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Notes from Survivors
The Challenge of Healthy DatingBy Charlie Hertan
Few experiences are more charged, exciting, scary, juicy, and overwhelming than dating. Not surprisingly, dating poses tremendous challenges for survivors of childhood abuse, mistreatment, and neglect. Attraction and dating raise issues of longing, intimacy, trust, vulnerability, sexuality, self-doubt, identity, fear of abandonment, and a wealth of other intense feelings. Accessing these deeper parts of ourselves can be very beautiful-and, for many, also quite terrifying.
What's so hard about dating?
Self-esteem. The core impact of childhood trauma is damaged self-esteem. When children are abused and neglected, they internalize the false messages, "It's my fault"; "there must be something wrong with me"; "I am bad." When things get tough in dating, survivors find themselves repeating these ingrained falsehoods. Dating can feel like a referendum on one's "OK-ness." Most survivors have deep fundamental doubts about their own attractiveness, physical and personal. I have known many survivors of both sexes who deeply believed that they were physically unattractive, though most others would describe them as beautiful. Many carry the belief that people "don't like me" or "don't notice me." Dating exposes core inner wounds by stimulating our unmet desires to be seen, found attractive, and desired sexually.
Longing, rescue fantasies, despair. Most everyone longs for love and intimacy, but for childhood trauma survivors, this longing stirs up a sea of past unmet needs.
Children who are hurt physically, sexually, or emotionally have a deep longing to be seen, held, loved, and rescued from their pain. When I was eight years old, my mother left my sister and me with our father. Flustered, clueless, and in denial, my father made no provision for us to be supervised until eight p.m., when he got home from work. After school, I spent most of my free time alone in the basement, with a TV for a babysitter. Denied the emotional nurturing I desperately needed, I screamed, set little fires, and abused myself. Since neglected children internalize the same awful self-concepts as abused kids, self-punishment is very common. During this time I developed a "rescue fantasy" involving an older girl who chained me to the ground-not to hurt me, but to protect and ground me. Unlike my parents, she didn't leave me alone.
For survivors, dating triggers old longings and fantasies: "this person will finally see me, understand me, not hurt me, heal me, want me, love me, stay with me. ..." These longings for "salvation" from one's inner wounds embody a quality of despair: "I need this person to love me so much, I feel like I will die if they don't." The despair relates to how desperately the child needed someone to be there back when the abuse or neglect started, someone to stop the pain. Unfortunately, the date picks up on this sense of urgency, and most people find it too scary.
Needing others and control issues. The possibility of finding love, sex, and intimacy through dating opens the floodgates of "regressive needs"--the tender, childlike, vulnerable parts of ourselves that long to be loved, taken care of, held, made love to. When we begin to fall for someone, the lid flies off our Pandora's box of deep emotional needs. The dilemma for survivors is that we often lack a good "safety lock" for the box, and expose our innermost needs too soon. We do this both because of the porous boundaries abuse/neglect taught us ("you have no right to be safe"), and because these deep needs were unmet in childhood and we are starved for deep affection. Whereas non-survivors may rein in their longing until they get to know the other person well enough to establish trust, many survivors spill out their deepest needs and secrets on the first date, only to be stunned when the other person proves to be "unworthy" of this sacred trust.
My mentor, Bob, once gave me a beautiful piece of advice. I had jumped into an intense and reckless involvement after my marital separation, and was explaining one of my actions in terms of wanting to "be the best lover I could be." His answer startled and amused me: "Don't try to be the best lover you can be--wait a little."
When we project the other person into the role of fulfiller of our innermost needs, we may become obsessed with controlling that person. We're so afraid of losing them that we become clingy and obsessed. In the extreme case, a battering relationship may develop. The survivor-turned-perpetrator dynamic is something like this: "I have a desperate need for love, intimacy, caretaking, and affection. However, deep down I know that I am worthless, no good, unlovable (as my abuse taught me). I need you to meet these powerful needs that have been stirred up, because I am incapable of taking care of my own vulnerability, but since I am unlovable, I will have to force you to do it."
On the other end of the spectrum, our need for control around our regressive needs may lead us to push the other person away prematurely or irrationally. Needing another person is so terrifying that we feel compelled to sabotage the chance for intimacy, rather than facing the fear of encountering another person deeply.
Rejection and abandonment. For survivors of neglect or abandonment, when intimacy begins to develop in a dating relationship, it triggers a powerful fear of being left again. Abuse survivors often share this fear, because abuse is a form of "emotional abandonment" by adults we trusted to care for us and keep us safe. The fear of rejection also taps into core survivor issues of feeling unlovable, bad, or "tainted." These fears can lead survivors to expect rejection, or to misread normal caution, questions, or doubts as preludes to rejection or abandonment. We may then launch a preemptive strike-leaving the bewildered date before they have a chance to hurt us.
Sexuality, boundaries, and safety. Physical and emotional intimacy in dating can be terrifying for survivors. When you have been abused, neglected, or hurt by trusted adults as a child, the process of opening yourself up to another person restimulates tremendous fear of being hurt again. This fear would seem to dictate a cautious approach, and some survivors are overly hesitant about getting close to anyone. Many more go to the other extreme. For sexual abuse survivors, the possibility of sexual involvement can trigger overwhelming fear, panic, flashbacks to childhood abuse, impotence, guilt, shame (which may be experienced as erotically exciting), and the full range of post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Abuse and neglect prevents the formation of healthy boundaries in children. Often, children learn to submit passively to violation in order to avoid more extreme abuse. Victimized children also learn to dissociate from trauma, since this is the mind's core protection against overwhelming events. This necessary survival tool has a tragic consequence; it teaches children to ignore the gut feelings that instinctively tell us when a person or situation is unsafe. Dissociation then becomes a learned autonomic response, rendering survivors "frozen" or incapable of defending against further violation later in life.
Consequently, unhealed survivors often show poor boundaries and an inability to respond to danger. In dating, this can translate into jumping into sexual relationships with strangers, exercising poor judgment around another person's character, and getting into physically or sexually unsafe situations.
What would a healthier dating pattern look like for me?
Charlie Hertan, LICSW, is a therapist, writer, and photographer who has been living in the Pioneer Valley since 1996.