Previous installments of The Toast’s advice column from two disparate and imperfect persons can be found here. Last time: Advice About Dating Ladies and Having a Bad Sister.
How do you know when it’s time to break up with someone? I’ve never had to so I don’t know. Like if you’ve been with someone for 6 years, and you’re in your 30s and you live with them and you don’t hate them but you don’t love them either, or you do just not the way you think you should, but your work and your identity and your housing and your social life is all basically completely tied to being in this relationship… this relationship which is mostly just… fine. It’s okay. It’s like 50% fine and 50% stressful and frustrating.
Do you leave? Knowing you’ll miss the 50% that was okay and knowing you’ll have to start over completely socially because you were literally completely alone (yes, literally, just trust me on this one) when you met him and everyone you know now is through him? But maybe you’ll be completely and totally relieved to be free of the parts that were bad or boring or just not you? Or maybe you’ll forever regret leaving this person who is so weird and unlike anyone else you’ve ever met and sometimes made you laugh so hard you almost threw up…I don’t know. How do you know?
Nicole: I feel pretty confident about answering this one, because I can start by trotting out some pet theories that obviously do not apply to everyone but are, in fact, extremely accurate. (flexes fingers outward, settles in)
1. I think that, as a rule, people (women more than men, perhaps? IDK, gender is a construct, but here we are) have way, way too high a bar for who they will go on a first and second date with (must be over 5’10, cannot listen to Linkin Park) but allow inertia to take over very swiftly into an established relationship, to the extent that the decision to move in with and marry a willing, long-term partner often involves far less substantive, critical thought than triaging your OKCupid responses. I mean, dying alone is scary, we’re all on the same page with you.
2. I 100% believe, and continue to believe, and HAVE to believe, that when you know, you really do know. I have so many friends (and Nicoles) who have been in mediocre relationships, talked about it constantly, agonized, broke up with or were broken up with, found someone new, and then literally the next thing I heard them say about their partner was “can you make it to my wedding next June?” By which I mean to say, even though I think we are alone in a godless world and there is no meaning of life except for that we create ourselves, there is a qualitative and meaningful difference between a happy, relaxing relationship that brings you both (or all nine of you) joy and comfort and love, and one where you’re just content enough not to care about its inadequacies except at three in the morning or after watching a romantic movie and suddenly feeling very cold and fragile.
Please break up with this person. You can be happier than this. Find out how.
Mallory: Ye gods, you’ve made it to your 30s without ever having broken up with someone? I have so many questions for you. But enough about that now: of course you leave them. Of course you leave them!
Do you have any idea how splendid it is to walk through the door of your very own home and hear absolutely nothing? To see everything arranged just as you wanted it arranged when you left, to know that no candles are lit, no windows are opened, no meals are prepared without your exact say-so? It’s wickedly lovely. There are no voices, no one moving around inside with complaints about their boss you don’t want to listen to, no one pointedly not-unloading the dishwasher at you. The laughing sounds wonderful, but why should you deny yourself the joy of a well-lit and quiet house that opens up only for you in order to stare across the dinner table at someone who makes life grey? Send him (nicely) packing; keep the friends you both made; take to the sea.
Through some things she’s said, I’m becoming more and more convinced that my new and amazing ladyfriend was abused by someone in the past. While this realisation makes me upset, that’s not where I need the advice.
What I’m worried about is how I should…be…with someone who’s gone through this. I think I know most of the answer which is: listen, be gentle, don’t assume things, be extra careful with consent. (i.e. Be a decent person like I would be with anyone.)
I’m just worried. I think she’s fantastic. I want to be a good person and I know I don’t have any relevant experience. I don’t want to step on any blatantly obvious landmines because I just don’t understand… I know no experience is generalizable, but I’m wondering if you two wise disparate persons know of any good literature out there or have any advice.
Nicole: I am mostly having Mallory field this question, because she is very wise, but from my own limited experience of people who have been treated in such a fashion, in addition to the need to be kind and gentle (which we should all endeavor to be, of course), you will have to try to take on the burden of being better at fighting than they are, when those times come. You’re not asking about fighting, but relationships will involve disagreements, and we’re not always great at modulating our reactions to them.
It may be on you to: wait longer to become upset, think of their triggers first, NOT leave the room, or leave the room, based on what makes them feel safest. And the best thing for this, really, is to talk to them when you are not fighting, and say: “Darling, loved one. Some day we may have a fight! What makes you feel best during one? If you walk out, am I to follow you, or do you like to simmer in the basement until you have yourself together? Does eye contact make you feel listened-to, or threatened? Are there sentences I should never say?”
It seems like a strange exercise, but I think that, when you love someone, you’re pretty decent at being good to them most of the time, but it is MOST important to be good to them when you and/or they are upset, and if someone has a history of abuse, you can never err on the side of being too conscious of that in bad moments. Ask them what they need, and then do it. Even when you’re mad. Especially when you’re mad.
Mallory: [Treads cautiously out onto a storm-toss’d sea] I don’t have any books I can recommend offhand (although maybe some of our readers will, and should feel free to say so in the comments), but I can offer my own and particular experiences, which may or may not prove helpful. It is a sad and sorry truth that if you are interested in dating women, the odds of your being in a relationship with someone who has experienced abuse is going to go up, particularly if you are interested in dating queer and/or trans women.
On the one hand, I think it’s important to remember that the most important thing to focus on is the woman you are dating, not the woman-who-has-experienced-abuse you are dating. It’s possible that you’ve dated women in the past who have experienced abuse without knowing it; abuse is hideous and abuse is commonplace and not everyone who has suffered from it will say so aloud. I mention this not to send you into fits of paranoia, of course, but to set this in context: almost on a daily basis you will interact in some way with a person who has been abused. You won’t always know it; it’s part of the context of who they are but it isn’t who they are, if that makes sense. I mention that only because in some instances, it can be easy for someone who has been fortunate enough not to experience abuse to be so shocked and horrified by their first encounter with it, even secondhand, even years after the fact, that they sometimes go about treating the person who has suffered it like a fragile piece of glass, which isn’t necessarily helpful.
Something I think is important to bear in mind is that whatever emotions you experience about the abuse of the woman you love — protectiveness, anger, sorrow, regret, resentment towards the people who should have been there to support and protect her at the time, whatever other feelings you’d like to throw in the pot — they’re yours, and not hers, to deal with. You may find that there is a conversation between the two of you where you find it helpful and appropriate to say “I’m so sorry this happened to you, and I’m here to talk about it if you would like to;” there will never be a time when it is appropriate for her to have to help you process your anger or sadness over her experience. A lot of people who share their experience of abuse — particularly when the abuse occurred a long time ago — find themselves in the unenviable position of having to soothe and calm friends and partners who respond with emotional outbursts. Her experience, and not your feelings about her experience, are the real point here. There are some things it may feel helpful to say — “I’d like to kill the [X] who did that to you,” “I’d have been there to protect you, if I’d known,” “Your [family/teachers/caretakers/friends/etc] should have done something to stop it; they failed you” — because at first blush they seem to express sympathy with her situation, but are in fact useless to her. She has already had to process how she feels about the people who were at one point or another complicit in her abuse; you were not there to protect her, no matter how much you might like to have been, and it does her no good to claim you would have fixed something you cannot change.
So, while you may feel anything from pointed and particular rage at her former abuser to enormous sorrow at a family or a system that didn’t step in to protect your girlfriend’s safety and well-being, your reaction is not something she should have to deal with. (This advice is probably more relevant if her abuse was something she experienced a long time ago; it may be less helpful if the abuse you’re speaking of is relatively recent and she’s still sorting out how she might choose to respond.)
How to proceed, then. I think it’s a good thing your girlfriend has felt comfortable in starting to talk about this with you; I think it’s a good thing that you want to respond well; we are off to an excellent start. Continue taking her cues. If she talks about it in a brief and matter-of-fact way, take her at her word and thank her for confiding in you, remind her that you love and support her, are genuinely sorry about what she has experienced and are here for her if she ever wants to talk about it again. Do not assume she is hiding pain from you because you assume that she must be worse off than she is. Do not ask specific questions if she does not seem genuinely open to them. Do not look for a big emotional catharsis if one is not forthcoming.
Trust that the person who knows best about handling your girlfriend’s past abuse is your girlfriend. You can, of course, say something like, “If there is ever something you would prefer I do not do or say in our relationship because it brings up troubling memories, please let me know; I would never want to inadvertently cross a line or hurt you in any way.” If there are times that she suffers and wants to lean on you, make sure that you are a secure and a reliable enough person for her to do so. But beyond that, take her at her word and take her life at face value. If she seems well and she acts like she is well, then she most likely is well, and not full of secret emotional landmines. That can be difficult for people — of any gender — who have been abused, to feel like every time they share that part of themselves with someone, they are immediately perceived as an emotional invalid whose words cannot be taken at face value (“How are you? How are you really?” the implication always being, “of course you cannot be all right in the way that I am all right, tell me the secret sorrows I know you must be hiding”).
I say this, of course, not to in any way minimize the horror of abuse, but as a reminder that it is possible and indeed common to be both “a person who has experienced abuse” and also “a well-rounded and complete and a generally happy human being.” She may have — indeed, she likely has — developed over the course of her lifetime ways of dealing with and assuaging what she suffered. She has likely talked about it, and had many feelings about it, and possibly gone to therapy and told family and friends and done any number of things to help herself, and she may not always feel like it is a defining characteristic of who she is.
I don’t know how new this relationship is — six months? three? — but since you don’t have a long-established connection with her, you have very few claims on her history, and there’s not much you can ask at this point without being intrusive. Let her take the lead in sharing her past with you; if at some point she chooses to be more detailed about what she’s experienced, thank her for doing so and ask her what you can do that’s most helpful. She might have a few ideas in mind; she might want you not to bring it up unless she does so first.
I wish you the best! You will do well, I think; you seem very kind and eager to listen, which will serve you well.