But what happens if you find out her ex was more than the average remote-hogging jerk?
What if he was actually abusive?
“I need to tell you something,” she might say. “My ex used to [Insert: hit me, get drunk and shove me around, yell and slam doors …].”
The list of asshole actions is endless. So, it seems, is the list of women who’ve experienced some form of abuse in their lives
The problem is so prevalent that “even if a guy has only dated three people, [the odds are] two out of those three people have had some violent or abusive situation that they were involved in,” says marriage and family therapist George James.
Now that she’s told you—made personal the statistics we all hear about—what are you going to do?
Whether it’s the third date or the 30th, you may feel overwhelmed, angry, scared, confused, or all of the above. The inside of your head is a big, swirling, emotional ball of WTF. What do you say to her?
Try this suggestion from Bonnie Glover, the director at Domestic Violence Services of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: Start with a simple “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
Then try a question like, "How do you think it affected you?" Or just, "How are you?"
Then listen. She may want to talk a lot, or not at all. Trauma is trauma, but every woman’s story is different and you’re only going to know hers if you listen.
Listening, of course, will lead to questions—and possibly judgments. Questions like "WTF? Why didn’t you hit him back? Or at least get the authorities involved? Where is this guy ‘cause I pretty much want to kill him?”
These are all common reactions, but they are not going to help. While the biggest message you want to send is “I’m here,” most men want to do something.
Research is the best beginning. Get the facts about domestic violence and the broad range of effects it has on victims. That will help you understand why and how to tread carefully. Some actions, Glover says, “may trigger her. You need to be aware that the slightest thing can bring back powerful [bad] memories."
Simple actions like spinning around quickly, or raising your voice, can be very scary if, in the past, these things were preludes to violence.
Details about her history will help with this one. Those things she does that you may have thought were weird, like checking the locks all the time, or overly dramatic, like insisting you leave a restaurant because some guy was looking at her wrong? Now that you know where the reactions originated, you can be more patient and help create a place of safety. Safety and trust—huge amounts of both—are necessary in any relationship, but particularly in one where a person has been a victim of violence.
The fact that she’s talking to you at all means that she’s dealing with the past. A willingness to share is a sign of healthy recovery, says Glover. It also could be a signal that she trusts you, at least a little.
Survivors of domestic or sexual violence could also be “testing the waters … seeing if it’s safe to disclose, and make sure this person doesn’t have the propensity also,” according to Anna Grzelak, Program Director of the Sexual Assault Recovery Program in southern Wisconsin.
If you think it’s hard hearing a story about abuse, try being the person who’s getting hurt. Putting out a few feelers, seeing how you react to her experience, even asking if you’ve ever hit someone or been to jail, doesn’t mean she’s not giving you a fair shot. It just means she doesn’t want to be a target again.
So don’t make her one. Avoid impatient, controlling ultimatums about “getting over it." That diminishes her experience, takes away her power, and won’t make things better any faster.
Recovering from abuse, Glover says, is “not over in one day. It’s a process.”
Instead, check in with her. Did you find information online about domestic violence that you think she should read? Ask her permission, James says. It can be anything from legal resources to self-defense classes. If she invites you to share, share. If not, back off. You want to support and advocate for her, not dictate to her. This can be tough for some guys, especially in a culture where men are supposed to “be in charge.” This is definitely one situation in which leading the charge will take you in the wrong direction. She's smart, she got out of the relationship, what she needs from you is beta-male behavior.
Above all, James says, you don’t have to give up. You’re not the only guy in the world who’s been in this situation, the statistics being what they are.
With a little effort and a lot of patience and communication, you’ll prove you’re not like that other asshole. You’re the guy who’s there for her, the one who’s safe, who can listen with compassion and respect and earn her trust—and maybe a lot more than that.