Dating Can Be Complicated When You Struggle with Self-Harm

Published on: 03 Dec 2020
woman staring off into distance

Every successful relationship requires some vulnerability — there’s no way around it. But it can be hard to open up to someone you just started seeing if you’re afraid they’re going to judge you. 

If you have a history of self-harm, you may shy away from dating to avoid talking about your injuries or scars, or because you want to shield yourself from the pain of a potential breakup. By closing yourself off to potential suitors, however, you may be judging others the way you assume you’ll be judged. The right partner is someone who loves you for you, and understands that self-harm is part of your story — not all of it. 

How to Share Your Self-Harm History 

What you share, when you share it, and how you do it is entirely up to you. If the person you are dating isn’t familiar with self-harm, they may not understand that what they’re asking you to share is personal and something you may not be comfortable discussing. If you’re anxious the person you’re dating will ask about your scars, Amy Cirbus, Ph.D., director of clinical content at Talkspace, recommends having an answer prepared ahead of time. You can say something like, “That’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it sometime,” and move on. You don’t owe the person you’re seeing an explanation. If they don’t respect your boundaries that reflects poorly on them, not you. 

When you feel that you’re ready to share your story, you might choose to practice how you want the conversation to go. “Let that person know that you want to share something with them,” Dr. Cirbus says. “Clueing them into the fact that this is something personal and meaningful to you can help alert them to be attentive.” 

As much as you can prepare your side of the conversation, you can’t plan your partner’s response. Hopefully, they respond in a way that makes you feel supported. But they might not. If the person you’re seeing isn’t familiar with what self-harm is (and isn’t), they might feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do or say. 

“The first reaction doesn’t have to be the last,” Dr. Cirbus says. “It may take a few conversations to move through this. It can be uncomfortable, but give the person some time to process it all and ask questions if they need to.” 

It may help to provide your partner with resources so they can learn more about self-harm on their own. You can share this article with them (there are helpful tips for partners below) or point them to some other helpful mental health resources. 

How to Support Someone Who Self-Harms 

It can be frightening to learn that someone you care about has a history of self-harm. After all, it’s only natural to want to protect those you love — but how do you protect someone from themselves? Reframing the way you think about self-harm might help you better understand a loved one’s experience. Self-harm isn’t about causing pain, it’s about balancing out intense emotional pain. This may seem counterintuitive, but those who struggle with self-harm may not have learned healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult emotions or healthy ways to process trauma. 

Emotional boundaries are important for both partners in the relationship. Your partner may not want to talk about their scars or history of self-harm, and that’s okay. Whether they are open to discussing it or not, you should respect those boundaries. If your partner is comfortable talking about their history of self-harm, try to only discuss it outside of conflict or emotionally-tense moments. Know that it’s fine to ask questions, but do so in a supportive, sensitive way.

Your partner also needs to respect your boundaries, just as you should respect theirs. As much as you love or care for them, you cannot prevent or solve their self-harm. It’s not fair to you, or to them, to try and do so. “That pain is theirs to work through and figure out how to navigate in a healthy way,” Dr. Cirbus says. 

While it’s not your role to “fix” your partner, there are certain things you can do to make them feel supported. This support is the same you’d provide to a partner in any other relationship. “Check in with them often. Asking how they feel can help create pathways for productive communication about their feelings,” Dr. Cirbus says. 

If you’re worried about your partner after seeing new injuries, express your concern and offer to help them find professional support. “Talk to your partner about your fears,” Dr. Cirbus says. “Talking about it can deepen your connection and understanding of each other and help you both make healthy choices.” 

If your partner tells you that they are going to injure themselves, try not to react in an inflammatory way. Remember: self-harm is a way of dealing with intense emotions. If your partner expresses intent, that’s their way of communicating that they’re in a lot of intense, emotional pain. It’s not your job to stop them, but instead try listening to what they’re saying in a nonjudgmental way. 

If you’re not sure how to do that, Dr. Cirbus recommends asking questions like: 

  • What are you feeling right now? 
  • What’s the best way to support you? 
  • Is there something I can do to help you right now? 
  • I hear you, I don’t want you to hurt yourself, can we talk about it? 

“Letting your partner know you’re there for them can be a way for them to release some of the pain in a safe space,” Dr. Cirbus says. People who self-harm need love, support and patience to thrive — just like anyone else. Being there for them, like you would any other partner, is the best gift you can give them. 

Hopefully these suggestions help when navigating dating and self-harm. Whether it’s you or your partner who is dealing with a history of self harm, know that therapy is a great place to work through your feelings and learn better, healthier strategies for dealing with intense emotion. Licensed therapists can provide expert, non-biased relationship help. Whether you’re interested in working with an individual therapist or would prefer couples therapy online therapy is a convenient, inexpensive way to get started. 

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