Recently, I found myself engaged in a heated discussion with a few acquaintances -- men and women, all of us single and in our late 30s and 40s -- about how to succeed in dating.
One woman, "Jill," said to me, "Don't you understand that a man isn't going to be able to handle your history?"
She was referring to the fact that I was sexually abused as a girl.
The other men and women concurred. They believed that I was "leading" with my history on dates, disclosing too much upfront, and that was why I was still single. I disagreed.
My online dating profile says nothing about my history. However, I've written and published about my past, including essays about how being sexually abused as a child affected my dating life in my 20s and early 30s, how I'd isolated myself for years due to fear and shame, and how I'd worked in therapy to overcome my struggles. I've put my truth out there. I've made myself vulnerable.
"I feel like I know you!" exclaimed a recent date when we met for the first time at a café. He explained he'd read several of my essays, which he'd found online by Googling my first name, "writer," and "Boston," terms I had used to compose my profile.
"When I go on a date," Jill continued, "I don't announce that I have daddy issues. I let the guy get to know me first."
I don't go on a date and announce my issues. I don't discuss my past. But the group perceived my publications as a destructive megaphone. They thought I should remove my professional work from the web so that such information would not be accessible, so that I could control when and how someone learned about my history. Yet, even if removing my work were possible, I didn't want to suppress something vital about myself: I am a writer.
Years before I published anything, I operated in a mode of virtual silence. Believing the mere knowledge of the events of my past would be detrimental to a potential relationship, I went on dates deeply worried about the moment a man would find out the one fact that I imagined would be more of a deal breaker than infidelity or a drug habit or an STD: incest. I saw myself as damaged goods. I worked hard to keep conversations away from the topics of family and parents and where I grew up, anything that could potentially reveal my past.
But avoiding certain topics squelched my innate openness; I acted in a way that was inauthentic and guarded. I frequently sabotaged first dates, making sure there would not be a second. In my early 30s, when I'd been dating one man for a month and I finally told him about my history, he responded by leaving: "I'm not up for being a partner of a survivor," he said.
If only I'd known that fact about him from the start, not at the point when I'd grown attached, when breaking up shook what little confidence I had about being honest in a relationship.
That said, I don't feel the need to announce to anyone I've just met -- a potential boyfriend, neighbor, colleague, whomever -- something so personal. But I can't stop them from asking questions or going online and searching for information. And I'm not afraid if they do.
Unlike in my past, I no longer fear someone knowing the truth. Sure, I have regrets about the way I coped during my young adulthood, but that was how I survived until I was able to deal with what happened and move forward. My past no longer directs my life. I take pride in the hard work I've done to surmount what I once thought was insurmountable.
We all have problems. Some of us suffer from depression or anxiety, or we're commitment-phobic or controlling, or we have issues surrounding intimacy or anger or body image or self-esteem. We all have histories, and we're all shaped by life experiences.
Although we may not speak of our challenges on first or second or even third dates, they do announce themselves through our body language, our behaviors, our conversations, our decisions to stay or leave or drink or text or call or have sex or whatever it is we end up doing or not doing. We unconsciously reveal what we don't purposely acknowledge.
When my date announced that he felt he knew me because he'd read my essays, at first I was relieved. I no longer had to wonder about what his reaction would be to such information. But later I grew irritated, because he made assumptions about who I was as a person from what he'd read. When I decided to stop seeing him because, among other reasons, I found out he was living with two women and was obsessed with weight and was looking for a caretaker rather than a partner, he sent me a note trying to convince me that he was my match: "Having read that you are a victim of familial sexual abuse, I thought that my gentle and nurturing disposition might be an okay fit for you, that being the archetypal caretaker and someone who treads very gently around personal emotional issues might complement your personality."
I was a victim -- during my childhood. I wasn't one in the present. My date wasn't seeing me as separate from my past. I suspected he wasn't seeing himself as separate from his own either.
Although I understood how he could easily assume he knew me from reading my essays online, he really didn't know me. Those of us who've tried online dating are aware that the online presence is a persona -- at its worst false, and at its best limited. It does not capture the multidimensional person who exists in "real" life.
"I am not my essays," I told him. "That's why I thought we were going out, so that you could get to know me and I could get to know you."
Yes, I'm single at 40 -- but is my dating life doomed? Do I understand that a man isn't going to be able to handle my history?
I don't presume anything about a man until I get to know him.
Ultimately, it's not about whether a man is able to handle my history; it's about the fact that I'm able to handle my history -- it is my history, after all. Only in taking responsibility for our issues and working through our pasts can we truly be available and fully be with others. And I hope, for my future boyfriend, that's what counts.
Winner of the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for nonfiction, Tracy Strauss is seeking a publisher for her memoir, Notes on Proper Usage, about her relationship with her late writer-editor mother, the discovery of her mother's secret collection of documents and journals, the abusive man who marked both their lives, and her journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Learn more at www.tracystrauss.com.