I'm a former abuser -- should I tell my girlfriend?

I'm afraid she'll leave me if I reveal my past

By Cary Tennis

Published October 12, 2009 7:06AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Just a reminder: I'll be away three days this week at our fall Creative Getaway up at Marconi Conference Center.

The column will run Monday, and then will resume on Friday.

It's especially beautiful up there when it rains! I'm looking forward to it. A community of amazing people is growing up around these events. I'm looking forward to seeing those who are coming back and those coming for the first time. After all the months of preparation, it will be good to sink into the experience.

Have a good week, and please consider joining us at one of the next upcoming creative getaways.

Dear Cary,

On half a dozen occasions, during the first few years of my decades-long marriage, I physically abused my wife. This abuse, and the years we went without discussing it, was one of the factors that led to our recent divorce. The divorce itself led me into therapy where I was able to understand my reasons for the abuse, and the effect it had on both my wife and our relationship. After our divorce, my ex-wife and I attended therapy together where the abuse was addressed and some amount of nascent healing took place.

Currently, I've started seeing someone else and this woman means a lot to me. Our relationship is at a point where we've started talking about sharing a future together; however, I haven't told her about the abuse in my previous relationship. I want her to know because it's part of my past -- albeit a very painful, unflattering part -- but I believe that she may leave me once I tell her. To complicate matters, my ex-wife, in a bit of uncharacteristic malice, has announced her intentions to tell any woman I might be in a relationship with about the abuse at their first meeting.

So, I'm scared and confused. I want to tell my girlfriend about my past, but also want her to understand that she's not at risk of being abused. And ideally, she would choose not to dump me. Frankly, I'd put this off as long as possible, but I'm trying to do things in this relationship better than I had in the past, and pushing it off doesn't seem honest to me. Lastly, I would really like my girlfriend to hear the truth from me, rather than from my ex-wife in what I can only imagine would be a very uncomfortable random meeting.

Thank you.


Dear Ex-Abuser,

I think you do have to tell her, but you need to prepare. You need a narrative. You need a story that connects your past behavior with your present behavior in a way that is true and believable and authentic. You need your girlfriend to understand how it could be that the person you are today did the things you did then, and how the person who did those things has changed, or has been blessed, or is held in check, or has been conquered by the person you are today.

To tell this story will require a truthful understanding of what actually did happen and how you changed. Perhaps you acquired some knowledge of that in therapy: a functional understanding of what abusive behavior is, what triggers it, what your state was, how your state changed, and why this won't happen today.

You also need a daily program, some set of real-world actions you take every day. Just saying that you think about it every day, or that you are a different person today, is not what I mean. These actions must be physical and they must be repeatable. You need to be doing something every day that shows that you are committed to preventing this behavior of physical abuse from happening again. These daily actions must be clear enough so she can understand them.

She must understand that this propensity for violence is also still a part of you in some form. She must understand that some of it remains. So I suggest you ask yourself what parts of it remain. That would be the question you would want to answer. What related elements of that propensity for violence exist today? A temper? A tendency to bully? Poor conflict-resolution skills? A reluctance to be questioned? A drive for power? Simmering anger? A history of being abused? Unresolved feelings toward your abusers, toward your parents, toward others from your childhood?

Now, I don't understand the mechanics of physical abuse the way I understand the mechanics of addiction.

I do get angry. But I'm basically a martyr. My mode of attack is to plunge myself into such self-pity that you'll never recover.

I'll mope you to death.

So I'm not much help on the actual striking-out-and-hitting-somebody front. You'll have to explain how that happens.

But here is a question you might use as a guide: What are you doing today, or, better yet, if it is after 10 a.m., what have you done already today to demonstrate you have a daily program designed to ensure you never fall back into this old behavior?

See, I believe in programs of action. I know that people sometimes change fundamentally, but I don't trust fundamental change as a cure; I trust daily activities as a bulwark, a precaution, against something that we can never know for certain is gone.

Take my alcoholism, for instance -- Please! Take my alcoholism! (That's a dumb joke.) I haven't had a drink in over 20 years. Do I think that therefore the condition that caused so much harm to me and others is gone? I would like to think so. But anecdotal evidence indicates otherwise. Anecdotal evidence is all around me that this condition recurs. The evidence is that I'm no different from anyone else in this respect. So I look around me and keep doing what I'm doing. Or try to.

So that's my take on it. I wouldn't lie about it. I would get together some kind of daily program that indicates I haven't forgotten or minimized it.

So, I don't know, like I say, what the triggers are, or the mechanism.

So, you need a story. A story connects what happened earlier with what happened later, in a causative or at least logical and understandable way.

Get a book and follow a routine. That's what I would suggest. Get several books.

Let me just try out a hypothetical model, something you might say. You might say that you have something in your past that you have to come clean about. But before you come clean about it, you might want to say what you are doing today to keep yourself from falling back into it.

Say, for instance, you know today that you are an angry person with a high need for control and undeveloped skills at negotiation, listening and compromise. Say that you know why you are this way -- because you yourself were abused as a child, and that it is well known that childhood abuse stunts certain kinds of developmental processes necessary to producing healthy, well-rounded adults. So say that it's to be expected that abused children grow up as adults with more than their share of further developmental work to be done. So say that adults either do that work or more than likely they're going to get into trouble, either doing drugs or causing other people harm. So say that you know all that now but you didn't know it then. And, well, so you physically abused your wife.

You take responsibility for that. It wasn't somebody else who did that. It was you. But you now are taking steps, every day, to ensure that it doesn't happen again. And here are the steps you take, every day. Here is how you handle anger today. Here are the issues that trigger your anger and here is what you do when your anger gets triggered.

Maybe you structure the story like that: Things that happened, their consequences, your subsequent actions, what you do today. What you did this morning.

People can believe you or not believe you. That's their choice. But the more evidence you can produce of your current behavior, the better chance you have.

Now, you can't blame people if they're just not interested. It's not pretty.

But it's real.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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