The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

About a year ago, my girlfriend got pregnant and we decided right away that we should get an abortion. I was only 19 and she was 24. We were both still studying and could see no way of working around the situation, so it was, at the time, the best decision for us. We were both very confident about it and did it as fast as we could.

It did end our relationship, though. I was silly not to expect that, but we were overwhelmed by a sea of emotions that neither one of us could deal with properly, and splitting up was the solution we found.

A little more than a year later, we’re still friends and see each other regularly, but this subject never comes up. Even though I am still certain that it was the best choice for us, I’m not sure how she feels about it, and when I think about everything she went through at the time, it makes me scared to bring it up and surface something she might want buried.

I worry for both of us because sometimes I feel that I should have felt worse about it and that she might never want to deal with it again. In both cases, my worries are that it will someday start affecting our relationships with other people in ways that we don't know yet.

Should I bring it up? Should I be scared of the future? I know something like this should leave a scar. Does it make me a bad person for not feeling like I have one?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

There are several assumptions in your letter that I want to ask you to question—that you should feel a certain way about the abortion, that not feeling that way might make you “a bad person,” that your girlfriend has deeper feelings about the abortion and its aftermath than you do, and that the experience of going through an abortion “should leave a scar.”

First, let me assure you that there’s no right or wrong way to feel—not just about the abortion, but about anything. Too often we judge our feelings: I’m “a bad person” if I’m … envious of my best friend; glad that my neglectful father is dying; sad that my sister fell in love because I never see her anymore; relieved that my girlfriend and I chose abortion even though I think she found the ordeal far more upsetting than I did. But not only do these feelings make us human—we also can’t control them. They’ll be there whether we like them or not. We can pretend they don’t exist, of course, but it’s nearly impossible to keep them sealed up forever. Inevitably they escape, because they’re always lying in wait, searching for air.

This is great news, though, because once our feelings make themselves known, they become extremely useful. Our feelings are like a compass: Follow them, and they’ll point you to something important. If a patient is envious but wishes he weren’t, I might say, “Follow your envy; it’s telling you what you want.” If a patient says, “I hate waking up in the middle of the night filled with dread,” I might reply, “What do you think your anxiety is trying to tell you?”

You say that you and your girlfriend were “overwhelmed by a sea of emotions” at the time of the abortion. It might be helpful to better understand what yours were and might still be. Maybe you didn’t feel gutted by the abortion, but perhaps you felt anxiety about whether your girlfriend was also going to want to end the pregnancy, relief that she did, guilt at feeling such relief, then sadness over the breakup, and all of this followed by a sense of numbness—which isn’t the same as nothingness. Sometimes people mistake numbness for the absence of feelings but it’s actually a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings.

You and your girlfriend wouldn’t be alone in not talking about this sea of emotions around the abortion. There are certain types of losses that tend to be “silent” because they’re less palpable to those not involved, and therefore people think that their feelings don’t matter, or shouldn’t be too intense or last very long. You’ve had an abortion, but you didn’t lose a child you’ve held in your arms; you’ve had a breakup and not a divorce—well, you didn’t lose a spouse you’d committed your life to. Most people don’t know how to talk about these silent losses—or even want to. I imagine that you two didn’t quite know how to manage your own feelings, much less the other person’s. How much easier it was to get rid of the relationship than to bring each other’s feelings to light.

Now, more than a year later, you’re noticing yourself thinking about the abortion, wondering how your ex-girlfriend really felt about it, and how the experience might affect both of you—while at the same time saying you didn’t feel that much. But your question indicates that you actually felt a lot, and that’s why you want to bring it up. So, yes, give this experience some air. You can say to your ex-girlfriend, “Hey, I know this might be a sensitive subject, but I’ve been wanting to talk more about the abortion and I’ve been afraid that I might upset you by bringing it up. Are you okay talking about it with me?” If she’s willing to have this conversation, it might deepen your friendship; if she’s not, you can respect where she is and confide in a trusted friend or a therapist.

Bringing up the abortion will be helpful not because it has necessarily left some kind of scar that will mess up your future relationships, but because the experience has the potential to enhance them. Talking this through might teach you something about how to get through a crisis with somebody you care about, how to talk about the things that are hardest to talk about, and how not to judge yourself for your feelings or your partner for hers but instead to welcome them in—not for what they “should be” but for what they actually are. Even if your ex-girlfriend declines to discuss the abortion, figuring out what you need and then asking for it will give you good practice for handling the kinds of challenges that inevitably come up in all relationships.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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