When you’ve experienced childhood trauma, especially from toxic or abusive parents, it will undoubtedly affect your future dating life and choices.
I previously wrote a post about maintaining a healthy relationship after abuse. This post is kind of like a prequel – forming a healthy relationship after abuse. It will focus on the dating aspect and discuss various things you should remember as you put yourself out there to meet that special someone.
The Challenges of Dating After Childhood Trauma
When you’ve spent most of your life feeling unloved, it’s normal to want to find someone who can make you feel loved. And that’s where dating comes in.
Dating involves meeting new people, testing the waters with a potential partner, and for the most part, hopefully finding that special someone you can share your life with.
Dating can already be hard for people that didn’t grow up with abusive parents. So it can be even more challenging for people that did.
You consciously or unconsciously learned about relationships from your parents. The patterns and behaviors in their relationship with each other and with you is likely reflected in your adult relationships with other people. You might see your current relationships replaying the dysfunction you’re familiar with.
Dating is something that can validate you – “Maybe I am worthy of love”. But due to the nature of dating itself and your trauma, it’s more likely to confirm your negative biases – “I am unlovable and unworthy”.
15 Reminders for Dating After Childhood Trauma
There is no doubt that your past childhood trauma would creep up and affect your dating life. But there are things you can do about it. Here are 15 things to remember when dating after your childhood trauma.
Learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships
For a lot of people, the purpose of dating is to find that special someone to form a healthy, long-term relationship with. But to do that, you should first learn about what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like.
Learning about what’s unhealthy can help you stop normalizing unhealthy patterns in your parent’s relationship and other past toxic relationships you might’ve been in. It also helps you recognize red flags and warning signs in potential partners when dating.
And learning about what’s healthy helps you know what to expect from a potential partner and also what to expect from yourself in a new relationship.
You can learn more about what’s healthy or not from articles, books, or people you know who are in healthy relationships.
Related: Signs of a Healthy Relationship
Healthy relationships do exist
Do not let your relationships with your parents or an abusive ex define what relationships are to you. Not all relationships are doomed to fail. Healthy relationships DO exist.
You may be scared of being in a relationship because you think you’ll end up like your parents. Or you think it’ll end in breakups or divorce, so what’s the point.
I know it can be hard to think that healthy, happy relationships can and do exist. There seem to be more unhealthy relationships than healthy ones that we know of, especially if we grew up around toxic people.
But try not to go in expecting to be in an unhealthy relationship. Try not to go in thinking it’s doomed to fail or that no one would ever love you.
When you enter a relationship thinking you’re going to fail, then it likely will. If you go in thinking no one will ever love you, that attitude might push them away even if they do.
You don’t have to have any particular expectations. But remember, healthy relationships do exist and you deserve to have one.
Reflect on the kind of relationship you want
Before you start dating, reflect on the kind of relationship you want. Try to be more mindful about your dating choices. Identify your dealbreakers and core values.
We all have dealbreakers. And I’m not talking about superficial things like height or body type, but rather important things that can make or break a relationship.
When you meet or date someone with a dealbreaker, it is okay to walk away. You don’t have to settle for someone that can’t ultimately give you what you want or need.
See if you share values with a potential partner. I think it’s important for a couple to share some core values. Because if not, you’ll eventually go your separate ways.
Stop blaming yourself when things don’t work out
You may blame yourself for the abuse you faced or for your failed relationships in the past. And you’ll likely blame yourself if a relationship doesn’t work out or someone rejects you.
You might be tempted to slip into the same “it’s all my fault” narrative that you’ve been so used to growing up. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon amongst abuse victims. That’s why we have a higher risk of revictimization.
When we continue to blame ourselves and somehow justify our abuser’s actions, it will attract people who think they can manipulate and hurt us because we’ll just think it’s our fault anyway.
Try to stop blaming yourself. If something doesn’t work out, try to move forward. It’s okay and it isn’t your fault. And if you need time to process it, give yourself the time. But try to remember that it’s all a part of dating. It’s expected to come across people whom you just don’t click with or people who’ll reject you.
Be prepared for rejections, especially the hurtful ones
When it doesn’t work out with someone or they reject you, it might once again confirm your biases, “Yep, I’m unlovable”. I’ve been there many times.
Also, it’s not true when they say, “The worst they can say is no”. It can definitely be a LOT worse.
No’s aren’t bad, especially when done politely and respectfully. A lot of the time, they’re simply not into you that way. That’s okay. It’s the rejections that attack you that hurt.
I once asked out a good friend of mine. Here’s his response: “I like you and all. You’ve got a great personality. But, you’re not hot enough for me”. At another point, he also called me a “fat cow”. Also had another guy I liked who called me an “emotional f**k”. I didn’t think they were wrong. But it still stung.
Whenever I was rejected, I would hate myself for days and spiral. But looking back at it now, I am SO glad those guys rejected me. I can see myself being miserable in relationships with them. I can see myself staying despite being unhappy because I don’t think I deserve better. So I definitely dodged some bullets. And if they didn’t reject me, I probably wouldn’t have met my now amazing partner.
Dating after your trauma is not easy. But be proud of yourself for trying and for putting yourself out there.
If you were harshly rejected, I know it’s hard not to let it affect you. But think of it this way – you dodged a bullet. It’s better to be single than to be with someone who doesn’t appreciate you. Someone who will appreciate and like you for you will come along.
A social support network is invaluable
A support network is essential for your healing process and beneficial to your dating life. Whether or not you have a partner, it helps to have other people you can go to for support, validation, reassurance, and encouragement. They may also be a better judge of character than you on your potential partners.
A lot of people tend to have rose-colored glasses when dating someone new. Everything about their new mate may seem perfect. My father has this joke, “When you’re in love, even their fart smells good to you”. So it helps to have a support network that can be more objective about your potential partner. They can be the ones to tell you, “Um no. Their fart stinks.”
Your support network can provide feedback about your potential partner that you may not notice yourself. You don’t have to agree with everything your support network says, of course. But at least take it into consideration.
Maybe there are red flags or warning signs that you didn’t notice because you’re in love. Or maybe you question some things about them when really, it’s coming from your lack of trust in others. So your support network – people whom you have already developed trust – can provide their honest opinions on your partner.
Related: How to Build and Maintain a Social Support Network
Know your triggers
When you’re dating, certain things might trigger feelings, thoughts, or memories of your childhood trauma whether you’re aware of it or not. So try to identify your triggers.
If you struggled with physical or sexual abuse, you may not like being touched.
If you struggled with emotional abuse, certain words, phrases, tones, or mannerisms can trigger emotions like fear, anxiety, shame, or guilt.
Identifying your triggers can help you be prepared for them. It can also help you be more mindful and aware of how someone else’s behavior can influence your physical and emotional reactions and fight-or-flight response.
Start learning to trust again
A relationship needs trust to thrive. People who experienced abuse typically have difficulty trusting others because the very people they’re supposed to trust are the ones hurting them. So it can be hard for you to be vulnerable around potential partners, especially if you’ve been in toxic relationships before.
However, you need to learn to trust and earn trust. It might take time and that’s okay. But at least try.
Try not to let your past or triggers affect your relationship. Try not to punish your potential partner for a past abuser’s mistakes.
To make this easier, try to identify signs that show you someone’s trustworthy. For instance, do they respect your boundaries without getting upset or questioning them? Do their actions match their words, as in, they do what they say and say what they do?
As you get to know someone and see how they treat you, you would get a better idea of whether they’re someone you can trust.
Trust your instincts
While it’s important to start learning to trust others, it’s also important to trust yourself.
With years of possible gaslighting, you may struggle with a lot of self-doubts. When dating, you may doubt or question your own judgment and feelings about someone.
While it’s important to notice that your perception on dating a specific partner might be influenced by your childhood trauma, it’s also important to trust your instincts.
If you notice any red flags, warning signs, or even just feel like something is off, don’t brush it off, deny, or suppress it. It’s okay to walk away. You don’t owe anyone anything. Trust your gut because it’s likely right.
Remind yourself that if you’re already picking up signs early on in dating, it will only get worse as you get more intimate and vulnerable with them.
Be aware of your tendency to self-sabotage
On top of triggers, our past also caused us to develop a tendency to self-sabotage.
We unconsciously (or consciously) make decisions or behaviors that end up ruining the good things we have because we don’t think we deserve it. Or we’re so scared of losing it, that we’d rather be the one in control of that destiny.
My tendency to self-sabotage made my relationship quite bumpy in the beginning. Feeling loved felt so weird and foreign to me. I kept thinking it was too good to be true or that it’ll just end eventually, so what’s the point of trying?
I was so wrapped up in my anxieties, insecurities, and doubts that I couldn’t enjoy what I had going for me. And on a few occasions, I unknowingly tried to push my partner away. Fortunately, he knew about my tendency to push people away and pointed it out when I was doing it to him.
When you notice yourself spiraling, try your best to catch yourself. Then, try to stop it by either distracting yourself, or if you’re in a secure enough place with your partner, try talking things through with them.
Like me, you can inform your partner of your tendencies to self-sabotage. That way, they can point out when you might be doing it since you might not notice it.
Your potential partner cannot heal or fix you
When you’ve felt unloved for most of your life, you might yearn for that love from a new partner. You might think finding love would mean finally being happy. I know I did that. But that can’t be further from the truth.
You can’t be happy until you begin healing. Having a partner won’t change that – even if they are loving and supportive. Don’t expect your potential partner to be able to heal or fix you.
Sure, a loving and supportive partner can be a great addition to your support network. They can be validating and encouraging which will help heaps in your healing journey. But ultimately, healing is something you have to do yourself.
Your partner is not your therapist. They are also not your parent. Don’t expect them to give you the parental love and affection you missed out on growing up.
When you go into dating expecting to find your “happily ever after” despite the trauma you experienced, you’ll only be met with disappointment.
The abuse you faced isn’t your fault. But it is your responsibility to heal from it now and not pass it on to others.
You cannot fix or change other people
When you’re dating, you’ll likely come across someone who has some things about them you might not like. It can be red flags, warning signs, dealbreakers, or even just a pet peeve.
When that happens, maybe you’ll think, “Oh, that’ll change” or “I can make them better”. Just as you shouldn’t expect a potential partner to fix you, you shouldn’t expect to fix them, either.
The only thing that can possibly change is your own tolerance and perception of them. You can’t control other people. But you can control yourself (for the most part).
If it’s a red flag, warning sign, or dealbreaker, it’s okay to walk away. Don’t tell yourself that you can change it or that it’s not as bad as it seems. If you’re already seeing a red flag when you’re in the dating phase, what makes you think more won’t appear as time goes on?
In terms of pet peeves, ask yourself if that’s something you can live with and eventually accept. If not, you can always walk away if it’s big enough to be a dealbreaker. Again, you don’t owe anyone anything. You don’t have to settle for someone you don’t feel right with.
You don’t have to do things you don’t want to
Don’t push, pressure, or rush into things you’re not comfortable with. Just because you’re dating someone doesn’t mean you have to do certain things with them. If you’re not comfortable having sex, opening up about your past, or saying “I love you” yet, that’s okay! Never let anyone pressure or guilt you into it.
You are allowed to have boundaries. You are allowed to take things slowly. And any decent person would respect that. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable with whoever you’re with.
Give yourself time to get to know the other person. Let them slowly get to know you, too. You don’t have to rush the process.
Take as long as you need to be by yourself
You don’t need someone to be happy. Yes, we’re social creatures and a healthy relationship can be fulfilling and beneficial to our well-being. But note that the key word here is “healthy”. Just any relationship itself does not guarantee happiness and fulfillment.
Be patient and gentle with yourself and avoid rushing into dating if you’re not really ready. Try not to let others pressure or rush you into it either. I know society makes it feel like you need to be with someone to be worthy. But no, you don’t.
And maybe you did try dating and it wasn’t for you. That’s fine. You don’t have to date. Besides, you can always try again another time. Meanwhile, take some time for yourself.
Or you might feel totally fine going on some dates and meeting a few people. But sometimes, it can start feeling like a little too much. At times like that, it’s okay to take a step back and take a break. It’s important to take care of yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard.
Healing from your childhood trauma doesn’t just help your dating life, it helps your overall life and well-being in general.
Dating after experiencing childhood trauma can be tough. If you’re struggling with putting yourself out there or with life in general, consider seeking professional help. A professional can help you process your experiences, understand your current struggles, and develop tools to begin healing. Connect with a certified therapist and access the most complete online therapy toolbox.
Learn to be clear on the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Try not to settle for someone you can’t truly feel safe and comfortable with. Be patient with yourself and learn to trust and love again. But most important of all, learn to trust and love yourself.
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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