Most people would agree that even for the most well adjusted among us, dating is confusing — even more so for those dealing with trauma. Over the past decade or so, talking about trauma has become less stigmatized and there are more counseling and treatment resources available. Somehow, though, this trauma-sensitive perspective doesn’t seem to have reached the dating world quite yet. Because I refuse to believe that my past life experiences mean that I will end up some nonbinary spinster with a pet raccoon — which actually sounds kind of great — I asked psychologists to imagine what trauma-informed dating might look like and why we should all be thinking about it.
“I think there's a need for people to be trauma-informed in all interactions,” says Julia Koerwer, a psychotherapist in NYC. Most of the experts I spoke with agreed that it doesn’t really matter whether you identify as having trauma or you’re in a relationship with someone else who might, you still need to be trauma aware in your relationships. And while it may seem like people who have experienced trauma should be naturally more trauma sensitive, that’s just not always the case. Sometimes, going through something deeply disturbing gives people sort of emotional blinders that make it hard for them to see that other people have trauma, too. This is all to say that whoever you are, here are some guidelines for dating from a trauma-informed perspective.
First off, what’s considered “trauma”?
Unfortunately, this term gets thrown around to describe everyone who’s survived anything bad, from a sprained ankle to domestic violence. The truth is that trauma is a broad term. It refers to the emotional and physiological effects a person experiences after something negative — something that triggers the nervous system’s fight or flight response — happens to them. A person who has gone through a traumatic experience often initially experiences shock — like after a car crash — and afterward has difficulty processing the experience. The symptoms can vary greatly depending on the severity and frequency of the trauma/s a person has experienced.
Being sensitive to trauma enhances every relationship
Koewer says that having an understanding of how trauma works can help you better understand basically every relationship you have, not just romantic ones. “There are so many scenarios that clearly have a trauma element that's not being considered,” she says. Taking trauma into consideration can make even the most casual social exchanges better for everyone. No, that does not mean that you have to become everyone’s therapist or that you have to tiptoe around every possible emotional landmine. What taking trauma into consideration means is actually pretty liberating.
Instead of assuming that all of someone’s behaviors are somehow about you, you can let that idea go and get curious about how they navigate the world. Assuming that other people’s behavior is complex and sensible is a form of compassion. And compassion isn’t just a great psychological strategy to use when someone cuts you off in traffic, and it’s also pretty crucial to getting to know someone. “Dating should be about learning what those are, not trying to bulldoze through them so you feel satisfied,” Noel Hunter, a New York City-based psychologist says.
Sometimes, trauma looks and feels different than you think it would
One of the first things to know about getting to know someone who is healing from trauma is that we may not respond to situations in a way that makes sense to you, especially if the trauma is especially fresh or deep. It’s helpful to remember that healing happens on a continuum, and someone dealing with trauma from childhood is going to be at a different emotional place than someone who had a bad experience a few weeks ago.
We all have certain sensitivities and reactions that make sense to us and may not to others, Hunter says, but this can be even more pronounced in people with trauma. “People who have a history of trauma might have reactions that don’t always make sense at first, like suddenly changing their mind about what they are or aren’t comfortable with, trying to please and not knowing how to accept pleasure, or needing frequent reassurance,” Hunter says.
If you have an interaction with someone that doesn't make sense, it could help to imagine why it might make sense to them, says Koerwer. That can be hard if someone’s behavior hurts your feelings. If, for example, someone ghosts you after months of contact (hello, it me) and you have no idea what went wrong, it’s pretty hard not to either take it personally or to write them off as a whackjob. But you’ll probably be a lot happier — and kinder to them when you pass on the street — if you assume that they aren’t being intentionally hurtful. That is not a free pass for trauma survivors to become abusers. No one gets to be a dick on the regular and get away with it because they’re triggered.
“Trauma affects the brain on a physiological level,” says Koerwer. “It leaves us with beliefs that might not seem logical to an outsider, but that have arisen to help the trauma survivor feel safe and in control.” Trauma responses, then, are how people learned to live through hard experiences, not just emotionally, but physically, so they can be hard to unlearn. This is why it’s crucial for people to be trauma sensitive in relationships — where we do a lot of interpersonal healing — but it’s equally important that everyone is doing their own inner work. Personally, I will not date anyone who tells me that they have trauma unless they are currently in therapy, have already done decades of therapy, or are actively engaged in other healing practices.
Trauma is not an excuse for abuse
If you're seeing someone and they behave in ways that are unacceptable to you, it’s crucial to talk to them about it. Not only is it important for you to draw your own boundaries, people who are actively trying to heal with trauma need all the information about their behavior they can get. Everyone has trauma, even if they don’t have Trauma, and it’s not a blanket excuse for bad behavior. Also, different types of trauma may warrant different levels of acceptance. If bae just lost their best friend in a horrible accident, you could probably let a little back talk go. If they lost a job they hated anyways, maybe not so much.
Hunter says that trauma-informed dating doesn’t actually have to mean much more than dating with care. “The more people can be respectful in dating — rather than trying to push boundaries or ‘score’ — and honor individual needs and comfort levels,” Hunter says, “then they will be trauma-informed to some extent.”
To sum up, dating from a trauma informed perspective means not taking things too personally, being curious about a potential romantic partner’s behavior, respecting other people’s boundaries, and making sure you’re clear about your own boundaries. Honestly, that doesn’t sound any different than dating should be, anyway.