Erika Shershun, MA, MFT
Dating After Sexual Trauma
Updated: Jan 15
Questions to Consider When You're Ready to Date, Guidelines for a Healthy Relationship, the Dynamic Sexual Consent Assessment Tool, and Some Precautions to Help Keep You Safe
As trauma symptoms lessen and a sense of safety begins to return, you may start to long for connection and intimacy with a partner. At the same time, you could be overwhelmed with fear when you think of getting close to a potential partner. This can lead to worry that you might never feel safe enough to date again, or perhaps for the first time ever.
When considering dating, take time to reflect if you’re truly ready, or if you need to get a little further along in your healing. Listen to and honor your inner knowing. There’s no right or wrong here, just what’s right for you.
When you feel ready to begin dating, remember that anxiety and excitement feel similar. It's natural to feel some anxiety when dating early on due to hormonal shifts that take place when you feel chemistry. These hormones can also cloud your judgment, which is why it's important to not lose sight of your answers to the questions below.
Questions to Consider When Dating
Some of these questions will take time to observe, don't expect to be able to answer all them after one date. At the same time, you might get enough information to rule out a second date.
Recognize red flags, red flags that you didn’t know to look out for before you were traumatized, especially if you were abused by a partner or acquaintance.
Draw on intuition, trust on your inner knowing and honor it.
Be sure to distinguish intuition from fear. If you detect fear, and there's no present danger, use your go to tools to calm and regulate your nervous system (such as Coming Into Safety or Presence exercise from chapter 1 of the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook). Once your nervous system is regulated, check in with your intuition again.
When dating, consider how well does this person know themselves?
What are their values?
Do their values align with yours?
Do their actions align with their words?
Do you feel respected, valued, seen?
How do they handle conflict?
How do they problem solve?
How do they envision their future? Two years from now, five years, ten years...
Are they jealous or overly controlling? Do they try to control your time and/or who you spend it with?
Listen to your friends and/or family’s observations about your date or new partner. Their views are not clouded by the chemical cocktail.
How do you feel when spending time with this person? Notice what sensations, feelings and thoughts are present.
Once physical chemistry has kicked in, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to get hung up on themselves. To worry with thoughts like “Am I good enough, smart enough, interesting enough, attractive enough for them?”, or “Did I say or do the right (or wrong) thing?” What will serve you best is to ask, "Are they a good enough fit for me, do they treat me the way I want a partner to treat me, do their values align with mine, and are they looking for the same things in a relationship (commitment, long term, poly or open...) as I’m looking for?"
The following guidelines for a healthy relationship are a good reminder of not loosing yourself in the dating process.
Guidelines for a Healthy Relationship from askisadora.com
Feel your feelings. Feel what you do feel instead of what you think you ought to be feeling.
Focus on now. See what is happening in the present instead of what should be, what was or what could be.
Speak up. Say what you feel and think instead of what you imagine is expected of you.
Say what you want, clearly and directly, instead of hoping it will be offered.
Take risks in your own behalf instead of settling for the status quo.
Learn to say no firmly, kindly and unmistakably.
Some of the above may not come easily to you, if this is the case you will likely benefit from working to strengthen your boundaries. Chapter 5 in the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook is devoted to recognizing, feeling into and making boundaries.
Don’t assume that a potential partner will practice consent, instead create a boundary preemptively by discussing consent. The short film Tea Consent is a good reminder, or a way to broach the topic. You need to be willing to enforce your stated boundaries if they’re crossed, for example by telling your partner that they’ve crossed your boundary and you’re no longer in the mood, or by asking them to leave.
Unintegrated trauma can further complicate consent due to potential influence from unconscious trauma responses. For instance, a survivor might become aroused in ways that are self-destructive by unconsciously reenacting their trauma. With this in mind psychotherapist Jessica Hicks, MA, MA, LMFT developed the Dynamic Sexual Consent Assessment Tool, a series of four questions that can help deepen your response when considering consent.
The Dynamic Sexual Consent Assessment Tool Questions from Jessica Hicks, MA, MA, LMFT
Is this YES ego-syntonic? Does consent align with my values and my innate sense of myself?
What age is my YES? How old do I feel when I say “yes,” and is my consent emanating from a younger version of myself?
Where do I feel the YES in my body? Is consent resonant and consistent across the domains of my head, heart, and sexual center?
Is there any conflict inherent in my YES? Do I notice any signs or evidence of misgivings when I assert my consent?
You might want to take a picture of these questions or add them to the notes on your phone so you have them available when you need them. If necessary, excuse yourself so you have the space and privacy to answer each question before consenting.
Keeping your safety in mind is important whether dating or not. It would be nice if we could always give people the benefit of the doubt, to trust in everyone. Unfortunately, as survivors we know all too well that isn’t always the case. The following are some safety precautions to take when away from home. Chances are you’ll never need to draw on the last few defensive options, they’re listed here with the intent to empower you if ever needed.
With that said, if you’re not feeling resourced at this time, I suggest you wait and read the list at a time when you’re in a calm and resourced state since it could potentially be triggering.
Put on the egg boundary (chapter 5 HSTW) before you leave your home. Don’t forget to tap into “don’t f___ with me” energy if needed.
Stay aware of your surroundings. Look around, who is to your side, who is behind you.
Don’t wear headphones, or only wear them in one ear in order to hear what’s going on around you, for instance if someone is approaching from behind.
A female police officer told me the most dangerous time for runners are dawn and dusk, if you have to run at these times be extra cautious, and run with a friend or group if possible.
Give yourself permission to not be nice if you get a creepy or controlling vibe: if someone asks you invasive questions, to give out personal information you’re not comfortable with, if they ask you to do something you don’t want to do (for example to smile, or they keep pressuring you to have another drink when you don’t want one), or touches any part of you without your permission. Even if they just ask for directions or the time you don’t have to stop or answer if you don’t feel safe.
Never leave a drink unattended or out of your sight. It only takes looking away for a second for someone to slip something into it. If someone buys you a bottle of alcohol, beer, wine, or champaign make sure that you see the bottle opened rather than drinking from a previously opened bottle that could be spiked.
When out late ask a friend to walk you to your car then drive them to their car, or if taking a Lyft, Uber, or taxi ask your driver to wait for you to safely get inside of your front door.
Check to be sure no one is hiding in your back seat before getting into your car, and lock the door as soon as you get in.
Consider putting an alarm on your keychain and/or carry pepper spray. If you feel like someone is following you or getting too close, don’t be afraid to put the pepper spray in your hand so that you’re prepared, to use the alarm, or to yell for help. Give yourself permission to be loud!
If you’re being followed while walking or running stay away from doorways and alleys, do not hesitate to cross the street, to go into a business or a building with a doorman to ask for help, and to call 911. I've successfully used these strategies several times over the years, in one case it led to an arrest.
As a last resort get under a parked car, grab hold of a pipe and kick. Most perpetrators are looking for victim energy, they don’t usually want a fight.
After you've taken this list in, take a nice deep yet gentle breath, then on your exhalation let it go. Repeat the letting go breath a few times followed by sweeping your hands down your arms, core, and upper legs as you brush the energy off, directing it into the ground. Now envision yourself surrounded by whatever color you're drawn to, then breath it in. If you're feeling triggered you may want to take a few minutes to do my Coming Into Safety or Presence exercise, or any practice that helps you to regulate your nervous system.
I’ve worked with many survivors who’ve feared they would never want to, or be able to date again, then over time saw them go on to find partners and develop secure trusting and loving relationships. If this is what you dream of, please know that it is possible for you.
photo from Unsplash
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