Content warning: self-harm.
How much should you give away on a first date? Should you tell them about the time you literally stole from a charity shop? What about the fact you prefer to eat food past it's sell-by date, or grind your teeth in your sleep? Some like to lay all their cards on the table, while others prefer to stick to lighter topics at first: music, astrology, what I'm Thinking Of Ending Things really means.
For those who struggle with self-harm, this question can be loaded – especially when getting naked with another person is involved. You can’t always hide self-harm cuts and scars and their physicality often invites invasive questions. Sleeping with a new partner is supposed to be fun, not requiring you to unpack your trauma and mental health history, but self-harm complicates this. Maybe you just wanted a dick appointment, not a therapy appointment, but now it’s turned into a weird combination of both.
Like any symptom of mental illness, there’s no one-size-fits-all “perfect” response to finding out your partner is struggling with self-harm or has done in the past. However, a good rule of thumb is to listen and not judge. Most of the reactions I have experienced are well-intentioned, but ultimately contributed to intensifying the guilt and shame I feel about self-harm. One ex always told me to wear long sleeves around our friends because he didn’t want them to see recent cuts and think I’d done it because of him. A few have looked me deeply in the eyes and said, “Please don’t do it again. For me.” Others have kissed my scars and said they’re beautiful, which honestly makes me throw up a bit.
Olive, 24, has also had mixed reactions to their self-harm scars. “My first partner told me that nobody would love me because of my scars in an attempt to prevent me from breaking up with him,” they say. “Some people have tried to romanticise my scars before offering to kiss them, which I find a bit nauseating. Most people I have been intimate with react kindly and graciously though.”
Olive always tells new partners about their scars from the start but they’re still cautious about broaching the topic. “Rationally, I know that people should be accepting,” they say, “but with every person I fear that they will find my scars or the ‘emotional baggage’ behind them unattractive, so I usually try to brace myself for an unwanted reaction. I often do cancel dates because I don't want to have to open up about my scars. I find opening up to people in that capacity emotionally exhausting.”
When, how and if you decide to open up to new partners about your self-harm history depends on the person and the circumstances. However, it’s something that always plays on my mind when I’m on a date. For me, the best-case scenario is that they ignore my cuts or scars and wait until I feel comfortable enough to talk to them about it. While circumstances differ, pointing or staring then asking questions out of nowhere is usually the wrong way to go about it.
Dani, 23, agrees. “I think the best reaction would be no reaction,” she says. “I don't really see self-harm scars any differently than I would see acne or any type of other perceived flaw or insecurity. I don't think it's really something that anyone else should comment on. We all have insecurities and I think to bring it up is very insensitive so I would hope that anyone that I would be dating would see past it and not feel the need to comment.”
There's a worry that bringing up self-harm can either make a relationship too intense or it can spell the end, depending on where the conversation goes and how it is approached. There’s still so much stigma around mental health in relationships – you don't want to be perceived as “crazy”, and I’m pretty sure people have ghosted me after finding out about my own self-harm. Realistically though, I wouldn't want to date someone who has those kinds of reactions.
Jessie, 22, doesn’t let cuts or scars hold her back when it comes to dating because “my depression has already taken enough away from me,” she says. “I’ll think about wearing long sleeves or a jacket but if I get hot, I will always just take it off. Sometimes I leave a date and think maybe I was too intense and maybe I shouldn’t have shared all that personal info. But having scars for the majority of my dating life has forced me to be open.”
Self-harm is not easy to talk about, whether you’re the person struggling with it or the partner of someone who is. Laura Culshaw, a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster who specialises in understanding self-harm among university students, says that it's important for partners to not push the person who's struggling to open up immediately. “Letting your partner know that you will speak to them when you feel ready can be comforting for everyone,” she says.
Instead, if you are dating or in a relationship with someone who self-harms, focusing on emotional support rather than the act of self-harm itself is the best approach. “We often want to try and stop the self-harm,” Culshaw says, “rather than thinking about the individual’s feelings and what is going on for them emotionally. It’s important that the conversations are supportive to ensure that the individual engaging in self-harm feels able to open up in the future.”
In order to help partners and loved ones better understand why people self-harm, Dr. Dominique Thompson describes the emotional impulse to harm yourself as like, “a boiling pot, and that self-harm is like taking the lid off it. Pressure is released, they feel better. If you ask someone to stop it’s like pushing the lid back on the pot. The pressure builds and then something much worse might happen.” Focussing on the self-harm itself, then, is like focussing on a symptom rather than a cause.
While one in four people will struggle with a mental health issue of some kind each year, not all of them will self-harm. For those who do though, scars are a constant physical reminder. They can lead to you having to talk about your history of mental illness when you don’t really want to. Whether your scars are from a long time ago or a more recent relapse, setting boundaries and being patient is essential to navigating mental health in a relationship because cuts and scars are not always an invitation to have a “deep chat”. People who self-harm deserve a response that comes from a place of kindness and empathy.