Finding love after trauma can be a daunting task, especially on the heels of the collective disruption of the Covid pandemic.
Trauma comes in many forms. A single horrific event can change someone for a lifetime. It could be violence stemming from an incident or relationship that creates post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Issues can stem back to childhood and complexly shape the way someone not only views the world but how they interact with the people in it, as well as how they love and allow themselves to be loved.
Reactions to trauma are going to be unique for different people. What may only be a bump in the road for one person might be a life-altering event for another. A childhood trauma could be a minor issue for someone while others have their entire life perspective changed. For years as a society, we often had a standard approach to trauma: telling people to get over it, or to go to therapy, but keep it to themselves.
However, that seems to be changing. Just before the Covid pandemic, a Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that 87% of those surveyed believed that having a mental health issue was nothing to be ashamed of. However, 33% said that people with mental health disorders “scared them,” and nearly 40% said they would treat someone differently if they knew they had a mental health disorder.
Reactions to trauma are going to be unique for different people. What may only be a bump in the road for one person might be a life-altering event for another.
With the rise of Covid, we saw a huge upsurge in awareness of mental health issues. Suddenly “self-care” became a common term heard almost everywhere, from friends, family, and the media. Slowly, discussions began to occur about the potential for a mental health pandemic that would follow on the heels of the Covid pandemic and the undeniable trauma suffered by society as a whole.
Even now, as Covid has become a part of our everyday lives, we are only beginning to grapple with the accompanying trauma, adding to the list of ways our mental health can be battered and deeply affecting our personal relationships.
THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAUMA
Trauma is far more common than we like to admit. More than two-thirds of children have endured at least one traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. A worldwide survey revealed that one in eight adults have reported childhood sexual abuse while one in four have reported physical abuse. For traumatic events such as sexual assault, it’s estimated by the U.S. Department of Justice that a rape occurs every 133 seconds.
When it comes to trauma occurring in childhood, according to statistics from the National Survey of Children’s Health from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Colorado is not only right in line with national averages, in several categories Colorado is higher. Rates of substance abuse in households are above the national average at nearly 10%. Also higher than average, 7% of households have a parent or guardian who has spent time in jail. 10.4% of Colorado households have reported mental illness, nearly 2.5 percentage points higher than the national average.
Trauma comes in many forms, but in order to understand it better we can break it down into two main categories: direct and indirect. Direct trauma is usually easier to comprehend — when something occurs directly to someone such as physical, mental, or sexual abuse.
Trauma comes in many forms, but in order to understand it better we can break it down into two main categories: direct and indirect.
Indirect trauma is something that happens vicariously to a person. It might be second-hand knowledge or viewing an event live or even on television. Some people are very sensitive to violence, so witnessing something on television can have an effect. Many people suffered indirect trauma from watching the events of 9/11 unfold live through the media. There is also “vicarious trauma,” when someone starts to be affected by things happening to people around them.
Most often discussed is when trauma occurs from a large, invasive event. One that is often cited by psychologists and scholars is the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping where 26 children were abducted and buried alive for 16 hours. After they were rescued, the children went on to report extreme PTSD and suffered from various issues including drug addiction, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
In 2022, several of the grown children appeared on a podcast special “Nightmare in Chowchilla: The School Bus Kidnapping.” Survivor Larry Park detailed his battles with mental illness, severe anxiety, and drug addiction. Fellow survivor Jennifer Brown Hyde said that even after nearly 50 years, she still suffers panic attacks.
“I can have an anxiety attack over getting in the car with my husband,” Hyde said on the show.
While this is a major event that has been in the public consciousness for decades, more people than you know suffer from trauma and the far-reaching after effects. A single instance of trauma, which can be physical or mental, can cause just as much damage. While not wiring someone in the same way as major childhood trauma, a single instance of trauma can cause PTSD that creates trust issues in adulthood and creates deep-seated personal issues.
Millions of people live with trauma on large and small scales. It hasn’t been until recent years that we as a society have had an open conversation about the real effects of trauma and mental health. For too long it was a “skeleton in the closet,” brushed off, at times, with an “I went through it, so should they” attitude. For generations, inappropriate actions within families was buried and not discussed.
We are still gathering information on the mental health epidemic that is unrolling because of Covid, but its imprint is everywhere. The World Health Organization released statistics showing a 25% rise in reported cases of anxiety in the wake of the pandemic.
More and more people are going to be affected in ways they don’t even realize. How we relate to other people has fundamentally changed, and while many may go forward without any mental health issues, this is most likely not the case on a larger scale.
An entire generation of children has been indelibly marked by the pandemic. We are already seeing disturbing mental health and declining cognitive rates in youth. The idea that these children will not be affected as they move forward in their lives is laughable at best.
We are also seeing a rising rate of adults suffering from depression and anxiety. Mental health caregivers are overwhelmed, not only with the cases they handle but their own issues with depression and anxiety stemming from the community they are serving.
It’s now become a selection of various issues that are affecting the mental health of all types of people. In the midst of all this, we have the human desire to love and be loved. But we need to acknowledge all these mental health issues are going to affect dating and searching for love.
WHAT CAN YOU DO PREPARE YOURSELF TO FIND LOVE?
The first step is to acknowledge and take responsibility for yourself and your mental health. While the trauma isn’t your doing, you have a responsibility to deal with it if you want to be happy and find love. It doesn’t mean you should forget or minimize the trauma in your life, it simply means that to move forward, you need to address it.
It’s like a broken arm. You don’t want to go through life with a shattered bone. You want to have a normal, happy life where you can use your limb. So you go to a professional for help and, if needed, undergo physical therapy to regain use of your arm. In many ways, it’s the same with trauma.
You don’t want to go through life with a shattered bone. You want to have a normal, happy life where you can use your limb.
Getting help from a professional is usually the first step and the most powerful one. A therapist can guide and help you deal with issues and prepare for the future.
Be aware, it’s not going to be a quick fix. This idea that a few appointments and maybe a hypnosis session to suddenly remember and forgive childhood trauma is not how it works. Just like recovery from a broken bone, healing trauma can be arduous.
“If it’s childhood trauma, that’s going to be very deep running,” relationship expert Bethany Barton says. “Childhood trauma can take so long to undo because it’s literally how you view everything.”
Barton explains that a person’s ability to sense danger or what is acceptable is skewed because of the way they grew up and how they dealt with it. This wires the very way you interact with the world. Barton relays the story of a woman who didn’t have the right skills to trust and discern her partner’s true intentions.
“I’ve seen it with money. She was used to being used financially. She thought it was normal because it had happened to her before,” Barton remembers. “She had to really learn to rebuild it. You’re too desensitized to that type of behavior.”
ARE YOU READY TO DATE?
Every trauma and the recovery from it is unique, so there isn’t a measuring stick that everyone can use.
“At some point you have to get out into the field,” says Barton.
If you have done the work and are doing it for the right reasons, then sometimes you just have to dive in. But be careful. Don’t rush things. You might not be ready yet.
“Is half of your day spent just making sure you’re ok? That you’re not triggered? That everything is fine?” Barton asks. “If that’s the reality, then that’s ok, that’s just where you are.”
But that’s the point where you have to ask if it’s the right time to start searching for a partner. It might be better to wait and continue to work on yourself. Currently a popular concept is to “date yourself,” which basically means learn what you like, enjoy, and get to know yourself. Even if you meet the perfect person, you might not be ready to love or be loved before spending time working on yourself.
“Would you want to include someone else in that?” Barton asks about people who are still in the midst of handling trauma and PTSD. “If the answer is no, then why? Work on the why.”
But if you feel like you’re ready, then it’s ok. Just be aware it might be a bumpy road.
Every trauma and the recovery from it is unique, so there isn’t a measuring stick that everyone can use.
“There are going to be triggers regardless, so you’re just going to have to keep working through them,” Barton warns. “Just because things are coming up in the relationship doesn’t mean you aren’t healed.”
One important step in preparing to date is taking responsibility for your triggers. It doesn’t mean they aren’t important or should be ignored, but part of the healing process is becoming more aware of triggers and how you react to them.
“I think it’s very overused in the sense of ‘that triggers me so you can’t do it anymore,’” Barton says. “You want to find the middle ground. Our triggers are actually our responsibility. They are individualized to us. Our individual triggers are things we need to work on personally. Express it, but also take some responsibility for it.”
Another important part of the process is forgiving yourself and realizing that not only can you be loved, you deserve it. This is a difficult step for many, especially if they are dealing with deep-seated issues stemming from childhood trauma and past relationships that created painful scars.
Here are some signs that you might not yet be healing or on the right path with your recovery:
- You have difficulty revisiting the history around your trauma. If it still brings on major triggers or anxiety, insomnia, or other disruptive events, you may need to give yourself time and space to care for yourself.
- You are seeking support in unhealthy ways such as random and fleeting sexual encounters or returning to abusive relationships. Also if you seek out toxic people, this is a sign you are still having issues.
- Therapy isn’t effective. If you are pushing back and not working with your therapist, it’s a sign you aren’t ready. Or if you think therapy is a magic pill that will cure you in a few sessions, you should consider revisiting your process. You also might not be working with the right mental health professional for your needs and could consider finding one who is best for you.
If you feel you’ve done the work and are ready to find love, it can be frightening but it can also be the next step in recovery from trauma.
“Relationships can be very healing. There’s absolutely hope that it could help you on that path,” Barton says. “There’s healing, it’s just not your lifeboat. It’s a precarious place. If you wait long enough to pick a healthy relationship, it could be the final stage of your healing where you find comfort in that person.”
There’s no perfect plan. Trauma recovery is going to be a different path for every person.
“Some of it I think truthfully is just trial and error. If you go on a date and it’s a complete nightmare, then you can reanalyze that maybe I’m not ready,” Barton counsels. “That’s the hard thing with healing and trauma. It’s not linear. It’s one step forward and two steps back a lot of the time.”
Once you’ve gone on the date and possibly found someone you are interested in, when should you tell them about your trauma? What about triggers?
“I think it really depends on the level of trauma and how that would affect you moving forward. The kind of trauma of a rape is going to be very different than a bad engagement,” Barton says. “I would say at least for the initial date, it’s about just seeing if you are compatible on the most basic level. I would say not on the first date.”
“Relationships can be very healing. There’s absolutely hope that it could help you on that path.”
People suffering from trauma also need to be wary of predators. There are those who seek out individuals who have been traumatized, preying on their insecurities and habits. It’s a cycle that is seen far too often as people say they are attracted to the bad characteristics and need to take ownership of their own trauma.
There is also the danger of bonding with someone who has a similar trauma. While it might be a healthy relationship where you support each other, there is a real possibility that it can become a co-dependent relationship where an unhealthy over-reliance on each other is created that can damage the mental health of both parties.
“That’s part of the issue, too. The people that you may feel connected to or attracted to for a while could be reflecting back to you what your own wounds and issues are,” Barton says.
Barton explains that this is where you need to start looking for patterns and acknowledging that you not only want change, but you are ready to implement it.
“If you grew up in a home with a narcissist parent, you believe that how you serve someone else is love. That’s the only value of your love. So you wouldn’t value your own love at the level of companionship. That would actually feel very uncomfortable to you if you had someone who was really stable and in a good place. You wouldn’t understand how you fit into that equation because you haven’t been taught that’s what your value is.”
“You seek out these sorts of people because it makes you feel comfortable,” Barton says. “Even though that’s really toxic and unhealthy and you’re getting used. It’s also getting to the bottom of what your patterning is and getting into not just what happened to you in your childhood but what does that look like moving forward.”
Someone who is dealing with PTSD from trauma is very likely to bring it into the relationship and the way they deal with their partner. Anxiety, avoidance, and trust issues are the most common problems that arise. As you begin to interact with a potential love interest, you may start to see your trauma more clearly and realize you have more work to do.
HOW DO YOU DATE SOMEONE DEALING WITH TRAUMA?
It’s a romantic thought that you could date someone with a traumatic experience and love will be enough to get you both through. If only love were that easy.
As the relationship develops and a person learns about the trauma and triggers, avoiding them is important. Not because you don’t want to set someone off and definitely not because you want to avoid an outburst or conflict if that’s their reaction. You do it because you care about the person. It’s also important not to minimize their feelings through your actions and reactions.
It’s also essential to help your partner work through triggers and grow. Listening and communicating is key, as is patience. But what if it reaches a point where you just don’t feel like you can make it work?
“It’s not a perfect process because humans and trauma can be all over the place,” Barton says, explaining that you have to ask some difficult questions. “Is this something I can handle? What concessions and compromises am I willing to make? If you are dealing with someone who is very actively triggered, they may not be able to effectively communicate with you.”
“Is this something I can handle? What concessions and compromises am I willing to make?”
And there may come that moment, where no matter how you feel about someone, you need to make a difficult decision about the relationship. You can love someone and understand their trauma, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right time or even the right relationship. It could be one of the most difficult things a person has ever done, but there might be a moment to walk away to protect yourself.
“I think everyone has their breaking point. Trauma is hard,” Barton admits. “It can take over your life and relationships and make you not yourself in them. Everyone has to determine what they are capable of dealing with.”
Barton points out that just because things aren’t working, by no means is it the time to be cruel or flippant. Removing yourself from the relationship can be very painful, but don’t make it cruel or without compassion.
“The worst thing you can do is be like, ‘You’re crazy. I’m not dealing with you. You’re the problem,’” Barton says. “As long as you are as compassionate as you can be about it, that’s all you can do.”