Learning to trust again after a significant history of abuse is never going to be easy, but there can be light at the end of the tunnel. In episode 295, I received a question from a listener whose past history of abuse has left them struggling to start dating again and unable to regulate their anxiety and feelings. In this post, I offer my advice on how you can work to move past your negative experiences and begin to embrace the world of dating again.
While I will try to keep it brief I think context is important to the question.
Growing up I was sexually abused by my brother, this took place from ages 10-14. I also had a verbally/emotionally abusive stepdad. This created some mistrust of men early. Fast forward to college where I started dating. I’ve only had one long-term serious partner and I broke it off for various reasons but one of them was sabotaging my own happiness. There were other reasons of course but looking back I realized I was scared of being in a relationship where I had to be vulnerable, I also felt like I didn’t deserve him. Fast forward about a year, I am dating again and then I get sexually assaulted by my boyfriend at the time, which caused a massive spiral. Since then I have only gone on one or two dates and then broke it off.
Currently, I identify as bisexual and as a demisexual. And while I have worked through much of this trauma in therapy, my therapist wasn’t helpful in this aspect. I do see a psychiatrist for monitoring my medication and was diagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. With all this in mind, how can I start dating again? I know it’s going to be a work in progress and I want to be in a relationship but if I even get touched in the wrong place I freeze up. It’s like I have no regulation, I go from zero to 100 in like five seconds and then I sabotage the relationship and start the cycle again.
Thank you so much for trusting me with this question. It’s terrible what you’ve been through. I’m glad that you survived it. It’s totally understandable that this has had a massive impact on your life. It’s not fair and you don’t deserve it. You are clearly trying so hard and have been for years. I just wanted to take a moment to see that I see your work. You are a very strong person. Keep going.
It’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes in our lives, history repeats itself. When you’ve been through what you have been through and struggle with the mental health issues that have been thrust upon you, it’s easy to start blaming yourself or becoming very black and white about situations in general. I’m glad to hear that you are in therapy. That you have been able to make some strides in working through the trauma. A lot of people don’t recognize the importance and how helpful this can be, especially at a relatively young age. I’m going to tell you two things. One that will be good to hear and one that will suck to hear.
The good and the not so good
First, this can continue to get better. You are young still. You are clearly the type of person willing to invest in their mental health and approach difficult issues rather than avoid them. This is going to serve you well over time. Speaking of time… that’s the less fun thing. This might take some time. Think about how long you have lived through abuse and how long you have struggled with the ramifications of it. These things can be unwound and recovered from, but that often is not a quick process. I’m saying this to encourage you to have patience with yourself. You are at a phase of your life where you are yearning for connection and possibly romance. And you are allowed to want these things. But complications and false starts are going to happen. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you are failing at this. You are in the process of figuring it out. That takes time and bravery. Both of which you have.
Regarding your therapist, it is possible that you have gained a lot from working with them and are also ready to find someone with a bit of a different approach. I’m not sure to what extent your therapist specializes in trauma. You said that you’ve worked through a lot, which is great, but if you are not working toward trying to change your body’s reactions and working on coping skills to allow you to function in romantic settings, you might want to discuss this with them or think of another provider. I’m not sure if you were referring to your therapist not being helpful with issues surrounding your sexuality, being bi and demisexual, but if you were, this is another thing you can keep in mind when potentially looking for another provider. Do they specialize in working with LGBTQ people? Does their website mention sex positivity or do they give off a vibe that feels familiar and comfortable for you? Age can also be a factor here. These are all things that you are allowed to consider.
Take things at your own pace
When it comes to actually dating and being touched, this is an area that you are going to have to have grace with yourself. Move slow. Set solid boundaries. Advocate for yourself, and take things at your own pace. If it comes to a point where you are moving into physical/sexual touch, you can choose whether you want to disclose that you sometimes have issues with it. You can share as much or as little info as you’d like. You may need to spend a lot more time in the trust-building phase and take things slower than what you see other people do. When you are touched and you have that fight/flight/freeze trauma response, you are allowed to stop. You are allowed to withdraw consent. You don’t owe anyone anything. You are also allowed to pause and keep going. Or to switch gears and do something else instead.
Working with your therapist, there may also be some things that you can do to help gain exposure, not to romantic touch per say, but to sensations that might give you a similar kind of elevation. This is often called interoceptive exposure – basically giving your body sensations that you normally associate with anxiety so that you can learn to master them and not let them derail you. Overall, it will take continued processing in therapy, communication with future partners, respect of your own boundaries, moving at your pace, and trial and error to start moving toward a place of more comfort and confidence. You aren’t doing anything wrong by being who you are. I think you are probably making a lot of assumptions about what people think of you or what their reactions would be if you find that you are triggered and don’t want to engage in a particular activity. It will take some time and opportunities to undo the learning that you have done. The distrust that you have understandably built. In time, you will find that balance between appropriate caution and just having your impenetrable walls up.
Process, Process, Process…
I would encourage you to also amplify your own efforts to process. Use some form of journaling or self-reflection regularly. Approach the scary stuff. Approach your feelings about what has happened to you. Approach your disappointment about where things are now. Approach your fears about the future. The more you process this stuff, the less it has the ability to control you. It will eventually lose its sting. I always say that if you can journal about something enough that it becomes boring or it feels like there’s nothing more to say, you are on the right track. Groups might also be something that could be an interesting addition to what you’ve got going on. I’m not sure if you’ve had much experience with them yet, but survivors groups can be a place to be among people with someone similar experiences. You can discuss issues like this one with people that actually can empathize with you and might be able to share information from their own experience that you find useful.
So, hopefully those are some helpful thoughts for you. You are doing a really good job. Have patience with yourself. This will take time and there will be ups and downs. Even what feel like failures count toward your continued recovery thought. Things won’t be as sensitive as they are now forever. You got this.
You can listen to this on Episode 295 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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