Q: I have a tough situation on my hands and would like your thoughts on how to approach it all. I have been dating a great gal for several months. I have very strong feelings for her and see a future with her.
Everything in the relationship seems to be going well. But I've started to find out more information about her past that just causes me to worry about her. I've come to find out that she was once in a physically abusive relationship, and that two years ago, she was raped. The two are separate situations.
I found out about the latter after we were intimate one night. I said and did something that triggered a flashback; most would construe what I did as a sweet and loving gesture. Unfortunately, what I did/said was very similar to what her attacker did and that's why she broke down. Knowing what I know of her, she probably would have kept this from me but she was forced to come clean after she broke down.
I really admire her strength but she has low self-esteem and is very apt to blame herself for stuff. What I think would help is reinforcing a higher sense of self-esteem by telling her how much I admire her strength, love her, and how I think she's so beautiful inside and out. Unfortunately, it's a Catch 22 because of the circumstances of her attack.
I literally found about the rape earlier tonight and am just floored. To be honest, I'm trying to write cohesively but feel like I'm just rambling. I'm hurting so much right now having found out what she's been through. I care about her a lot and am just so sad for her.
I guess my questions are:
1. Should I lay off trying to reinforcing a positive self esteem because of the Catch 22?
2. Should I also seriously back off getting intimate; she seems to enjoy the sex and has never pulled back or anything like that but I'm concerned that she might have a great poker face and is hiding that our getting intimate affects her and while she's said that she's seen counseling, I'm not sure if she's still currently seeing counseling. Should I bring the subject up again to be certain that she's getting help from people who know how to help?
3. All this just feels like such a heavy burden for her to carry. I care so much about her. She deserves the best and I am giving her my very best but this just feels so much bigger than me and what I can do.
– Wondering What To Do, Boston
A: WWTD, that's quite a letter.
The big thing that I usually tell significant others of rape/sexual assault/abuse survivors is that it's not up to them (the significant other) to decide how important the awful experience was for their partner. It's also not the job of the significant other to do any saving. The act of saving makes a person feel as though they need to be saved. And often, they've already saved themselves.
I'm not exactly sure what you mean by reinforcing positive self-esteem. There's no need to shower your girlfriend -- or anyone else for that matter -- with gratuitous compliments. Too much of that begins to sound disingenuous. Your desire to show up and spend time with her is the greatest compliment. No need to go above and beyond with "You're so pretty" rants.
And there's definitely no need to cut out the physical intimacy. If you refuse sex, you're basically telling her she isn't up to having it. This is her call. If she likes sex, fantastic.
This is bigger than you, but so is everything in her past. All you can do is ask questions and be a friend. In your case, it's OK to ask her if she's still in counseling. The bottom line is that she freaked out because of something you did. That gives you the right to ask her what you can do to avoid a repeat situation, and it certainly gives you the right to tell her that you're a bit dumfounded as to what to do with this new information. Explain that it doesn't turn you off to her (in fact, it only makes you respect her more), but you just want to have the healthiest, most awesome relationship with her that you possibly can, and you want some guidance -- from her and maybe whatever therapist she chooses to see, if she chooses to see one. The best thing to do when you don't know what to do is to ask. The question can be as simple as, "How important should I make this?" or "How important is this to you?" You're also allowed to say, "Sometimes I worry about your self-esteem, because you're pretty fantastic and you don't seem to know it."
It sounds like she just had a bad night. And maybe it was just her way of telling you a little more about herself. The best way to handle this new information is to ask questions, to be honest when you're feeling ignorant, to be a friend, to make her laugh, and to understand that she doesn't need you to fix her. Do all that and you're doing the best you can.
Readers? Is he allowed to suggest that she continue therapy? How important is this new information? Is there a way he can help with her self-esteem? Is there any reason to suggest he shouldn't be intimate with her? Share.
Also, on an unrelated note, I have two pairs of tickets for tomorrow's performance of "Prelude to a Kiss" at the Huntington Theatre. If you want them, send a paragraph to my Gmail (meregoldstein at gmail dot com) by 5 p.m. telling me who you want to kiss today and why. I'll pick winners tonight. Tomorrow's performance includes some sort of after-party.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.