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Dating Advice #59 - Revealing the Painful Past

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

There's a lot lurking beneath the surface. The big question is: When do I let it all out?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I wonder if you have any advice for me.

I was an only child in an abusive home, and suffered the predictable consequences -- difficulty in establishing a career, painful and/or ruptured courtships and friendships, some lasting physical damage, and very limited contact with family. Although I finally married when I was 45, the man was also abusive, and I left after less than a year.

Now I am 51, have had extensive therapy, have had stable employment for many years, own an apartment, have savings, and a good appearance. Now I would like to try to meet somebody. However, both my family situation and the extent to which I have overcome it are unusual, and past attempts to explain it have resulted in disbelief, incomprehension, or a view of me as a "case." I do not wish to expose myself to further hurt and humiliation.

I don't know if I should still try to meet somebody, or perhaps just be content with what I have achieved. If I do try to meet someone, do you have any suggestions for ways of handling my past?


Dear Esther,

Many people from backgrounds as difficult as yours are able to a enjoy healthy marriage. It would be a shame if you gave up on that possibility for yourself now, when you are still relatively young and have a lot to offer, as well as gain.

There may be a very simple reason why you are having so much difficulty getting started with someone new. Could you be revealing too much about your background at an early stage in your courtship?

Most people are not ready to hear unpleasant, private details about their date’s personal life while they are still getting to know each other. So no matter how easily you and your date are able to converse, or how relieved you feel when you unburden yourself, if you pour out your heart, reveal an unpleasant family history, cry about a failed marriage, or touch on other sensitive information -- too early on before the other person is ready to listen -- you virtually guarantee that you will never see that date again.

A woman once told us: "Many of the men I date tell me they find me very easy to talk to. They end up telling me all the details of their life story on the second or third date. I think to myself, 'What a nut! How could he tell me all this stuff when I barely know him. There must be something wrong with him.'"

In your case, the details of you personal life are probably a lot more unpleasant than an ordinary tale of woe.

We suggest that the next time you date, refrain from discussing your history for several dates. You can deflect any questions that might need an answer by saying something like: "I had a very difficult childhood," or "I was married to someone who wasn't well-suited for marriage." Then add that you are very happy with your life and proud of the accomplishments you have made.

Once you have been dating for several weeks and have started to talk about some of the deeper aspects of your lives, you can more appropriately introduce the subject of your difficult background.

Even then, we suggest that you "edit" your story. Think about what you hope to accomplish by "telling all." If unveiling your soul is cathartic, try writing in a journal. If you want to show your date that you had a very difficult life and overcame it, you can do so without giving all of the sordid details. Bear in mind that you and your date still have a lot to learn about each other, and by telling too much you risk him not believing you, or thinking that anyone who experienced such a terrible life must be badly scarred.

There may be some parts of your past that you shouldn't share at all with another person. There may be other details that you can introduce only when the two of you have built a very solid foundation of trust, affection and emotional intimacy.

If you have trouble discerning where to draw boundaries when it comes to discussing your past, you might want to return to your therapist for guidance.

Wishing you the best of success,

Rosie & Sherry

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