When I dated during and immediately after my trauma, I was an entire fucking mess. I was codependent, desperate for the affection my parents never gave me, and hungry for sex in a way that could only have been to distract myself. I was terrible at communicating and I hated myself, which made everything worse. Trauma not only leaves physical scars on the body; it fills us with a deep inward shame that takes years of therapy to combat. That shame can make us keep secrets, feel overwhelming guilt, engage in self-sabotage, and give ourselves to people who treat us badly because we think it’s what we deserve.
Wherever you are on your journey, dating will never be the same after you acknowledge and begin the path of healing your trauma. There will be bumps in the road, and it definitely takes making a lot of these mistakes to learn from them -- but I strongly suggest everyone take a period of time to be single and more or less celibate at the beginning of their healing. This way you can repair the dire relationship with yourself. Though I know this is not always possible, and some people go through trauma in the middle of long term relationships. Either way, you must make a conscious effort to start and never stop treating yourself as you would your soulmate. Be kind, be generous, and most importantly - get to know yourself. You will need to know how your trauma has affected you if you are going to have a successful relationship in the future.
Specifically, know how trauma has influenced your ability to communicate your needs. Therapy is really important for this task because your therapist can work with you to unearth these truths. If you don’t have access to therapy, think about what the main issues in your past relationships have been. Could your trauma have influenced this? How do you feel voicing your needs to partners/friends? Has anyone ever done something that made you lash out, run away, shut down, or apologize profusely? These are the 4 trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. When you are triggered, your body will have one of these reactions, and most people usually have two that they default to the most.
My father was a narcissistic tyrant who ruled my house through fear. Growing up, I was not able to communicate my needs with my parents, specifically about things they were doing that had made me unhappy or uncomfortable. I would have been hit or yelled at, so I learned to keep my needs to myself. I learned to ignore my panic and downplay my pain. I also learned to avoid confrontation at ALL costs, because, to me, disagreements always meant violence.
This resulted in a host of problems down the road for me. Instead of telling my boyfriend that I needed an open relationship to explore my sexuality, I let my unhappiness fester inside me until I reached a breaking point mentally and just moved away to let the long distance ruin the little bit of us that remained. Unable to tell people when I was in pain during sex, I’ve let men fuck me until I had tears in my eyes. I have bewildered many poor souls who went on dates with me and thought I was having an incredible time, because I was acting like it, only to ghost them afterward because I was too scared even over text to tell them I didn’t like them. When a girl I was dating confronted me about one of my memes, I apologized immediately and archived the post, only to later realize that I didn’t agree with her criticism and should have had more faith in myself and my work.
Being terrified of displeasing people is only one result of growing up with an abusive family member. But now that I am aware of that pattern of fawning, freezing, and ghosting, I can actually identify it when it’s happening and work to find other ways to communicate. I know that it’s usually easier for me to express my needs over text, so I get these out of the way ahead of time. Before I have sex with someone I let them know over text what I’m into. I hold myself accountable when I feel the need to slink away into my cave and ghost; I force myself to write out an explanation of my feelings over text. In the healthy world, confrontation does not mean violence. Disagreement is simply the beginning of a conversation, not the start of a fight.
There are tons of other kinds of abuse; and I cannot speak to how all of them may affect you. But I can say that trauma can give people superiority complexes, inferiority complexes, make them distrusting and jealous, cause them to make unhealthy sexual choices, and more. I recommend everyone read the book The Body Keeps the Score to understand how your trauma can affect your body and mind. Dating during healing is going to be rocky, which is why it helps to have a good deal of healing under your belt before you start dating. Trauma only builds; when you don’t love yourself enough to know what you deserve, when you are desperate for any and all affection to fill the void, you can be drawn to other people and situations who will only traumatize you further.
There are a few more situations to be on the lookout for, and being aware beforehand will help you call it quits in a new relationship as soon as the warning signs begin. It’s extremely necessary to read the book Attached by Dr. Amir Levine to understand the psychology behind adult attachment styles, but here’s a crash course in the meantime. Similar to how we bond with our parents as babies, adults attach to their partners in three distinct styles laid out on a spectrum.
Everyone’s attachment style falls somewhere on this spectrum, and those most traumatized usually tend to be less secure, though people can have any attachment style without necessarily having experienced any trauma. Here are some traits to help you distinguish the attachment styles of yourself and your partners:
It’s extremely important to understand that having ANY of these attachment styles is perfectly A-OK, you just have to be aware of it to make healthy relationship choices. Almost every heartbreaking love song was written about the cycle that occurs when an unevolved avoidant person and an unevolved anxious person date. As the relationship progresses, the person with an anxious attachment complex will seek intimacy. If their partner is avoidant, this growing intimacy will make them feel stifled, causing them to distance themself. The anxious partner, when denied intimacy, will then enter into an activated attachment complex until they feel affirmed of their love. They will employ any tactics possible to get the attention and affection of their partner (playing games, giving the cold shoulder, trying to make them jealous, etc). The more mixed signals the avoidant partner gives, the more drastic these tactics will become. A secure partner would simply have given the anxious partner the validation that they sought, as well as giving the avoidant person the space they required. Only when an anxious and avoidant person get together can this emotionally devastating cycle begin. If you’ve ever found yourself “keeping score” - waiting exactly 3 hours to text back your partner because they didn’t respond to you for 3 hours - you probably have an anxious attachment. Anxious and avoidant people can only date if they are both actively aware of their attachment patterns and work together to meet each other's needs.
Another situation to lookout for is trauma bonding, where two people mistake similarities caused by trauma as romantic compatibility.
It is not impossible for two traumatized people to date, and it can be extremely nice to be romantically involved with someone who can understand your life experiences on a personal level. But it’s important when dating people to recognize that loving, trusting relationships are a slow build and if a new love seems “crazy” and “intense” it might be the manifestations of a trauma bond and should be monitored carefully.
Something that I have noticed through my healing is that as my self love has increased, so have my standards. Any time you experience an increase in standards or a clarification of what you’re actually looking for in a partner, it’s going to make the dating pool smaller and the relationships shorter until you find that real compatibility. While I used to stay in relationships even when things got bad, I now say goodbye as soon as I see a red flag. As a result, dating for me has looked like a long string of 2-weeks-to-a-month situationships. It’s important to remember that a short relationship is not a failed relationship. All experiences are valuable and if you felt something and learned something, it was worth it. A healed, evolved individual doesn’t immediately give all of themselves to someone, they respect themselves enough to put themselves first and make healthy decisions that will benefit them in the long run. As you heal, this becomes easier to accomplish, and that’s a beautiful thing. Trauma takes away our feelings of worth and healing brings them back. Dating while you know your worth means making tough decisions and having difficult conversations. It is a journey and it is not a straight line; you’re going to make mistakes. Some lessons take four times to learn, and that’s fucking fine. You’re doing amazing, sweetie. Good luck <3