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5 Ways Trauma Could Impact Your Dating Life

Understanding your trauma responses and how they might show up in your dating.

Key points

  • Trauma can impact how you view yourself, the world and your relationships; it can impact how you relate and respond to others
  • Trauma responses can lead to unhelpful behaviors and ways of thinking that make it difficult to form meaningful relationships.
  • Trauma can be processed and healed, but requires time and commitment.
Source: Voyagerix/Shutterstock

I don't think it would be fair to talk about dating, without addressing the impact of trauma. Why is trauma relevant in the context of dating? Because trauma can impact how you relate to others, navigate relationships and understand the world at large. For the sake of brevity, I will define trauma as “a stressful event or experience that threatens one's sense of safety and well-being (emotional and or physical)”.

As I break down the different ways that trauma can impact dating and relationships, it is important to remember that

  1. Trauma is subjective, what might be traumatic to one person, may not be traumatic to another
  2. Trauma can look and impact every individual differently
  3. Trauma can be hard for some to recognize or acknowledge, especially if a person seems “fine” and is able to function in their daily life fairly well. Trauma can include but is not limited to: childhood abuse, losing a parent, family separation, a medical crisis, an abusive relationship, grief, a car accident, experiencing harassment at work, or being bullied as a child.

Based on this understanding of trauma, here are five ways that trauma could impact dating and relationships:

1. Mistrust. Trauma can lead to feelings of mistrust, in others and in oneself. And this could manifest in one’s attachment style, how one connects with and responds to another within a relationship (i.e. anxious attachment, avoidant, secure). Mistrust might cause you to frequently question the intentions and sincerity of another person or seek out “red flags.” It can also make it difficult for you to trust your own judgment and decision-making. You might feel unsure of yourself and your ability to navigate relationships.

Examples of mistrust in dating: Questioning your date or partner's level of interest or commitment, asking to look at or check their phone, obsessing over texts or a conversation, overanalyzing a comment that your date or partner made, questioning the other person's whereabouts, avoiding dating altogether.

**Interested in learning more about attachment within relationships? The book Attached.: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love by Amir Levine, M.D and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A, does a great job at breaking down attachment, the different types of attachment, and how one’s previous relationships and experiences can bleed into new relationships.

2. Low self-esteem and self-worth. Trauma can take a huge toll on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. When you experience a traumatic event or series of traumatic events it can lead to self-limiting beliefs and feelings of shame. It might make it difficult for you to assert yourself and set boundaries within a relationship, or even know what a “healthy” relationship looks like. When you struggle with your self-esteem, you might find yourself lowering your standards or expectations because you don't believe that you are “deserving” of a healthy relationship or feel “good enough” for another person.

Examples of low self-esteem in dating: Dating people for validation, finding oneself in unhealthy relationships, letting things go (unhealthy or negative behaviors of your date or partner), not expressing your own needs and wants, taking the blame for things that are not your fault, internalizing or personalizing the negative behavior of your date or partner

3. Living in fear: Trauma causes activation of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze response). While this response is helpful in times of crisis and has evolved to keep us safe and protect us from threats, it can over-function when a traumatic event has not been processed or cleared. An activated amygdala can result in anxiety or panic symptoms (i.e. nervous, reactive, restless) and intrusive thoughts (i.e. catastrophic thinking, overgeneralizing, dwelling on past experiences).

In this heightened state, you might be more combative or defensive and quick to start fights or arguments. This fearful state might also make it difficult for you to be fully present or available. You might always be thinking two steps ahead to avoid or prepare to respond to potential pain or hurt. This is where self-sabotaging behaviors can kick in (i.e. "I'm going to end the relationship before they do”).

Examples of fear in dating: Impulsive behaviors (ending a relationship out of fear, accusing your date or partner of something without reason), avoiding commitment, thinking about the "what if's" and everything that could go wrong.

4. Lack of hope: Trauma can also lead to feelings of hopelessness. You might lack faith in yourself and the ability to live a happy and fulfilling life. Most individuals with that “glass-half-empty” mindset or attitude don't enjoy feeling this way but after a traumatic event or big loss, it can truly feel like nothing good will ever happen. You might notice yourself going into a date or a new relationship with very little hope. You also might make a lot of negative assumptions about a new relationship before you even give it a real chance.

Examples of hopelessness in dating: Low expectations for a date or relationship, unable to imagine or even consider what a future could be like with another person, making blanket assumptions about another person's character (i.e. "all men/women are ____," "It will never work out"), challenges being present and experiencing any positive feelings while you are with your date/partner

5. Feeling lonely or disconnected: Trauma can cause feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Even in a room full of people or a busy household, after a traumatic event, you might truly feel alone. Usually, this is because of the underlying belief that no one else could ever relate to you or understand what you have gone through or experienced. Or it might be hard for you to feel anything at all. This is typical because of dissociation that can occur (i.e. feeling outside of your body, not grounded in the present, feeling empty or numb). As a result, dating can become tricky because it can be difficult to feel connected to another person and experience true intimacy.

Examples of loneliness and disconnection: Challenges being present or spacing out while on a date or in the company of a date or partner, not feeling seen or understood by your date or partner, challenges investing oneself in a new person or relationship, unable to enjoy sex or intimacy

Does any of this resonate? The good news is, it is possible to heal from trauma. As much as you might resist the idea of processing and working through your stuff, it is so important to self-reflect and have a deeper understanding of who you are and why you do the things you do. It is only then, that you can move forward and change some of these patterns and learned behaviors that may have been holding you back.