As a sexual abuse survivor, dating terrifies me. Abuse taught me that a relationship meant losing all of my agency and performing sexual acts I didn’t want to — “no” wasn’t an option. Subsequent relationships have been mixed at best, from the partner who got mad when I froze during sex, to the dates when I could barely squeak out what my job title is because I was so petrified.
Survivors like me are not rare, especially considering the statistics. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, including both male and female victims. This means at some point in your dating life, odds are you will encounter a survivor.
“If we’re going to be dating, and if we’re going to be dating a lot, we’re going to run into someone who probably is a sexual assault survivor,” says Cynthia Stocker, a licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years of experience. “It’s really pretty common.”
Dating as a survivor often brings out traumatic memories, sensations, and emotions because of past experiences. When a current partner is empathetic, educated, and understanding, however, that can make dating easier to manage for both parties.
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With that in mind, here are seven tips for dating a survivor.
1. Get Educated About Trauma
Because trauma is so common, it’s important to be educated about how it affects people.
In short, trauma impacts the mind, body, and soul. Intimate relationships can produce intense trauma reactions because these situations often cause the strongest reminders of a harmful past, and the body and brain react based on these past memories. This can manifest in a number of ways, from fear of physical intimacy and trust issues, to flashbacks and body memories, to a highly tuned fight-or-flight response.
While it might be frustrating as a partner, these responses are born out of the way the brain and body protected the survivor during their trauma. None of this is the survivor’s fault. Survivors need to let their mind and body re-adjust to safer relationships, which takes time and patience. That’s why getting educated is so important. Resources such as RAINN’s website are a great place to start.
2. Let Survivors Tell Their Story on Their Schedule
Disclosing past assault or abuse can be one of the hardest moments in a relationship, and also one of the most critical. It’s important a survivor has the space to share their story when and how they want.
“For someone who is going through the experience of coming out about [their] sexual assault, that’s…something that they are going to want to do on their own time and in their own way,” says Stocker. “There is no wrong or right way for them to do that.…That experience of sharing their story is up to the survivor and not up to us.”
As a partner, be prepared to hear these stories with empathy, understanding, respect, and confidentiality.
“I don’t give someone all the details at once,” says a survivor. “I need to see that they can be patient early on, and not because it’s a manipulation, but that they are genuinely trying to be understanding of something that is out of both of our control.”
3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Like all relationships, communication can’t be emphasized enough. It ensures both partners are on the same page, and helps survivors feel they have enough space to process their trauma within a relationship.
“Communication — good eye contact, asking questions, not telling me how to feel, and giving me a choice/knowledge of plans,” is the most important aspect of a relationship for one survivor. She adds: “Not telling me how I’m supposed to feel or how and when it will get better is the big thing.”
Taking the time to communicate how both partners feel at any given moment can go a long way toward building comfort and trust in a relationship.
“The thing that makes me most comfortable as a survivor is having open communication with my partner at all times, but especially during bad days and during sex,” says survivor Kelley O’Brien. “We both make it a habit to check in with each other often and talk about everything too. Whether it is just how we are feeling that day or our past, we are open and make sure we are each up to talking about it at the time.”
4. Put Consent Front and Center
In addition, prioritize consent in the relationship, from the big stuff — like having sex — to even the smallest choices.
“What makes me feel most comfortable is being with a partner who prioritizes consent not just in our sexual and romantic aspects but in every small way, from my ability to make my own choices about my body (how I look, what I wear) and my identity, to what we are each responsible for in our lives,” says survivor Alaina Leary.
Trauma is often the result of a series of significant, threatening boundary violations. For survivors, having a sense of control over what happens to your own body makes a big difference, whether that’s when to have sex or when to go out for dinner. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for compromise, but agency is key.
“I need to feel like I can throw the brakes on something or that I will be heard if I say I’m uncomfortable,” says a survivor.
“No means no,” adds survivor Naomi Summers. “There’s no gray area…and don’t feel bad because you’re saying no.”
5. Respect Your Partner’s Needs
Survivors may have specific needs to deal with triggers from the past that seem simple but are critical for safety. For example, Stocker says, if the survivor “comes to your home, and wants the curtains to be closed, don’t have an argument about that. Allow [them] to have the curtains be closed.”
Respecting a partner’s needs can help survivors manage memories of the past and feel more comfortable in intimate situations. And if a partner needs to put a stop to something, understand it isn’t personal. It’s what they need to feel safe.
“If a survivor says, ‘I don’t want to have oral sex. That isn’t something I’m comfortable with.’ Whether it’s giving or receiving, understand that that isn’t about you,” says Stocker. “That’s not personal.”
When a survivor can practice articulating their specific needs within a safe relationship where they are heard and honored, not only does this facilitate the survivor’s recovery, it also builds trust and intimacy.
6. Let the Relationship Move At Its Own Pace
Recovery moves at its own pace for each individual survivor, based on the type and length of trauma, the support system a survivor has, and many other factors. For this reason, recovery isn’t a straight line.
“Understand that time for a survivor is going to look very different than it is for you,” says Stocker. “Understand that their recovery is fluid, and can change from day to day and just accept that. What’s true one day may not be true the next, and has a lot to do with where they’re at in their process.”
Similarly, relationships will move at a unique pace as you learn to communicate, prioritize consent, and discover healthy intimacy together. Your relationship may not look like your friends’ relationships — your milestones may be completely different. That’s normal and there’s no need to compare.
7. Celebrate Recovery Together
Finally, know that recovery takes many steps, big and small, along the way, but it is indeed possible. Couples can celebrate every step of the process together.
“If you are recovering from trauma, and you are a survivor, we have to notice the small changes we make every day,” says Stocker. “If you are able to make one small change, celebrate that. And as you celebrate every small change that you make, you will make larger changes. But if you don’t notice the small changes, it’s impossible to make bigger ones.”
Recovery isn’t easy for survivors, so celebrate even the small steps forward in the process as you grow together. Because eventually, you and your partner can build a loving, trusting relationship worth staying in for the long haul.