Dating is often already challenging and when you are dating with trauma, there is an extra layer of difficulty to navigate. However, it is completely possible to learn how to date effectively even in the face of having experienced trauma.
In this article, will provide you an essential understanding on dating with trauma. Please know this information is not exhaustive regarding trauma, its impact on dating, or how to heal. Rather key points will be addressed.
As this article mentions causes for trauma, please be mindful as you read this. Take breaks and practice deep breathing as needed.
You’re not alone
The concept of trauma may often sound scary, intimidating, or overwhelming. I’ve worked with clients for over ten years as a mental health therapist and when this topic comes up, many people are quick to deny that they have trauma. However, trauma, comes from the Greek word for “wound” so most simply, trauma means a wound you carry with you.
From this understanding, all people have experienced trauma. Truly, I have never met an individual who did not carry a wound with them. These wounds may be overt and clear to them such as having experienced physical abuse or a sexual assault. Or less clear or obvious to them such as moving a lot as a kid or getting a divorce.
Trauma can take many forms
Dr. Francine Shapiro who developed a trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) labeled these events as small t traumas whereas clear abuse or neglect is considered a Large T trauma. The Large T traumas are the ones that we commonly think of as events which are traumatic such as sexual assault or being in a warzone. These traumas lead to PTSD or Complex-PTSD more often.
If you relate to this, first, please know you have my deepest empathy for your pain. Also, please know that while trauma feels incredibly isolating, you’re not alone. Recent studies show that about 12-20% of women have PTSD (men have a rate of 6-8% by report).
Your trauma may not be clear
Small t traumas are wounding experiences which are not often overlooked or minimized despite the pain. These include being bullied or made fun of by a parent at times, moving a lot, or your parents’ divorcing. Dr. Shapiro emphasizes that these events don’t feel small to the child.
Small t can also occur in adulthood such as being cheated on by a partner, loss of a friend, or divorce. These events are always wounding and overtime small t traumas can build up and lead to a Large T trauma due to the culmination of suffering.
Your wounds impact your ability to be close to others
Whether your trauma is obvious or less clear to you, all people have experienced events which made them feel “not good enough.” These wounds can impact your ability to be close to others for several reasons including not being able to trust people or having low self-esteem. The more wounds you carry, the more difficulty you will have with your relationships with others and yourself.
When a person carries wounds that make them believe they are not “good enough” it can truly be hard to let love in. Often, a person may feel shame or confused, that deep down, they want a relationship but seem to self-sabotage.
Related: How self-love affects relationships
Trauma can lead to self-sabotage
You can see this in the Season 1 finale of How I Met Your Father. Sophie and Jesse just began seeing each other after tension building all season. You can see their excitement for one another. Yet, when Jesse tells Sophie, “I love you” and then wants to solidify a commitment with her, she freaks out. To her, it’s too much too fast though it’s exactly what she wants, and she leaves him.
Sophie, if she were an actual person, may not realize that her trauma related to having witnessed so much relationship inconsistency with her mother (amongst other traumas) is preventing her from letting love in. While most people desire love, trauma can impact our ability to feel worthy of it.
The illusion of safety in rejecting love
Trauma fundamentally impacts our sense of safety. When our trauma has been relational such as being abused by someone we trusted or made fun of by friends, it makes us believe on some level that safe and healthy love is not possible for us.
Dating, fundamentally, is risky and vulnerable. To date effectively, you must both know your needs and be willing to share this with others. Yet, the less innately worthy a person feels due to trauma, the less willing they are to take these healthy risks. Instead, they may be with “safe” people i.e., a guy they don’t really like because they “know” he will never cheat. Or they choose to be single and not date despite a deep desire for a romantic partnership.
Recreating our trauma through dating
Other times, trauma can lead us to date people that reinforce and recreate our wounds. Trauma expert, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, explains in his book – “Many traumatized people seem to seek out experiences that would repel most of us, and patients often complain about a vague sense of emptiness and boredom when they are not angry, under duress, or involved in some dangerous activity” (p. 31).
You can see this in people who only date addicts when their parent was an addict. It seems we are driven to “change the story” to heal the story. When a person recreates their trauma, it can both be driven by an unconscious compulsion to do so alongside a desire to prove their worth. For example, this person, deep down, may believe that if their addict boyfriend changes because they love them, then all the pain of their childhood will disappear.
You are already worthy of love
Unfortunately, healing does not happen through recreating our trauma. It only leads to more suffering. In my own life, my childhood trauma led me to believe that I was unlovable. This belief led me to choose emotionally unavailable, and abusive, men for years. This reinforced my narrative that I wasn’t worthy of love or partnership.
As I healed, I realized that I was always worthy of love, I just was choosing men who were incapable of being in a healthy relationship. It was never about my worth instead simply about the choices I made to recreate my trauma unconsciously.
The same is true for you. You are already worthy of love. The first step to letting love in is to acknowledge the areas in which you may be self-sabotaging or recreating trauma out of your wounds. Once you name this pattern and wounding, you can begin to heal it.
It is possible to heal from trauma
Dating with trauma absolutely complicates the process. Fortunately, it is possible to heal. A great place to start is to notice the ways your trauma has impacted your beliefs about yourself and potential partners. A person may believe for example, they do not deserve good things and should just take crumbs. Or a person may believe, because of their wounds, that you cannot trust men (or women, etc.). A person may believe both these statements too and more because of their trauma.
Next, notice the ways these beliefs impact your choices around dating. Are you choosing “safe” but boring people to date? Are you avoiding dating? Are you choosing partners that hurt you? Once you notice all this, please have compassion for yourself. It is the way trauma works to make us both believe these negative beliefs about ourselves and others and/or driving us to recreate trauma.
Related: Am I too picky?
Ways to heal from trauma
Once you notice your beliefs, please know that while it feels “real” it is not true. You are innately worthy. There are trustworthy men (or women, etc.). But trauma and logic don’t live in the same place. Truly, you cannot think your way out of traumatic beliefs. Therefore, therapy is invaluable at helping heal trauma primarily, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR works so well because it helps you file the traumatic memory away like other memories, so it no longer feels like the past is the present. It helps you see things clearly. It helps a person notice the truth of a situation. They may notice that just because their ex cheated, it doesn’t mean every partner will. Or they may notice that people only recover from addiction or alcoholism when they are ready, never because their partner is worthy of love.
In addition to therapy, yoga can also lower trauma symptoms as well as PTSD-related anxiety. The breathwork component of yoga is especially valuable. Yoga with Adriene is an invaluable and free resource. Overall, a mindfulness practice which includes yoga, breathwork, or meditation is often profoundly healing.
The simplest way to begin to heal from trauma is deep breathing also called diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breathing is not natural for many with trauma but is essential to interrupt the fight-flight reaction which people become stuck in when they have PTSD. To learn more about this, as well as how to effectively deep breathe, please watch my video here.
Finally, PTSD impacts the stress hormones in your body including leading to chronically low cortisol. Finding a doctor, or naturopath, who can assess your stress hormone levels and treat you as needed can also be healing.
Please know that your wounds can be healed. Of course, the more wounds you have, the more complex, your healing journey will be. Yet, it’s possible and worth it. The work you invest into yourself pays you back for the rest of your life in every area – including your love life! The more healed and whole you are, the more possible it is to find your person to have a truly healthy relationship with. Sending you love!
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to email@example.com or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.
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