details so be prepared to share, or explain that you’d rather come back to it at a later date. “They might ask how you felt or what happened next – to understand what you went through. You want this: someone who understands context and feelings and doesn’t shy away from an emotionally difficult story. If they can do that, you might have yourself a keeper,” he says.
Red flags to look out for are negative reactions such as shame, minimising or judgement, says Drury. “A healthy relationship, and therefore partner means support,” she says. “They may also feel concerned or worried. [But] if they are caring and supportive, they will respond with empathy.”