How to broach a difficult topic with someone you’re starting to date

"What you have to say doesn't define you."

weather forecast thursday june 6
–John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Are you dating someone new? Do you have something you need to share with them, but you’re dreading it?

Tracy Strauss, author of the book “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life” (out May 7), knows what it’s like to struggle on the dating scene due to a challenging experience. She said her “particular past deals with sexual abuse, sexual assault, and harassment.” You may have experienced these yourself, or perhaps you’ve faced addiction, physical or mental illness, or, really, anything.

“We all have something difficult that we are dealing with. Nobody is immune to that,” said Strauss, who also teaches writing at the New England Conservatory of Music and GrubStreet. “So how do you overcome that and break free from whatever obstacles are set up for you so you can have fulfilling relationships and a fulfilling life?”

Advertisement

Strauss shared five tips for broaching a difficult topic with a new partner.

Give yourself a pep talk

It’s definitely OK and normal to be scared before you disclose, Strauss said.

“I think we’re all pretty nervous when we’re in a new relationship and we’re bringing up a topic that can be kind of touchy,” she said. “Be positive, and know that what you have to say doesn’t define you.”

Strauss said to remind yourself that you are more than the topic you want to share.

“Going into a conversation that way even puts out that vibe to your new partner,” she said. “[A vibe of,] ‘I am more than that, but this is part of the package.'”

Try to bring it up organically

“Ideally, I like to broach a difficult topic with a new partner when it feels organic in conversation,” Strauss said. “For example, if it’s something about family and family comes up in conversation, it’s a natural opening.”

Don’t feel the need to dive into every detail right away, Strauss said.

An example she suggested: “Something pretty painful happened to me many years ago. It’s probably not the best time to go into many details right now. I’ll share more once we get to know each other better.”

Advertisement

Strauss said that you should share, at the very least, what category your information falls into — such as your family, your health, or past relationships — because it’s not productive to be mysterious. And if your partner asks questions and if you do feel comfortable answering them, that’s great, too.

Make it clear that you’re looking for support, not a solution

You don’t want your partner to think you are asking them to fix your problem, Strauss said, so take that pressure off at the beginning of the discussion. She suggested explaining what your issue is and how you are approaching it, saying, “I just want you to know this is something I am taking into the relationship, this is something I struggle with.”

Strauss said you can even be more direct by saying, “I need your support and understanding, but I don’t expect you to fix my problem. This is my responsibility to fix.”

Take a break from the topic to relax and reconnect

If the discussion has gone on for a while, Strauss said it’s a good idea to give yourselves a break — for several minutes, several hours, or even several days. You’ll know what feels right for your relationship. Perhaps you’ll decide to take a walk along the Charles, go to a movie, watch a sports game, or go out to dinner, she said.

Strauss stressed that the break doesn’t mean you are avoiding the topic.

“You are recognizing that this is a difficult topic, but you and your partner and your growing relationship are much bigger than this one difficult thing,” she said.

Have no regrets

Advertisement

“Disclosure is always a risk,” Strauss said. “You don’t know how the other person is going to respond. You don’t have control over that.”

Opening up to your partner could ultimately deepen the relationship and bring it to a new level. It’s also possible that your partner could react harshly to your news. It’s important to remember that your partner’s reaction is not a reflection on you.

“I think, don’t write them off at that point, if you have seen some really nice qualities about them,” she said. “Maybe see what may happen if the subject is broached again.”

No matter what happens, Strauss said, never regret sharing your story.

“Know that you did the right thing in sharing this difficult topic, whatever it is,” she said.