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Breaking Communication Barriers From Past Abusive Relationships

by Steve Winn
(Louisville, Kentucky)

Dr. DeFoore,

I just read your paper “The Power of Intimacy: Overcoming Barriers to Deep and Lasting Closeness.” I thank you for writing it as after hours of research it most fits my situation. Oh, by the way, thank you for taking the time to read this. I’ll be brief. I’m dating a 32 year old women that has had a long history of being in physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Fortunately, good karma has finally come her way. I’m not trying to be arrogant or a narcissist by any means, but I’m fortunate that I was raised to treat women with respect and never lay a hand on any woman in anger. We have been dating for some 18 months now. She is from a small town where men tend to be drunks, demeaning toward women, and have no problem with “putting her in her place.” She has been in these types of relationships, from what I can tell, her whole life.

The effects of these relationships have created insecurity and a complete lack of communication. Those unfortunate relationships taught her that her opinion/communication does not matter. Her attempted exchange of feelings usually ended in “shut up stupid” followed by a slap across the face. There has been a huge wall built because of this. Our relationship started off very well, and the wall was coming down until she made an incorrect assumption involving me.

She would never bring up what was bothering her until she exploded one day. I completely agreed with what was upsetting her when she thought I had the exact opposite view. Her lack of communicating the issue set our relationship back to where the wall has had several new courses of brick added. When I asked why she did not address the issue some eight weeks earlier, she responded “I did not know how to say it without being rude.” Fear from the past experiences, because she knows me well enough to know I would not lay a hand on her nor disrespect. This episode almost broke us up. She has agreed to try to communicate more openly with me, but in the back of my mind, I know she just can’t turn on a magical switch.

That brings me to this: can you add any advice or steer me in a direction where I can find information on how she can overcome her communication barrier?

I’m a successful college grad that works for a small electrical contractor. She has remarked at times (long ago) that I intimidate her with my vocabulary and ability to get my points across very clearly. I’ve never had any intention of being condescending or to patronize her in any way. I’m just used to using concise language in everyday business. Ever since she made that remark (about a year ago), I’ve been very careful not to come across that way. Guess it’s her insecurity coming out. Outside of that, we have had no issues that I’m aware of. Can you offer any suggestions?

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Response from Dr. DeFoore

Hello Steve. Thank you for asking your question on this site so that others may benefit. You obviously care a lot about your woman-friend, and want to help her. That is good. You also want to save the relationship.

She has to be interested in getting help before anyone can help her. I didn't get any indication from what you wrote that she is looking for help herself. That is one consideration. If you try to help her and she doesn't think she needs help, this could add to the tension and "walls" between you.

The best thing to do is love and appreciate her as she is. That is actually the best thing you can do for the relationship also. She chose to be with you because she does not want her past patterns of abuse to continue. That doesn't guarantee that the relationship will succeed, but it is certainly positive on her side of the table. She is definitely trying to improve her lot in life.

Love her like she is, Steve. Minimize or eliminate any attempts to help of "fix" her. This will only build resentment on her part. Love yourself, and love and appreciate all of the positive aspects of her as she is. Keep your boundaries clear, and do not let her abuse you--and do not let your defensive responses bring up your own anger toward her.

You might want to tell her about this site, in case she wants to write something here for herself and get some help--or just read what's on the site and get some help that way. If she's worried about spelling and grammer, tell her that I edit what contributors write, so there's nothing to worry about there. But only suggest that if you feel she is in any way open or interested. If she doesn't think she has a problem and shows no initiative on her own to seek help, leave it alone and just love her.

I'm not sure if you will find information here that is relevant, but you might want to check out this page on relationship problems and this one on abusive relationships.

All my best to you, Steve

Dr. DeFoore

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