We all have baggage, but it’s crucial to find a partner who loves you enough to help you unpack, says Tracy Branfield
Dealing with a traumatic past can be difficult enough without having your current partner judging you. However, as with any relationship, honesty is the best policy, and although it may seem daunting to share your secrets with someone, talking about it will lighten your load.
Relationships go through stages, from getting to know each other to a real, mature love. Each stage has its own appropriate level of communication and disclosure as a couple learns to trust each other entirely.
Brian Blem, a couples counselling psychologist, explains. ‘Much like testing the water by putting your toe in to assess the temperature, so our communication often starts at a superficial level. When we are ready, and hingeing upon our boundaries, it gets more personal.’
Creating a safe space
Imagine disclosing sacred information only to receive a response of rejection, ridicule or criticism. Such a response could make anyone think twice before sharing the sensitive details of their past trials, tribulations and experiences.
‘The most important aspect of any relationship is the ability to contribute information in an honest and authentic way for trust and intimacy to grow, and for the relationship to properly deliver on its potential,’ explains Brian. ‘A key element we need to understand and develop is our ability to communicate effectively with one another.’
Durban counselling psychologist Michelle Bennett agrees. ‘If the two of you are truly compatible and both on the same page, it’s far easier to accept your partner’s past. Clear, honest and loving communication is crucial. You need to listen to each other and find common ground.’
For you and your partner to be truly invested in your relationship, both of you should feel safe by offering each other supportive feedback. ‘Safety is the key dynamic to a successful relationship and it has much more to do with how we say things than what we say,’ explains Brian. ‘When a couple can realise the importance of keeping things safe on every level, and are prepared to work together, they have the foundation for a more loving, long-lasting and deeply fulfilling relationship.’
Help your partner empty their closet:
If they were cheated on… Your partner is very likely to have trust issues and, therefore, it’ll be even more important to create a loyal relationship where they can learn how to trust again. However, your partner needs to realise that they can’t punish you for someone else’s mistakes. ‘Both of you need to be on the lookout for displaced anger and mistrust that has more to do with their past relationship than with your current one,’ explains Michelle.
If they were the cheater… It is helpful for your partner to be able to talk to you about their cheating on any previous partners. Their degree of insight and unwillingness to repeat the same mistake will help to reassure you. ‘Your partner should be able to really convince you that you will not become a statistic in a historically dysfunctional pattern, and they’ve realised that there are healthier, more mature ways of dealing with a relationship that isn’t working any more, without cheating,’ explains Michelle.
If they come from a dysfunctional family environment… Therapy sessions will help your partner open up to you about their past and you will be able to better understand how their past has shaped them into who they are today. Michelle advises couples counselling for managing an ongoing toxic family situation. ‘Your partner will need to put appropriate boundaries in place, so that their family won’t cause further problems in your current relationship.’
Time to say goodbye?
• ‘The longer the relationship goes on, the more difficult it is to end it, as we tend to adapt and get used to our current dynamics, even when they’re dysfunctional,’ explains Brian.
• It takes a courageous person to face the fact that they can’t accept things the way they are and terminate the relationship.
• Consider couples counselling as a last resort before divorce or separation, especially when there are children involved.
• Ask your family and friends for support after you have ended your relationship. The emotional support from others will help you rebuild your sense of community.
Dorothy Black is a sex journalist and educator
My boyfriend has become a lot less intimate with me. When I asked him why, he said I had gained a lot of weight and that I needed to wear perfume to smell nicer. I have never had self-esteem problems, but I do overeat when I’m stressed. I’m not sure if I can be intimate with him if he feels uncomfortable with my body. I am working on losing the weight, but I’m not prepared to make changes to myself for him. Our relationship needs the spark back but I can’t change into someone I’m not.
There are two overlapping problems here: your body confidence and your relationship. Gaining weight can be symptomatic of something going off balance – whether that is a lifestyle, medication, hormonal or emotional issue (such as stress eating) that needs to be addressed. Living your healthiest, best and most balanced life is first and foremost a priority that must benefit you, so you’re right in making changes for yourself.
But being in a relationship means that your choices also affect someone else. So expecting zero response from your boyfriend to these changes you and your body are going through is unrealistic. However, acknowledging this doesn’t excuse superficial, unkind or childish behaviour. What it does is help you understand the dynamic between you two and read character and priority. Do you want to be with someone who withdraws physically when your body changes? What will this say about your future if you plan to have children? What does your reaction say about how much you trust him or feel desired? Is there room for compromise?
A healthy relationship encourages us to be the best we can – this includes hearing things that are uncomfortable. ‘Getting the spark back’ is not about weight loss; it’s more about answering these questions honestly.