When you’re the victim of a sexual abuse or assault, you can never truly look at significant others the same way again. Getting back into the dating world as a victim is sort of like walking on eggshells-you’re petrified of every (in my case) man, every new person of attraction who walks into your life without knowing your story and your past. Particularly if you haven’t shared your status as a victim or your story in that much detail (or at all), it can be terrifying wondering how your significant other will react if you do decide to tell them about your traumatic past. I’m not sure how much advice I can offer both victims and those who are dating or may date victims in their future, but I will do my best to lend my experiences as a victim of sexual abuse and assault to shed some light on what it’s like to date a victim.
I think the sheer anxiety and distrust that a victim of sexual assault can feel is something unique that, if someone has never dated a victim before, it might come as a shock. And the thing for that anxiety is, there’s really no way to know when it will be sparked or when it will occur. I’m in constant fear of flashbacks, and when I first started coming out about my abuse in therapy at the age of 16, I began having panic attacks at school and sometimes around my boyfriend at the time. He wouldn’t respond the way that you should if someone you supposedly care about is having a panic attack-he would walk away, roll his eyes, and ask when I was going to be finished, as if my anxiety was something I could control or I was just doing it to get attention.
In every new intimate situation, I have this wave of fear cast over me. What if what happened to me before will happen to me again? What if I’m inadequate? What if he doesn’t want me because of what’s happened to me? What if I do something wrong? You go through these cycles of irrational fear: the fear that if you want to stop, your partner won’t, the fear that if you aren’t good enough it must be because of what happened to you. And who would want “damaged goods?”
In short, dating a victim is not easy, and not like dating anyone else. I live in a constant fear of being victimized again. Even in some long-term relationships that I have been in, the swift feeling of anxiety and flashing back to the abuse or my assault or even some more minor victimizations can cripple you, no matter how happy or excited you were before that anxiety hit. I think there are two HUGE things to remember if you are dating a victim: the first one is that while not knowing what to say is normal (there is research on friends and family members feeling like they don’t know how to respond when someone discloses their sexual assault or instance of abuse), saying nothing when your partner might be having a panic attack or needs to talk about what happened to them is not the best approach. You need to show that you are there for them, that you believe them, and that you do not want to hurt them. If your partner needs to stop being intimate because of anxiety or flashbacks, then stop. Pushback when it comes to you and your partner’s intimate life is the wrong way to handle these types of situation-we need your support, and we need to know that we can trust you. Second, you’re going to want to “fix” how we are, and sometimes the flashbacks or the anxiety may have been triggered by something you did unintentionally. Just be accepting that you won’t be able to completely fix it, and you won’t always understand why we experience that anxiety or why we are feeling anxious with you at all. You don’t have to understand that. In fact, I wouldn’t wish anyone to feel or understand the anxiety that I do feel when I am intimate with someone.
Dating in general is tough. Dating a victim of sexual abuse or assault is a challenge all it’s own. But as long as you demonstrate trust, care, and support for your partner who is a victim, you will have a healthy relationship. The person you are dating has been through enough victimization in their lives. Don’t be another reason why they can’t ever have a “normal” relationship.