I had the idea over a week ago, to write a post about dating a trauma survivor. My initial thought was something along the lines of “How to date a trauma survivor? It’s actually pretty easy: just don’t be a jackass. Next.”
But occasionally a bit more detail is warranted. 😉 So I reluctantly told myself to try harder. 😀
Honestly, in many ways, dating a trauma survivor is no different than dating anyone else. The key words are, as usual, T-I-M-E, and E-F-F-O-R-T. In fact, it’s imperative for trauma survivors to be known as someone and something else besides a survivor of whatever they went through. Getting to know them as a person, and not someone who is defined by things that happened to them, is an important piece of recovery and wholeness. I do a lot of peer work and writing in which I am automatically identified as “Jade Miller, an SRA survivor” – because those are the topics I’m involved in and those are the qualifications by which I enter the door. But in truth, in my down time, I don’t especially care for being referred to solely as “an SRA survivor.” It’s part of who I am, but it’s not the entirety of who I am. I would still be someone worthwhile if you completely cut the “SRA survivor” label from my life. Getting to know me apart from that is something I value in relationships with people.
I would imagine this is no different than dating any other person. Find out what they like and don’t like, find out what they enjoy, what they aspire to do and be in the future. Ask what their daily routine is, respect their schedule, come up with meaningful things to do or talk about together. Find out their favorites – music, food, colors, clothing style, sports, hobbies, travel destinations, etc. Find out things they’re proud of, goals they have, places they’ve lived.
When you get to this point, find out their weaknesses and flaws. If you’re me, you can spout them off without blinking, and I’ll be the first to admit the things I’m bad about and the things I fail dismally at. For instance, I suck at domestic pursuits. I’m a fabulous cook, when I manage to actually organize a recipe and grocery list (questionable), but I hate – and I mean hate – cleaning. I don’t mind vacuuming but dusting is a nightmare. So is cleaning the bathrooms. I also hate opening snail mail unless it’s obviously something personal. I am not always good with money. I would rather buy a friend a “just because” gift than spend money on fringe items like light bulbs. LIGHT BULBS. You know…to SEE. I don’t even understand this, myself. And unless my bills are all on auto-draft, me trying to remember what to pay on which day is also the stuff of nightmares. I can often come across as a know-it-all (I’m sure this shocks zero of the population) 😛 until I feel like someone has actually listened to me make my case…if I feel heard, THEN I’m willing to entertain another perspective. But not until then. I can quickly and easily share my brain with hundreds of people – but I share my heart with very, very few. So…I’m well-versed in my weaknesses. Those are just a few.
But that’s just me. Others may not be so quick to cop to their issues, but it’s important to tactfully become aware of them at some point. Ask about their family of origin. If you’ve taken the time to establish trust – which takes a long time (or should) even in relationships with people who aren’t survivors – ask about their back story. If they want to share one or some of the things they’ve gone through, know that they are taking an extreme leap of faith and LISTEN without judgement. Ask questions. Ask how they felt, ask how the event affected them. Do not give advice or criticize their emotions, reactions, or choices made in the situation. Tell them you’re sorry they went through it. Thank them for trusting you enough to share it with you.
There are definitely some differences in dating trauma survivors, and here is where they come in. If you have a codependent bone in your body, relationships in general will bring that out, and dating a trauma survivor will intensify it if you’re not self-aware of those thoughts and feelings and actively working to deflect them.
Codependency is the relationship dynamic that says “I’m not okay unless you’re okay. If you’re not okay, I have to make you okay again so that I can be okay.” It might sound sweet and look humanitarian on the outside, but it’s really – at its core – self-centeredness. It might look and sound like it’s about the other person, but really, it’s about you. It’s about your need for them to be okay so that you can be okay. It bases your okay-ness on someone else’s, which pushes you to try to control them. And it’s a relationship-killer.
The good news is, the tendency (toward codependency) is actually really, really normal. Every person on earth, except for sociopaths and psychopaths, have this tendency. So it’s totally normal. Recognizing it in yourself and your relationships is nothing to be ashamed of or alarmed about. But it’s vital to be self-aware – and this becomes particularly true when in a close relationship with a trauma survivor – because if you don’t deal with the issue of codependency, either you and your significant other will become enmeshed in unhealthy ways, or you will progressively distance yourselves from each other until there’s no intimacy left.
The opposite of being codependent on someone else is to be capable of owning responsibility for your own state of being, regardless of what’s going on around you or with others you care about. It’s the ability to be okay, even if your significant other is struggling or not okay. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, contrary to how it may sound or even feel at times. It means you know what you “own” and what you don’t. Their issues are their issues – and you can know this and know it very kindly, without taking on inappropriate responsibility for “fixing” someone else. It’s the ability to just be, and be present with someone else, no matter what state they’re in or what’s going on. I actually feel MUCH safer in sharing my distress with people if I know they WON’T take it on. A person who can listen to me when I’m struggling and not let it shake them or bring them down is someone I trust – someone I don’t turn around and feel responsible for protecting from my pain.
My personal opinion is that anyone – whether dating or otherwise – who wants to be close to a trauma survivor must be able to handle witnessing an enormous amount of suffering as the person does the hard, hellish work of recovery. It’s extremely stressful and heartbreaking to watch someone you care about go through painful things, and not be able to do anything about it. Being supportive is really the only thing you can do. Having supportive people in our lives is awesome and vital, but also not a walk in the park for anyone involved. Depending on the severity of the trauma, it’s possible that the survivor will be working on recovery – in some aspect – for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t mean that life will always be so intensely hard, but it does mean that the trauma will be relevant in some respect on a long-term basis.
On the other hand…lest it sound like all work and no play, trauma survivors have – in my experience – some of the deepest, richest, most beautiful hearts and spirits in the human race. They have had to face hell – literally, in many cases – and not only find a reason to survive, but fight for a life they feel is worth living…on their own terms. Trauma survivors are keenly in tune with themselves, and often with others. They can see through the shallower layers of people and situations and cut through the superficiality to something deeper and fuller than many people are able to perceive on their own. Trauma survivors take very few things for granted. They often possess a (sometimes dark) sense of humor that can catch people off guard with its hilarious brilliance.
We are worthwhile people, in every sense of the phrase.
There are oftentimes special issues with trauma survivors, and I can’t cover all of those because they are as different as each individual person. These are the triggers – things specific to them, that remind them of the trauma – and the fears that developed because of the person’s history. If a person’s father tended to come silently up behind them, that person will probably jump and shriek if you come up behind them – even innocently – if that’s still a trigger for them. There are an infinite number of possibilities, so like I said, I can’t cover them in a blog post. The only way to learn a certain person’s is to get to know them. It’s up to you and them to discuss how to handle those triggers. I personally don’t mind being triggered because I’m pretty far advanced in the healing process, and I just consider them opportunities to deal with something and hopefully get it healed. You can’t ever correct a reaction to a trigger if you do everything possible to avoid a trigger. But there are others who are not far enough along in recovery to be able to take this stance, and because of that, it’s really up to them how they want to deal with the subject.
There can also be chronic health problems that come from childhood trauma; something the science community has known for at least 20 years, if not longer. Yet it’s still not considered relevant in the average doctor’s office (but don’t get me started). At any rate, dealing with doctors, medications, and medical offices can sometimes be a bigger part of a trauma survivor’s life than average. And some of them have fears and struggles with these settings, so there’s also that. Being able to be a strong, kind support person can make these situations much calmer for the survivor. And of course, trauma survivors who are still in active recovery may have regular appointments with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, ministers, and/or whoever else is part of their treatment team. So a willingness to be an affirming influence in all of these things is important.
There are additional thoughts and considerations for dating someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which I feel should probably be a completely separate blog post of its own. Since this is already lengthy enough, I’ll write about that some other day. In the meantime, here are a few** articles about that. If you do any research on your own, take everything you read with a grain of salt. It may or may not apply to your situation.
This post is in no way meant to be exhaustive. What tips or insights would you add to dating a trauma survivor – or being in close relationship (marriage, partnership, etc) with one?
**I have to say that I don’t agree with everything contained on this site but some of the info is definitely useful; take what resonates, and leave the rest.