I am a 28 year old woman and live with my parents and 4 siblings. Growing up, I witnessed a lot of domestic violence that was physical and emotional. I believe it has also affected the relationships between my siblings and I as we are not close whatsoever.
Given this very odd arrangement, I am always very hesitant to speak about my family whenever I meet someone new or if I am dating.
How do you think I can explain my family situation to strangers?-A ( )
- 1 Background
- 2 Amna’s Answer
- 2.1 Talking about traumatic experiences
- 2.2 How can I explain my past trauma to new people?
- 2.3 Effects of childhood trauma on relationships
- 2.4 The Body Keeps the Score
- 2.5 Will talking about it help me?
I am a 28 year old woman and live with my parents and 4 siblings. Growing up, I witnessed a lot of domestic violence that was physical and emotional. My siblings and I had to intervene at a young age to stop the physical violence and it has left a deep and painful mark on me until this day. I believe it has also affected the relationships between my siblings and I as we are not close whatsoever, and hardly speak, which I think initially started as a coping mechanism to figure out what had happened; our bond is only through our mother and if she is out of the country, we just don’t communicate for weeks.
Given this very odd arrangement, I am always very hesitant to speak about my family whenever I meet someone new or if I am dating. I always feel like I am being judged for not having a relationship with my family and I further do not want to complicate matters by telling people my theory that it stemmed from the violence at home, especially men as I’m not sure if they are understanding or sympathetic to that situation. Furthermore, it scares to me think that because violence was already at my home, I am thus unprotected and they can also harm me since my father did that to my mom.
How do you think I can explain my family situation to strangers?
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Thank you for sharing your story. You had a difficult childhood, which usually complicates any relationships you experience later in life. I’m sorry that you had to experience so much trauma in your childhood, I can’t imagine how hard that was.
You are not alone though — if you browse online relationship and marriage forums/groups you will find a lot of people who share this problem.
It isn’t a surprise that you are still affected by your experiences. You will probably be affected by them for the rest of your life — such pain and trauma in childhood does not go away so easily, not even with time. Therapy and professional help will assist in reducing the effects of trauma and helping you cope; I hope you got or are getting the help that you need. If you haven’t, it is worth thinking about. People can develop PTSD or complex PTSD after witnessing domestic violence in the home.
Talking about traumatic experiences
The short answer is: you don’t need to explain your situation to strangers. This is your life and your pain, it’s up to you if and when you disclose it to someone. This is your story.
As women, we don’t often have much control over our lives and we end up accepting this as normal. As a result, we often feel pressured to do things we don’t want to because we think that we have to. We have been raised to please others all the time. Decisions in your life should be made with your full consent. You have power over yourself and your story.
Everyone has a right to privacy and we don’t “owe” anyone anything, especially those we don’t know very well.
Not everyone is close to their family and it isn’t so unusual to be estranged from certain family members. Sometimes we overthink things and assume what other people are thinking. Remember, we aren’t mind readers! It is a symptom of childhood trauma for victims to perceive rejection even if they are being accepted. Keep that in mind.
If you are not comfortable talking about your family, be vague. You can talk about your siblings and family in general terms. You don’t have to go into details. People usually get the hint if you are not forthcoming with information.
Rehearse a “story” that you can tell people which covers the general facts about your family (not the abuse). This way you don’t have to think about it too much and you can get it out of the way.
It’s up to you how much you share with strangers. It’s completely acceptable to keep some things to yourself. If someone presses you, be firm. I find that saying “it’s a long story” works.
If they still don’t respect your wishes at this point, well, that’s kind of a red flag isn’t it?
Remember: “no” is a full sentence. You do not have to explain yourself.
How can I explain my past trauma to new people?
Make a connection first
Telling someone about your childhood becomes more important once things get a little more serious. It is important that the people you are involved with understand your trauma, because it forms a part of you. To make that step however, we need to feel safe and build a connection with someone. We need to know that we can safely disclose things about ourselves without being judged.
The key point here is trust. When you trust someone, you feel safe around them and it’s easier to open up. We will always be scared about being judged, but the more trust there is the more confident we can be that we won’t be judged.
Connection can be achieved in many ways. What works for me is asking questions about a person’s opinions and worldview. It’s important for me to know where they lie on moral and political issues. This helps me judge how open I can be with them. It also helps me feel more comfortable about opening up.
figure out if they are judgemental or not
How do we know whether a person is judgemental or not?
Communication, communication, communication.
By using regular, meaningful communication you will be able to tell pretty soon how judgemental someone is. Are they overly critical of others? Do they compare people or themselves often? Do you get any superiority complex vibes from them?
If someone gives people the benefit of the doubt, if they recognise that others are complex, if they are kind and empathetic then they are probably not judgemental.
The way I determine this is by asking philosophical or hypothetical questions. I ask general questions to get an insight into their personality and how judgemental they may be. Doing this can help you tell (a) whether someone is judgemental or not and (b) how they may react to the uncomfortable things you want to share. It’s important to get to know a person’s mindset, values and beliefs before you get too involved. It will save you a lot of heartache.
When getting to know my husband I asked his opinions on things that I thought were controversial. I asked about his views on abortion, virginity, alcohol, etc. They were only hypothetical questions and didn’t relate to me, of course, but it helped me gauge how judgemental he was.
I don’t think my husband knows this, but his answers to those questions were what “sealed the deal” for me. I knew we were compatible. I knew he was not-judgemental. Over the years, I’ve actually learned how to be non-judgemental from him.
Someone recently recommended some card games from the School of Life. The cards have different questions you can ask the other person and they are designed to spark meaningful conversations. It helps you ask the right questions to judge compatibility and it is fun too! I haven’t personally tried it yet, but it looks promising.
Instead of actually playing the game, you can just make some notes of the questions you think are important and bring them up in conversation. It’s a useful starting point.
Prepare for the discussion
So let’s say you have created a connection and started trusting someone. Now you want to share. How on earth are you ever going to do that?
Of course, sharing something so personal is a terrifying prospect. Our secrets and traumas often don’t see the cold light of day and the thought of telling someone new is scary. How will they react? Will they reject me because of my flaws?
It will always be scary. There’s not much we can do to remove that fear. But what you can do is prepare and plan for the experience to be as smooth as it possibly can be.
The right place and the right time
When you have made the decision, choose a safe place to have the discussion. It could be a quiet area in the park, it could be a café you enjoy going to, it could be online or it could be by text.
Make sure it happens when you both have time. You don’t want anyone to be distracted or have an important appointment to get to after. You need to be able to take as much time as you need.
Give the person the heads up that you need to talk about something quite personal and potentially uncomfortable. Help them get into the right headspace.
Ease into it
You don’t have to say everything right away. You can could say something like “I experienced something really bad in my childhood and it has affected me and the relationships in my family. I don’t feel comfortable going into details right now, but I just wanted you to know. I need some time, but I hope to share more with you in the future.”
I loved this post and this drawing by Lindsay Braman. I think it says it all really!
Write a script
This might sound weird, but it can help. Write out what you want to say and what you want to get across to this person. How detailed do you want to be? What do you need them to know? You don’t have to read out the script or even have it with you but writing out your thoughts will help keep it clear in your mind and will help calm your nerves. You are less likely to get tongue tied.
Decide what you want and express it
Before you start the discussion, think about what you want from it. What do you want to hear and what do you not want to hear? Once you figure that out, add it to your script and explain it to the person are going to discuss this with.
Explain that you just want them to listen and you don’t want to be judged. Explain why you think it’s important that you share this information with them. I assume you don’t want them to give you solutions or tell you how to “fix” your family. Make sure you communicate that.
Manage your expectations
Be prepared for questions. They might be shocked or confused and may want to know more. Prepare your responses and what you are willing to answer.
It is possible that they will react negatively. Sometimes people can’t process heavy information like this. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad — sometimes we can’t help our gut reactions. Be prepared for this possible outcome, but I hope if you followed the steps above it won’t come to it.
Learn when to walk away
The person you share with should react with empathy and support. This story is not about them.
If they do not react this way, if they judge you or shame you then it is time to walk away. If they can’t accept you as you are and be kind, do you really want this person in your life?
What happened to you is not your fault and there is no reason for someone to treat you differently because of it.
Effects of childhood trauma on relationships
I wanted to touch a little on the point you made about being afraid of being in an abusive relationship because of your past. You naturally have a negative perception of relationships — it has been imprinted on you from a young age. We learn about relationships from our parents and when they have unhealthy, abusive relationships it can shape our fears and perceptions.
In this article, the author describes the relationship she entered into after she left her abusive ex. Even though she knew her new boyfriend would never hurt her, her past trauma continued to affect her. She describes her trauma responses and explains:
I’m still conditioned to believe that any frustration or annoyance on the part of my partner can become anger and violence directed at me… One day when my boyfriend knocked on the door after work, I flew into a full-blown panic. My ex used to get angry with me if I didn’t unlock the door when he texted to say he was on his way home.
I apologized over and over, on the verge of tears. My boyfriend spent several minutes calming me down and reassuring me that he wasn’t angry that I didn’t unlock the door.– Bethany Fulton, Healthline
Trauma cuts deep, no matter how old it is.
The Body Keeps the Score
Recovering from childhood trauma is not easy. The effects of childhood trauma are very wide and long-lasting. It actually has a lasting physical effect. I am currently reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der Kolk which describes how trauma affects the body and how to heal from it. This quote struck me:
We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.– Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Before you get into a committed relationship, I would strongly encourage you work on your emotional trauma. You don’t have to live in that fear of the cycle repeating itself if you choose your partner wisely. To do that, it’s important to work on healing your scars. Trauma can cloud our judgement and sometimes we pick the wrong people because of the way trauma has warped our minds and perception of others.
Professional help and therapy can help with that. Dr Bessel also says:
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
Will talking about it help me?
I want to end this post by asking you to consider your intentions in explaining your family situation to a stranger. A post on Therapy for Black Girls makes a great point:
“Trauma should be shared for the purpose of meaning-making to induce healing and restore inner balance.” – Dr Joy BradfordDr Joy Bradford, Therapy for black girls
Sharing your trauma is about your own health. Your feelings and experiences are individual to you. As I said above, you don’t need to explain yourself to anyone if you don’t want to. If you do want to, take the time that you need and treat yourself gently. Reclaim your power and control: it is your story and you decide when to tell it.
Until next time,