How to Date a Survivor Part I: Laying the Groundwork
By Tessa Gurley, CCASA Blogger
Dating. We’ve all done it at least once. We’ve all felt the awkwardness, butterflies, joy and fear that the dating experience evokes.
The roots for the word “dating” give us some insight as to why dating is so darn difficult. “Date” originated from the Medieval Latin data, the feminine past participle of dare, or “give”. When we date someone, we give permission to our hearts to be vulnerable with another person. Of course, the level of vulnerability varies from person to person and relationship to relationship but, as leading vulnerability expert Brene Brown explains, “the willingness to be vulnerable is a core characteristic of what separates people who live whole-heartedly from those who do not.”
Vulnerability is hard for everyone. For survivors of sexual assault, however, the difficulty in being vulnerable is astronomically higher. After all, we have survived a betrayal in which our most deep sense of vulnerability was injured; our sexuality.
Because of that, survivors notoriously have “issues” around intimacy. And where is one space where intimacy shows up? Relationships, both romantic and otherwise. Today, however, I’m talking about romantic partnerships of every kind. With an estimated one in five women and one in 77 men (and these are very modest and problematic statistics), then your chance of dating someone who has survived sexual violence is quite high.
Many partners do not know what to do when it comes to dating a survivor. I know I’ve had my fair share of blank, confused looks, fights, and tears with my various boyfriends. I always try to guide them to references to help them understand why I act the way I do in relationships. There is one major problem; there is a massive lack in the resources available to partners of survivors, especially from a survivor themselves.
So, I want to change that. In the first part of a three-part series, I’m going to give you two tips for communicating more effectively with your partner. Communication sets the groundwork for every relationship, and these tips will set up your relationship for success:
- Create Open Channels of Mindful Communication
Pretty much everything else on this list can fall under the umbrella of this suggestion. We survivors often have difficulty navigating the territory of feelings. When our trauma occurred, certain areas in our brain shut down to protect us from what was happening, resulting in a disconnect from the emotional part of our brains. Each survivor had their own way of handling the trauma. Regardless, the way the brain handles trauma directly impacts a survivor’s ability to communicate and understand feelings and emotions effectively. Establishing a safe environment around communication is absolutely critical, and this takes practice and patience
Good news is, there are a couple of techniques that you can use in your communications to make your interactions easier, more mindful and less prone to miscommunication:
– Communicate about literally everything (maybe not your bathroom habits…): When you practice communicating about the little things, talking through tougher things is much easier.
– Be honest: ‘Nuff said.
– Speak mindfully: I learned this template when I was in rehab, and it has saved lives (OK not literally, but close): “I feel (insert “emotion word” like “angry”, “sad”, “frustrated” etc…), when you (insert the partner’s action eliciting the emotion). In the future, could you please (insert desired future action).” You take responsibility for your feelings. You give a specific action. You state a specific need. This makes the communication less threatening, easier for the other partner to receive, and opens up a space for the partner to respond.
- Listen Without Judgement and With Self-Awareness
Wait. Communication isn’t just about talking? NO! The oft-overlooked, but crucial, component in establishing good communication patterns with your partner is learning to be a good listener. Increasingly, studies are being done on listening and these studies agree that we are losing our ability to listen.
The inability to listen is one of the greatest detriments to relationships. I personally think this is one of the top reasons why relationships fail; the other partner is not truly heard, or does not feel heard. Cue communication breakdown. Cue resentment. Cue breakup.
Sometimes (many times) we survivors just want to talk. That’s all. We don’t want someone to try to offer us a solution because, guess what? We don’t want to feel like you’re trying to “fix” us. To be able to sit, and simply listen, is an art. I encourage you to learn and implement this skill.
How do you do this? First, by being self-aware. Listen to the dialogue that goes on inside your head. Allow it to float by like clouds in a blue sky. If there is a point you want to bring up later, stop that cloud and mentally note what it is you want to discuss after your partner is done talking. Give the partner space and time to talk.
Second, know that you don’t have to fix us! In fact, it feels yucky if you come from that space. Sometimes we just need to vent and “get it out”. Don’t take things too personally. Being a good partner means that you can sit in the fire with your partner without feeling like you have to put it out. It will burn out. If you feel overwhelmed by what you are hearing, suggest that your partner find a professional. You are not their therapist, but you can be their supportive sounding board.
Communication is a fundamental part of being human, and communication is vulnerable. In communications with others, we are exposing a little piece of our hearts. It is how we understand each other. Learning the art of communication is one of the biggest gifts you can give your survivor partner. It is also one of the greatest gifts you can give the world; if you learn to communicate in a more peaceable and loving way, then those around you will feel held, and heard, and that is something we all desire.
In my second blog, I’ll give you some insight in to how to be a supportive partner. Finally, the third blog will deal with that super-sensitive area known as “intimacy.”
Tessa Gurley is a survivor and secondary survivor who is passionate about helping to heal the wounds left as a result of sexual violence. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email her at Tgurley7@gmail.com.
 National Sexual Violence Reference Center, Last modified 2015, http://nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf.
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