How much do I share about past hurts?

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When and how much do I tell the other person in a relationship about the ways I’ve been hurt in the past? Am I putting myself in a vulnerable situation by telling him/her about my history and family background?

The person who asked me this question had not only been personally hurt in past relationships, but had witnessed the fallout of betrayal in past generations of his/her family. I grieve to hear it. And I wish I could say that this is an unusual situation. But it isn’t.

Let’s start with this: any relationship of true intimacy will necessarily involve vulnerability. It is inherently risky to give someone your trust, to let them see your weakness and pain. But only in that way can we discover that there are actually people who are worthy of that trust, people who know us for who we really are and yet don’t take advantage of us or run away. Hopefully, our parents proved their trustworthiness to us long ago. And as Christians, we believe that God is trustworthy in ways that we can still scarcely imagine. With God, we don’t have to pretend to be someone we’re not.

But people, of course, are not God.

Again, intimacy entails vulnerability, and vulnerability entails risk. Telling someone how you’ve been hurt in the past doesn’t necessarily increase your risk of being hurt in the same way again. But as the question above suggests, timing is important.

Let’s be honest. People don’t generally approach dating relationships with purely altruistic motives. They don’t say, “I don’t care if I get anything out of the relationship; I’m here entirely to serve you.” Like it or not, there’s an implicit cost-benefit analysis hovering in the background: How much work is it being with you, and is it worth it?  I’m not saying that’s the way it should be; I’m saying that’s the way it often is.

Imagine the following scenario:

I’ve been deeply hurt by others, and I don’t want to be hurt again. With this new person I’m dating, I feel a sense of hope that things will be different this time. But alongside that hope is the lingering anxiety that this relationship too will bring me pain. Wouldn’t it be better to find out sooner rather than later? If s/he really loves me, if s/he really is “the one,” can’t I just be honest and it will all be okay? So, with some trepidation, I share my story. Perhaps, in my anxiety, I pour out the story too quickly, or in too much detail. And to my chagrin, I see the other person begin to pull back, and I feel rejected…

The sad fact is that if I come across as being too “needy” before the other person is ready to commit to loving me for who I am, warts and all, I will probably scare them away. And if I’m honest with myself, the same is true going the other way: I have my own limits in terms of how much neediness I’m willing to accept in the other person.

We must have compassion both for ourselves and for the other person. We must accept not only the fact of our own brokenness, but the fact that others are broken in their own ways. We can’t expect them to immediately be ready to deal with anything we toss at them. That’s not a unique personal failing. That’s the human condition.

At some point, if the relationship is worth its salt, you will want to know that the other person can hear your deep sorrows and fears. But I can’t tell you with certainty how to know when you’ve reached that point. Just remember that some things you want to be able to say freely may be hard to listen to — and if you don’t have consideration for that fact, it will feel like an unreasonable demand to the other person.

So go slowly. If, for example, you’re gun-shy of conflict, try calmly voicing a small difference of opinion at first (like wanting to go somewhere else for dinner) and see how it goes. Your goal is to get more comfortable in expressing your thoughts and feelings, while learning the sensitivity to not overwhelm the other person with too much information all at once.

In short, work your way up to the hard stuff, one step at a time. Hopefully, you’ll gain confidence in the relationship as you go.