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5 Dating Tips When You and Your Partner Both Live With PTSD

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

When my ex-husband and I split up after over a decade together, I wasn’t sure I would ever have the courage to enter another romantic relationship. I assumed my trauma history and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) diagnosis gave me too much baggage for anyone to actually love me. But, as it turns out, I was very wrong. Unlike most of my past relationships, however, this one is very different because we both live with a history of trauma.

• What is PTSD?

While our shared experiences and understanding of trauma help my significant other and I connect in a way I’ve never connected with anyone before, it has also created some unique moments that we’ve had to learn to navigate as we go. Because of these challenging moments, I’ve learned several tricks that can help romantic partners when they both live with PTSD.

1. Educate each other and share

Trauma impacts everyone a bit differently, which means no two people with PTSD experience the same triggers or symptoms. For this reason, it’s important for romantic partners who have experienced trauma to educate each other and share how their past impacts them. This allows both partners to feel safe and understand each other a bit more. It also allows parents to help each other out when they experience trauma responses.

For example, I know that my girlfriend’s triggers include the scent of lavender, so I avoid using any essential oil blends or burning any candles that include lavender. Likewise, I have communicated that mass transit is a major trigger for me, and I will tell my girlfriend how she can help me before we travel together this fall.

Although sharing is important, you don’t have to disclose every detail of your trauma for your partner to understand how trauma impacts you. At the end of the day, it’s up to you how much you disclose, and the same goes for your significant other.

2. Establish consent rules early

Consent allows both partners in the relationship to agree before engaging in any activity, and it helps both partners feel comfortable and safe. Consent is important for any relationship, but it can be critical for two intimate partners who have survived sexual assault or domestic violence because it allows them to feel in control of the situation so they remain safe.

When approaching the topic of consent with your significant other, start the process early so you can establish clear consent rules and processes early on in your relationship. This also removes any pressure “in the heat of the moment” because you’ve already discussed how to handle more intimate moments and determined how each partner will ask and provide consent or disapproval.

In many cases, using the “no until yes” consent method is a great approach for people with a history of trauma because it includes open communication every step of the way. In this consent method, both partners assume that neither consent to anything until they are asked and provide an enthusiastic “yes” as a response. This consent method also helps establish the notion that the lack of a “no” is not the same as a “yes,” and it provides lots of opportunities for both parties to remove consent at any time.

3. Respect boundaries

Just like consent, boundaries are an important part of all relationships. Unfortunately, many people with a history of trauma are used to their personal boundaries being violated, so this makes respecting personal boundaries all the more important for two people who live with PTSD.

Sometimes boundaries include listening when your partner says no or respecting their request to not talk about certain subjects. Other times it may mean reading body language and asking for clarifications when you feel like nonverbal cues indicate that your significant other isn’t comfortable with something.

By respecting each other’s boundaries and needs, you and your partner can avoid a lot of discomfort, resentment and hurt that can occur with boundary violations. You also help your significant other feel safe with you and vice versa.

4. Try to avoid internalizing everything

In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of living with PTSD is dealing with the negative core beliefs my abusers conditioned me to accept as fact. For many people with trauma, these stuck points cause lots of internalization and self-blame when uncomfortable or negative events occur, especially in intimate relationships.

However, it’s important for both partners in a relationship to avoid this internalization and self-blame. In most instances, events are neither partner’s fault, but rather just an unfortunate occurrence.

If you catch yourself Internalizing blame for your partner’s bad day or other difficult moment, try reframing that negative thought to see if you can find other possibilities. Inversely, if you notice your significant other blaming themselves for something that isn’t really their fault, try to talk through the situation with them and remind them that not everything bad that happens is their fault.

5. Remain flexible

Flexibility is key when existing with anyone who lives with any sort of mental illness, and it’s no different when you’re dating someone who has experienced trauma. Some days are harder than others, and sometimes triggers pop up unexpectedly. By remaining flexible and open-minded, you and your partner can work together when situations occur.

At the same time, though, flexibility can be hard for people with trauma because it sometimes involves sudden changes in plans or last-minute cancellations. If you or your significant other struggle with sudden changes because of your trauma history, it may help to talk through this in advance so nobody is caught off guard. You can even have some go-to cope ahead plans and date night alternatives to pull from when plans fall through.

For me, dating a fellow trauma survivor has helped me feel safe, validated and seen in a way that I never have before. Because of our history and current therapeutic treatment goals, though, it’s also created some interesting moments that we’ve had to learn to navigate as we go. I hope that sharing these insights remind me how to work through the more challenging moments in my current relationship while also helping others who may be in a similar dynamic with their significant other. Two people with a history of trauma can build a beautiful life and heal together as long as they’re willing to work together and respect each other’s needs.

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Originally published: June 9, 2021
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