When it comes to dating, my problem is with disclosing the reason for my divorce. I don’t bring it up, but it comes up naturally in the conversation. Usually, when I’m asked why I’m divorced, I say “My ex hit me.” and move on to another topic. EVERY single guy says “I would never do that, blah blah blah” (even though I never ask “are you an abuser?”). And then EVERY single guy feels sorry for me. I do not want that. I’m not a victim anymore; I’m trying to move on with my life. I truthfully answered a question, and I want to move on from that specific topic. (Yes, I know, social norms and empathy are at work here. But if I change the subject, why do they go back?)
The way they act afterwards tells me what kind of person they are. Some guys (few) are not very understanding of my emotional hang-ups. But I tell them – “I’m not comfortable with this,” and they back off. And then they try again five minutes later. Needless to say, there won’t be a lot of dates after that. Other guys take my need to take things slow to mean that I (want to?) run the show and they stop initiating anything. So, then, instead of taking things slow, things stop moving at all.
How do I tell guys that I’m normal, and that they should treat me just like they would treat any other woman, but expect things to move a little more slowly because I need time to be able to trust them with my safety? Maybe other women trust them instantly, but they have to earn their trust with me. How do I approach this, short of giving every guy I meet an “Instructions manual”? Should I be vague about the reason for my divorce? I don’t want to lie about it, and if I say “I’m not comfortable discussing it,” it may come out as I have something to hide. — Slow, but not a Victim
MATT: Everyone’s story is different. Your story is that someone significantly diminished your ability to trust, and that sucks. But you pointed out the happy ending: there’s trust in the future and you do not think of yourself as a victim. You got out of an abusive situation.
When you ask to be treated as “normal,” you must grant the same courtesy to the person across the pillow. Even though this abuse story is old and tired to you, it is the first time someone else is hearing it, and he can’t be left alone to figure it out or respond just as you’d like, all tidy and neat. I think it is “normal” for a lover to want to show compassion or ask questions or potentially be mindful of their behavior no matter what information they’re hearing. Suppose a lover were telling you they like to be tied up or spanked; how would you respond to that story? I would assume you would want to explain how you feel about it, or that you might have questions, or that you might be hesitant to be the one to initiate it.
I appreciate that you wrote the words “I’m trying to move on with my life”; you are addressing
this in the present tense as an ongoing process. Maybe the guy who gets it right for you will come along at a time when this chapter can be viewed in the rearview mirror. Just keep communicating as simply and directly as you know how. Slow is okay for everybody.
JAREK: One thing to understand is that the weird behavior coming from these guys is not a reflection of you. It’s all us. We tend to psych ourselves out when we learn that someone we’re on a date with was abused in a past relationship. It gets in our head and we don’t know how to respond. The short of it is that we don’t want you associating us with your ex or thinking of us as an abuser. There are a handful of labels or attributes which no man ever wants to be associated with and “abuser” is fairly high on that list. This is probably why you are finding most are more comfortable leaving you 100% in control regarding moving forward; we don’t want to come off as controlling or too aggressive.
A date’s curiosity in your previous relationship is completely normal and the question is going to come up eventually. How much you choose to share, however, is completely in your control. So to avoid having a guy psych himself out like this, simply choose not to share the specifics of your divorce. Save that information for when you two are exclusive and a pattern of trust and familiarity has already been established. If he asked why you got divorced, which he will, just tell him that your ex wasn’t the man you thought you married. If he follows up and asks you to elaborate, which he probably will, just say there were some trust issues and that you found you no longer loved him. If he still pushes it, try to brush it off. Maybe say “oh, enough about my ex – let’s get to you, where did you go on your last vacation…” or whatever. Any guy who pushes you to divulge a lot of details from your last relationship so early on is being inappropriate. You can’t change what happened, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed you. You’ve come out of a terrible situation wiser and more aware, and for that you are a better person. If you decide that you don’t want your life to be defined by your marriage then it doesn’t have to be, and no one needs to know that but you. The secrets of your life should be reserved for those you trust most, not handed out during dating conversations.
JOE: I think that you’re absolutely right when you say that social norms and empathy are the reason why the reaction is so universal. One suggestion might be to answer instead with something like “I had to leave an abusive situation, but it’s not a pleasant memory and we’re having such a great time here, so let’s just leave that topic for some other time.” That response is true, is sufficient for the moment, and leaves the topic open for later… when the second part of your letter comes into play.
When people have been abused, they emerge with a wide range of responses to new relationships. In your case, you seem to be saying that you want the man to continue to move things along – just at a slower pace. That’s absolutely fine and normal. However, others who have been through something similar might want to initiate all of the moves until they feel comfortable. Still others are almost reckless, moving things along faster than normal. Some men know that each woman’s response is going to be specific to her and not universal. Others are going to be afraid to seem too aggressive and will assume that you would want to call the shots to “prove” they’re not going to hurt you.
So, no matter who you date, you’ll need to provide some guidance about what you need to feel comfortable. It’s important to have introduced the fact earlier that your ex was abusive so that, at this point, you can explain that the abuse was physical, and, while you’re OK and normal and interested in New Guy and want him to initiate things, you need him to know that he has to move a bit slower so you can get comfortable with being vulnerable around him. Tell him you’ll let him know if he moves too quickly, and be sure to respond positively when his moves are what you want. It shouldn’t need to be more than a brief conversation, and with the right man, it’ll help things move past awkward and into comfortable with a minimum of confusion.
DAVID JAY: You are a rare gem. In a world full of wannabe reality stars wanting to portray themselves as victims, you take it the other way. I respect that. As usual, I won’t pull any punches: You ARE a victim. It happened and it is now part of your “life’s resume.” You are also SMART (to divorce him) and STRONG (to get back on your feet). While you claim to be normal, you instantly contradict that by implying you need special handling instructions. That indicates that your journey to wellness is still incomplete. I hope you are attending a domestic violence support group so you can find the peace you need, and frankly, deserve.
As far as broaching the subject on a date, why even do it until the relationship gets serious enough to warrant full disclosure? If he asks, say “I’m divorced.” If he presses, say “he didn’t want children” or something that redirects the conversation. By doing this, you give him time to see YOU as the person you truly are. I think that is what you want. It is also the only fair way you will get to see what kind of person he really is.
Final note: Replace the phrase “My ex hit me” with “I am a survivor of domestic violence.” It makes all the difference to your psyche.
*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at email@example.com and be sure to follow me on Twitter.