The Elephant in the Room

The nuances of a romantic relationship are multi-faceted. From the dating, romance, and passion to the differences, power struggles, and disappointments, the average couple can experience all stops along this journey to couple-dom. Couples are strongly encouraged to enjoy the dates, the long talks about nothing, the cuddles, or whatever makes them smile. Enjoy every moment of these new experiences with your someone special! Have fun!

As the bond within the couple begins to strengthen and your lives merge, you are investing emotions into this relationship. You are allowing yourself to be vulnerable. This person is officially your “Boo”. Personal details are revealed, which is common and expected.

These details are more than just likes and dislikes, though. We are talking about “major details”….it could be family secrets such as molestation, extremely unsafe experiences that caused harm such as rape, or mental illness with your partner or their family. The list of “major details” is limitless and the effects can be timeless. The one thing that is more concrete and defined is the name given and the effects experienced from these “major details”. It is called trauma.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”. Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors, as noted by SAMHSA, TIP 37.

So what do you do now as the survivor that just disclosed your “secret”? Or as the partner that just received it? There are no take-backs and the information is now in the universe. We officially have an elephant in the room.
Here are a few pointers to consider:

1. Be honest
The survivor is encouraged to share to their comfort level and not minimize their experiences or the impact the trauma has had on them. The partner is encouraged to listen without trying to fix anything. Ask if you can ask questions. The survivor may not want to answer them in that moment of disclosure or at all. Will the partner be ok without knowing “full details” if they are not offered? If you’re not ok, please ask yourself “why”.

2. Communicate your needs
The survivor is encouraged to set up boundaries around triggering matters, if known. If the triggers are unknown then the partner is encouraged to reinforce communication to explore this safely. It is important to continue to learn what makes the survivor feel safe vs unsafe. The partner is encouraged to communicate when they do not understand, as well. Be gentle with one another. This is sensitive territory.

3. Find and give support
The survivor is encouraged to activate their support system outside of their partner. Identify the emotional outlet that allows the survivor to process their partner’s response. The partner is encouraged to ask what is needed to make the survivor feel reinforced after this vulnerable moment. Is the partner prepared to do nothing, if that is requested? Everything cannot be fixed.

4. Be patient
There has been a shift in the dynamics of the relationship. The partner cannot “unknow” nor can the survivor “undisclose”. The elephant in the room cannot be ignored if the integrity of the relationship is to be maintained and (hopefully) fortified. Ask yourself…how do you eat an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time. Patience is key.

If you and your partner find yourself at a crossroads after a traumatic disclosure, the inclusion of couples therapy could be helpful. Couples therapy offers a space to dissect the feelings of shame, process the challenges with sexual intimacy, and identify the external factors that precipitated the disclosure, such as negative physical symptoms like anxiety and depression that impact the relationship. Therapy can offer guidance with identifying the source of conflict, increase empathy and understanding, and build a safe, open sexual relationship.

–Chenita Rountree, LCSW, LCAS

American Psychological Association.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma.

Chenita Rountree is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina and sees clients in our Durham office and via telehealth. To schedule an appointment with Chenita or any of the therapists at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center, call 919-297-8322.

Chenita Rountree

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