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Carolyn Hax: When his partner mentions childhood trauma, boyfriend grabs the mic

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Hi Carolyn! So my boyfriend and I have a wonderful, supportive relationship and I love him with my entire heart, but there’s one thing that drives me absolutely insane. I grew up in an abusive home, battling all sorts of different forms of abuse for my entire life. He has a wonderful mom who, although not perfect, is very close to it. He has a great relationship with her and had a wonderful upbringing.

When he was an infant, long story short, she got in a bit of legal trouble (which wasn’t her fault) and had to go away for about 10 weeks, while he stayed with some wealthy, loving and close friends. She sent him to therapy his whole life to make sure those 10 weeks she was gone didn’t do any long-term harm.

Whenever I mention any of the trauma I went through, he will cut me off and start a sorrowful talk about his trauma. The mean part of me questions whether he even has any trauma from that, and it really frustrates me to equate a mom being gone for 10 weeks when he was an infant to 18 years of substantial emotional, physical and psychological abuse. I want to scream at how lucky he is!

But I also know everyone experiences everything differently and I don’t want to invalidate him. There’s only so much I can take, though. How do I approach this? Am I wrong?

— Frustrated With Trauma Olympics

Frustrated With Trauma Olympics: You’re right to want out of the Trauma Olympics, but you’re also competing in the wrong event.

This is not (just) about who suffered more. It’s about his cutting you off. That’s bad manners, bad communication, and bad partnership even if the only thing he’s interrupting are your thoughts on butternut squash.

So separate the two in your mind and then address them separately.

1. When he cuts you off: “I am interested in what you have to say. I would like to finish what I was saying first — you cut me off.” Even if you have to put your hands up in a “stop” gesture or interrupt him. “I’m interrupting you.” Calmly, clearly, hold your conversational ground. Interrupting can be dismissive and invalidating, yes. But for some it’s about overeagerness, ADHD, social awkwardness, or a clumsy attempt at sympathy, so stand up for yourself, counter-interrupting him if you must, and find out.

If he pushes back, then you know you have a bigger concern — one that is 100 percent worth the effort to address. Find out whether you and he truly fit.

2. When you’re in a trauma duel, or shortly after (in case you’re riled up): Tell him you’ve noticed his switching to his childhood while you’re talking about yours. Say it comes across as negating your experience. Admit you start internally scorekeeping and then feel petty for it.

Make these observations and give him room to respond.

In both cases I hope he gets it, apologizes, and quits the hijacking — but if he defends himself and you’re not sure how to take it, then it’s okay to say: “I need to think about that before I say anything.” Such a useful phrase. Navigating relationships is hard anyway, and when an abusive home messes with your instruments, a self-confident response may take extra time to formulate. A healthy partner will grant it.

Therapy is one way to get or keep those instruments in good working order, so please consider it if this “one thing” resists your efforts to fix it. “Lifeskills for Adult Children” (Woititz/Garner) also offers the basics to adults raised in “profoundly troubled” homes.