A Guide To Dating With Complex Trauma

Finding a companion in life can be a rewarding experience. Our primary orientation is for connection. We are hardwired to want to be in relation to other people. Dating presents us with opportunities to connect with people who might be suitable partners for an intimate relationship. 

Dating can be a rewarding experience and also a stressful one. In this post we will discuss the complexities and nuances of dating someone with complex trauma. The intent is bringing a trauma-informed lens to dating and relationship building. 

Trauma is often misunderstood. 

We live in an avoidant culture which denies trauma’s existence. The metaphor of an unhealed wound is often used to explain trauma. Physical, psychological, or emotional wounds originate from an infinite number of sources. When it comes to physical injury, we can quickly identify the wound by the physical pain experienced or visual of blood. As a small child I was playing with a pocketknife outside cutting a monopoly board. It slipped and accidentally cut my wrist and blood poured out profusely. I was taken to the local emergency room where I received stiches and the wound closed and eventually healed. 

Despite getting medical treatment I recall feeling like a burden to my father at the time who refused to take me despite the fact that my wrist was bleeding. He berated me for interrupting his life in that moment. Emotional or psychological pain is subjective. Therefore, it is not experienced by every human being in the same way. As outsiders looking into to someone’s subjective experience, we cannot define what is or is not traumatic for another. Complex trauma is compounded over times. Growing up I learned that I did not matter and countless number of events throughout my childhood and young adult life served to reinforce that message. 

The untreated wound often creates symptoms in daily life which impact day-to-day functioning. Survivors of traumatic events may exhibit any number of trauma-related symptoms including intrusive memories, avoidance, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, changes in sleep and eating patterns, confusion, mood swings, withdrawing from others, hopelessness., etc. Unbeknownst to me I also developed parts of self. I learned that it is common for survivors of complex trauma to dissociate and severe their relationship to the present moment. My dissociative mind fragmented in a beautiful way to help me survive the harsh and cold conditions of the world I lived in. My life, as I understood it, was compartmentalized into rigid boxes and I did not feel I could show anyone my authentic self. I feared rejection. Dating was often out of the question. Every time I would attempt a relationship, I would do something to end it. From a place of wounding I drank myself into alcoholism and restricted food intake to the point of anorexia nervosa. Addictions of various types and forms were my own way to feel something in the world. 

Thankfully, the universe did not allow me to give up. I found Alcoholics Anonymous. I had the gift of desperation to heal. AA helped me to accept who I am and what I have been through. AA showed me a life where people have meaningful relationships. AA was not enough to heal my wounds. I did not want to continue living life feeling tortured by my past. I found an EMDR therapist who quickly assessed my situation and helped me to unpack how I had Complex PTSD and a significant dissociative disorder. Hope was instilled that healing was not only possible but I deserved it. I learned a lot about myself in both AA & EMDR that have helped me to date with complex trauma and dissociation.

Here are the lessons I offer for dating with complex trauma. These come from my own experiences in recovery and journey towards healing. The lessons are by no means exhaustive. Recovery wisdom holds if something does not resonate with you, you have the freedom to change it to language that works for you or disregard it. 

Lesson 1: Be compassionate 

I learned quickly the compounded traumatic events I experienced were not my fault. Both AA & EMDR helped me become more compassionate toward myself and others. Compassion has a learning curve. Taking accountability for what I experienced and accessing healing resources available to me was my choice. Being compassionate is the center of trauma-informed dating, especially when healing from complex trauma. It took me a while to ride the waves of emotions that arose, pain, and regrets of the past. AA reminded me to live “One Day at A Time.” That phrase helped me to stay grounded in dating. Don’t get too far ahead of myself.  

Dating in the 21st century is not easy. Be empathetic. Dating can help us learn more about our preferences, dislikes, and likes.  

Lesson 2: Know Your Worth

Fr. Francis DiSpigno, a Franciscan Friar, once told me “You are good, holy, and blessed”. In a dark moment when I could not see my worth, he uttered those words to me. They struck a chord within me. No matter what I have been through or done, I am essentially a human being deserving of authentic love and affection. In trauma recovery we are gifted the opportunity to heal from the inside out. Self-love is crucial to healthy dating. Recovery taught me I cannot give away what I do not have. If I do not love myself, how can I accept love from another? From a place of wounding people treated me as they wished, and I called that love. Coming to love myself was a process. The healing process taught me to dialogue with my parts and the qualities I hide from the world. Today I embrace my worth. Being in relationship cannot define my personhood. I am richer than the sum of my parts, past/present/and future experiences, awards, honors, titles, material possessions, etc. I embrace the fullness of my humanity. 

Lesson 3: Stay Grounded 

Life is activating. Different experiences throughout our day may ignite a flight, fight, freeze, or fawn response especially if it is triggered by unhealed trauma. Part of recovery from complex trauma is developing skills to ground one’s self to the present moment. Grounding helps our minds stay within our window of tolerance. Dating may bring up a lot of negative beliefs, doubts, and fears which are completely understandable based on past negative experiences.

Tools for grounding may include mindfulness, use of 5 senses (See, Smell, Hear, Touch, Taste) name things in the environment associated with each sense, container, light stream, calm/safe space, clench and release, savoring a sent, music. Experiment with what works to keep you grounded. It is optimal to have several tools you can pull out when and if they are needed. 

When dating someone who dissociates it would be helpful to know some tools that work to ground your partner. Staying calm with someone dissociating. Use a soothing voice. If breathing works with them, perhaps doing some deep breaths. Maybe lighting incense if smells work to ground your partner. 

Lesson 4: Checking in With Your System

I want to be clear that you do not need to have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) to have parts of self. When most people think of parts DID is the first thing that comes to mind. Complex trauma may include the development of an internal system of parts each with its own role in helping to protect us. Parts may vary in age, gender, sexual orientation, needs, and preferences. A trauma-informed dating approach includes understanding how your system works. Give space and understanding to any parts which may need to process feelings about a prospective date, something that happened during or after a date, or wrestles with intimacy and romance. Respect the boundaries of your parts. Some parts may have formed as a way to meet needs of an abuser. Recognize and accept limits your parts offer. The wisdom of your system can be your greatest strength. If something does not feel right with any part, check in to see what the feeling is about. Explore what might be needed. Different parts may also need different grounding tools. 

If you are reading this and begin to notice discomfort about the ideas of internal systems, parts of self, or complex trauma, take a few minutes to notice what is coming up for you. Misconceptions about dissociation and trauma abound. I would strongly encourage anyone dating someone with complex trauma to do some reading online about trauma and parts of self. 

To learn more, go straight to the source. Ask someone who identifies parts of self to help you gain clarity and understanding of their lived experience.

Lesson 5: To Disclose or Not Disclose 

Living as a person who has experienced both complex trauma and dissociation, I often feel out a situation before I make a choice to disclose anything about my background. The old cliché “knowledge is power” comes into play for me. Before I disclose deep parts of my history, I need to make sure that I can feel safe enough with another. Get to know the prospective person. Assess their genuineness and ability to be empathic. You have a right to privacy. A trauma-informed approach embraces choice and respect. If you are not ready to speak about something from your past, make that known. Some people are not well equipped to date someone in recovery from complex trauma, dissociation, or addiction. I learned a hard lesson when I disclosed my recovery experience to someone that I had a romantic attraction. What I learned was sometimes people are judgmental. Their judgment about our experiences is not a sign that we did something wrong. Rather, other people’s judgments and harsh criticism is a sign that they have work which remains unfinished. 

Today, I choose to not date someone who has not done their emotional and psychological work. Partners who are willing to look inside their psyche to change dynamics which are not helpful are also partners who will understand trauma recovery and healing. Disclosing your complex trauma history, dissociation, or how it presently affects you is sacred. Recovery teaches us we show great respect for ourselves when we make choices that keep ourselves and our system safe. 

Trust your gut instincts. 

Dating with complex trauma can teach us a great deal about ourselves if we all ourselves to open to new experiences. As the Shakespearean phrase coined AA slogan says, “To Thine Own Self Be True”. Live from a place of authenticity. Dating when grounded in a trauma-informed way enhances life and helps us to grow in ways that seemed impossible. 

Healthy relationships that understand and value the lived experience of people with histories of complex trauma and dissociation can also be restorative. Healthy relationships promote growth and risk taking to try new hobbies, learn skills, or be adventurous. Toxic relationships are based on the dynamics of power and control. Equality is central to healthy relationships.  In recovery from complex trauma we tap into choices which previously did not exist. Grounded in respect, trust, and support we negotiate conflicts to ensure that both parties needs are met, or suitable compromises reached. Open communication, shared responsibility, and accountability are also integral parts of healthy, trauma-informed relationships. 

When I work with clients who are beginning to date from their new experience in recovery, I often ask them to sit down and write a list of qualities they have for an ideal mate. Brainstorming what we would like is a good way to also identify what characteristics we would not like in a prospective mate or relationship. 

Stay connected to supports as you begin this journey of dating. If something feels overwhelming or unsettling, trust your mind and body to help you ground back to the present moment. Healing is an ongoing process. Be kind toward yourself. When something comes up on a date or a new relationship that has triggered something remember you are in process. My love of EMDR has taught me that we can always go back into reprocessing and make new connections that we can use in adaptive ways toward healing our mind, body, and spirit. 

6 thoughts on “A Guide To Dating With Complex Trauma

  1. Hello Michael I hate the feeling s of survive r syndrome. I hate that I have spent my life coming out of the dark. Thank God for my community pychotherapist who explained to how I survived the mental, sexual and physical abuse I’m never going to stop supporting DV, addiction and mental disorders. What do you think about me now?

    1. Hi Lauraine. I’m glad you have a supportive community of people who have helped you come out of the dark. I’m not sure I follow when you ask how I think of you now. Can you help clarify?

  2. Thank you so much! I’m sitting with so many of the words you wrote, they so resonate with me. As I step into dating again, I appreciate your insights. I have learned so much about authentic self and also about parts work. Truly life changing! Again, thank you for putting into words so much of what has been swirling in my head. I have recently rediscovered writing poetry and it has helped me put into words and express so much of my work. EMDR has been life changing for me, I am experiencing healing and freedom in parts of me I thought were dead. I am truly blessed with a trustworthy, empathic and knowledgeable therapist which has also been a game changer. Trust is challenging, worth it to step into as I wrote in my poem last night “with hands open, with my heart open.”

    1. Judy, thank you for the kind words. And I’m grateful the article resonated well with you. I’m a big believer in parts work and EMDR. Wishing you the best as you begin your dating journey.

  3. Sarah Smith, LCSW-R August 4, 2020 — 8:57 pm

    Michael I am so glad you wrote this. As usual in early recovery I heard that you had to stay out of relationships. So of course after rehab I moved in with a man. He was also getting out of rehab. It had disaster written all over it. We are still together, and sober, 30 years later. I of course believed that I could focus on him so I could avoid my demons. What unfolded was messy and amazing and yes, even healing. I did not know how to even feel, let alone all the other things the trauma had taken from me. I had no conception of safety. Often I heard that you have to learn to love yourself and that sure in hell wasn’t happening. But I do love myself today, at least most of the time. I really do appreciate your writing and with permission would like to share it with people I know who struggle this.

    1. Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing your story and offering strength and hope to others. Love is definitely a process and I think riding the waves of acceptances is a good thing. Please feel free to share with anyone you think would benefit.

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