Dear Prudence

I Abused Past Partners. Do I Have to Tell My Current Boyfriend?

Prudie’s column for June 15.

A man covering his face with his hand in shame.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by MangoStar_Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a gay man, and I was always kind of aware that I treated my boyfriends badly, but I didn’t see it as a big deal. I’d just blame it on my violently abusive upbringing and act as though that excused everything I did. I had a wake-up call last year when I got a message from an ex telling me he had been diagnosed with PTSD as a direct consequence of our relationship and asking me to help pay his therapy bills. I was chilled, and reading his descriptions of what I put him through made me realize I was abusive. I’d never physically hurt him, but I’d controlled his actions, isolated him, and even encouraged his eating disorder. I was, as another ex put it, a monster. I paid his therapy bills and put myself in therapy for as long as I could afford it and am still currently in a great group for abusive men trying to change their behaviors. I’ve made a lot of progress but still have a long way to go.

The issue is my current boyfriend. We started dating eight months ago, when I was probably not ready to date again. I’d been crazy about him for a long time and didn’t want to say no when he asked me out. We are now talking about moving in together (his lease expires soon), and I feel like I will be doing a terrible thing if I let him move in with me without fully disclosing my past, not least since I think my worst controlling behaviors came out when my last boyfriend moved in with me. He knows my last relationship ended badly, and I told him I didn’t treat my ex well and that it was my fault but didn’t go into any detail. He’s never asked beyond that. What should I tell him? I desperately don’t want to say to this wonderful, compassionate man, “By the way, my last boyfriend needed therapy after dealing with my psychological abuse and stalking tendencies. I’m really sorry about it, though!” because obviously he will leave me. But do I owe him this? Should I just not be in a relationship at all? I don’t know what to do and sincerely want to behave better than I have in the past. I will take whatever advice you give me on this.
—Do I Tell Him I Was Abusive?

I do think that you should tell him, not least because he has a vested interest (not to mention a right) to have that information before deciding whether to move in together or continue this relationship. You should also tell him because if you don’t, you’ll feel furtive, guilty, and shameful the moment he moves in, as if you’re getting away with something you shouldn’t be, and that will color the way you treat him and yourself. Worse, you’ll grow paranoid and agitated worrying that he’ll find out through some other means. If you don’t tell him and the two of you move in together, it simply won’t work. Your peace will vanish, a distance will spring up between the two of you, and your sense of having changed for the better over the past year will begin to slip away. This is another form of controlling behavior masquerading as vulnerability and fear: Your fantasy is that if you can control your boyfriend’s access to information about your past behavior, you can guarantee you’ll keep him. If you follow that instinct, it’ll likely be the start of a slippery slope back into trying to control, isolate, and demoralize your partner.

But you actually have something better to say to your boyfriend than “My last boyfriend needed therapy after dealing with my psychological abuse and stalking tendencies. I’m really sorry about it, though.” In addition to what sounds like sincere regret for your past abuse, you can tell him what changed when you realized you were using your upbringing as an excuse to abuse your partners, what financial and emotional amends you’ve been able to make, and what you continue to get out of your support group. Then give him space to have his own reaction. I’d recommend going back to therapy so you can get more specific advice from someone who specializes in accountability practices.

The work of accountability and change is a long-term project, and while you can continue to make progress, I don’t think you should think of your past abuse as something you can graduate from or forget about. The goal should not be to bury it but to be open, honest, clear, and specific and to develop new behavior and healthy ways of dealing with fear, anger, and your desire to control others. If you sincerely want to behave better, then you’ll have to make different decisions. That starts with what you say to your boyfriend right now and not deciding you know what’s best for him without his knowledge or consent.

I’m not interested in declaring that you either should or shouldn’t ever be in a romantic relationship. What I want for you is to continue to choose not to abuse your partners and to commit yourself to ongoing accountability. Set aside some time to have this conversation in a neutral place, let him know he can ask you anything, allow him the freedom to have his own response (up to and including the decision to end your relationship), and try to arrange to meet with a therapist or someone from your support group afterward. You can’t control whether you two stay together, but you can control whether you ever abuse a boyfriend again. I sincerely wish you the best.

Dear Prudence,
I made a new friend recently in a city where I don’t know many people. She’s awesome and fun to hang out with, and we have a lot in common, but she texts me every day, sometimes all day. I’d love to see her once or twice a month, but she asks me to make plans several times a week. The constant texting stresses me out and distracts me from my work. Worst of all, she treats me saying no to plans as the start of a negotiation to get me to say yes. I feel like I constantly have an unpleasant task waiting for me on my phone, and as soon as I complete it, I’ll be assigned another. Normally I would make myself less available, text back only once a week or so, and she would eventually back off. She hasn’t. She’ll continue to text me without a response, and at the end of the week I have 30 or 40 texts to respond to. My social anxiety can’t handle this. I have no idea what to say to her. Is there any way to salvage this friendship? Should I try?
—Clingy Friend

Even without social anxiety, this would be too much for most friendships. But there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic, since you two enjoy each other’s company in person and you haven’t told her yet that this bothers you. The only way out is through! Say to her: “I love hanging out with you, but I need you to dial back your texting, especially when I tell you I’m not free to get together and you keep asking. I have time to get together once or twice a month, and I love spending time together when we do, but this is way too much for me. Please stop texting me when I don’t respond.” The idea of being this direct might be frightening, but it’s important to be honest here so that she has a chance to reflect on her own behavior. It’s also a reasonable thing to say, and dropping hints or pointedly not responding for a day or two is not getting through to her. Unless you want to ghost her (and it doesn’t sound like you do), the way to salvage this is to tell her what she’s doing wrong and ask her to stop. My guess is that she’s not aware how she’s coming across, and while she might be initially embarrassed, she’ll ultimately be grateful for the feedback and scale it back. It’ll also set a foundation for you to acknowledge this habit in the future, so if a few months from now she slips up (“Oh, Monday doesn’t work? How about Tuesday?”), you can say, “Hey, this is a little too much for me. Let’s talk next week,” and she’ll know exactly what you mean.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

“I’m a fairly inexperienced woman in her mid-20s. To keep it short, I have had a few partners, but until recently, the relationships I had weren’t very healthy and sex wasn’t especially pleasing to me. I figured that I might be asexual. Sex wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible—I was basically just doing it to please my previous partners. I am now dating a person I have grown to really like. They have been wonderful in helping my own sexuality, so much so that I have discovered arousal, attraction, pleasure, and, for the first time, desire. (I now think I’m more demisexual as a result.) But I have now been confronted with some issues. First, how do I manage this whole attraction business? Now I want and think about sex with my partner a lot. I feel like I’m imposing myself on them and belittling them with my desires. Second, how do I find balance between sex and other stuff in our relationship? I’m scared our relationship is becoming mainly sexual. I don’t know how much sex is too much. How do I find out?