Do We Owe Partners Our Stories of Assault, Harassment, and Abuse?

Life & Love


When I start seeing someone new, I like to play something I call The Baggage Game. Inspired by the gloriously tacky dating show Baggage on the Game Show Network—hosted by Jerry Springer, which should tell you everything you need to know—it works like this: Each of you shares a small, medium, and large piece of emotional “baggage” that you would bring to the relationship. At the end of this exchange, you both decide whether or not you can accept the other person’s issues and proceed as necessary.

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The game introduces a goofy, awkward level of intimacy not common while getting to know someone new. It also reveals a lot of useful information up front. There’s the actual baggage, sure. But there is also your partner’s level of self-awareness, their willingness to take responsibility for their past, and their sense of humor—or lack thereof—about difficult topics. It isn’t an approach to dating that works for everyone. But it comes in handy for me, since I’m a woman who prefers to date straightforward people who don’t scare easily.

I have plenty of quirks that are easier to get out in the open early. In order, my baggage is as follows: I struggle with disordered eating, I have genital herpes, and I’ve been in more than one toxic, emotionally abusive relationship. These parts of my life are worth leading with because they quickly become relevant in a new relationship: They affect which restaurants I can go to, how we should have sex, and my level of discomfort when talking about fraternities. If any of these is a deal-breaker for someone new, I don’t hesitate to walk away. Anyone who can’t accept my baggage isn’t worth my time or energy.

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During my most recent round of The Baggage Game, I hadn’t been in a serious relationship in almost four years. Ever an environmentalist, I spent my post-grad years recycling men I’d already dated in college. As I grew close to a stranger from a dating app, it took me by surprise to realize that my heaviest baggage actually hadn’t made my standard list at all. After all, it’s quite boring and apolitical: My parents recently divorced, and it makes me sad in a way I cannot easily articulate to myself or to anyone else. And what’s more, I’m not always sure I want to.

So how many gory details about yourself do you owe the person you’re dating? I think we can all agree that we owe partners pertinent medical information and accurate details about our current relationship status. Yet despite whatever unhealthy behavior we might observe around us or hear about in pop culture, we don’t owe anyone minute-to-minute knowledge of our whereabouts or a list of every member of the opposite sex with whom we’ve interacted.

But do we owe our partners extensive reports on our shortcomings, and the backstory of how we became that way? What about an update on the exes we are still friendly with, or background on the breakups that shaved slivers of cartilage from our bones? Do we owe them our bad dreams, or our daydreams, or our anxiety spirals? Do we owe them our family dysfunction or our deepest regrets?

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Headlines in the age of #MeToo raised a more pressing question for me: Do we owe partners our stories of assault, harassment, and abuse? Do they need to know what we survived and how many times we survived it? What about the mental disorders we live with as a result of trauma, or where our aversion to a certain cologne comes from, or why we’d rather not see I, Tonya on a date? The correct time to tell a person you’re seeing that you’re been raped or molested or coerced has always been an uncomfortable dilemma. Is that a third-date conversation? Is it really any of their business?

Every one of my friends has had experiences on the gendered violence spectrum, from the compulsive liar who gave us herpes to the friend who pinned us down and assaulted us at a high-school party. And we’ve all seen the same shocked look on a potential partner’s face when we mention that we are the one in six who was raped, the one in three who was hurt, the one in two who was emotionally abused. There’s a strange mental math we have to do in that moment: not only “Should I tell them?” but “How much should I tell them?” and “How over it should I try to sound?”

And perhaps the hardest calculation of all is: “How likely am I to see this person ever again after I bring this up?”

Do we owe our partners extensive reports on our shortcomings, and the backstory of how we became that way?

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I try to share my experiences with emotional abuse early in a relationship for the simple reason that if I don’t, it’ll come up outside of my control. I overreact to text messages that I misread as insulting and am triggered by playful commands during sex. Years of practice have made it easier for me to talk about my ex and how our short-lived, tumultuous relationship shaped my ability to trust and my aversion to compliments.

But I’ve been thrown by the discussion about Aziz Ansari and James Franco in a way I thought I’d be past by now. Like it did for many women and non-binary folks, the news has stirred up so many memories I did my best to forget, or changed my understanding of bad dates that feel predatory in retrospect. When your partner reads the day’s news at breakfast and wants to discuss the nuances of gender politics, should they know that they are not only talking about the latest reviled celebrity, but also about the man who raped your friend on her birthday and the man who threatened to kill you if you ever wrote about him?

Some baggage doesn’t fit neatly in the overhead compartment.

When men have deep, dark secrets, we’re conditioned to think of them as romantic—rewarding fixer-uppers or wounded bad boys to soothe. But less masculine baggage is less acceptable: Men living with mental illness aren’t “sexy” unless they’re also geniuses. Men who are survivors of rape or abuse are largely ignored. And god forbid you’re someone struggling with their sexual identity in a culture where being bisexual or genderqueer is still considered baggage instead of just a normal facet of life.

Some baggage doesn’t fit neatly in the overhead compartment.

There are even fewer heroic scripts for women with baggage. We have daddy issues, we are crazy ex-girlfriends, we are broken toys or pathetic virgins, or a dozen other labels that translate to “not worth the effort.” We are unacceptable. We are just too much.

In the moment you share your true self with someone who matters, you also pose an unspoken follow-up question: Can you love me anyway? No relationship is possible without that brave, gut-wrenching moment when you wait for their answer. There is no shortcut, and there is no guarantee. But the relief you feel when that silence ends makes your baggage feel just a bit lighter.

I’m still undecided on how much of our interior lives we owe our partners. But I know that a functional relationship is difficult without offering some understanding of who we truly are. My partner and I would be doomed if I didn’t confide the contents of the extra-large suitcase at the back of my closet: that I’m not entirely sure what a healthy, communicative relationship looks like, and that expressing affection can feel like I’m speaking a foreign language. I told him this not because he had a right to know, but because he needed to. In the end, it matters less what we owe our partners and more what we want to give them of ourselves.



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