For many of us, dating can feel like a landmine of past wounds and trauma. Whether it’s related to emotional or physical violence, significant losses, childhood traumas. Or, just as meaningful, the wounds and insecurities that are often the result of intimate relationships. So how do we date in a healthy way?
Jera Brown talked to Dr. Christy Gunter Sim Hailey about this topic.
Dr. Gunter Sim Hailey offers expert advising, training, and consulting for domestic violence, sexual assault, family violence, secondary trauma prevention, and trauma healing. She has an earned doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness, a Master of Divinity, and will graduate with a Master of Social Work in December. She is the author of Survivor Care: What Religious Professionals Need to Know about Healing Trauma.
Jera: When we consider (or even start) dating someone, how can we begin to investigate if the anxiety or fear we feel is a legitimate red flag that something is off or determine instead these feelings are a trauma response due to past experiences?
GSH: I am convinced our bodies know when there is something wrong when we meet someone who could harm us. It may not be in our conscious awareness yet but if we learn to trust what our bodies are telling us, we can decipher and investigate if the messages we are receiving from that sort of ‘gut instinct’ are legitimate concerns.
The issue then… is learning to trust our bodies, which is so hard after trauma. The whole experience of trauma itself is the brain and body responding to a threat, a legitimate threat and reacting. But sometimes those reactions are completely paradoxical to what we expect. For example, maybe we giggle and laugh after being assaulted. We do that because of an excess in the hormones that flood our body, but it feels like our bodies are betraying us. Then after the threat is passed, our bodies keep responding to things that are completely normal (for example, the smell of cookies that happened during our assault or the sight of a red door). Things that are mundane set off our bodies into a trauma response… and we feel like we can’t trust our own bodies.
Healing work involves learning to trust our bodies again. Learning that our paradoxical responses were actually completely normal and learning to train our bodies that threat is no longer connected to the mundane. A good therapist can help with this.
Then, when we are on the journey to thriving and trusting our bodies, we can rely on that ‘gut instinct’ that tells us if it is a red flag or a mundane memory connected to trauma.
We often employ various coping mechanisms to deal with trauma and as time passes, we realize they are no longer working for us. What are some ways we can determine if a coping mechanism is healthy or identify when it is time to find a new one?
From my work with clients who struggle with the same issues, I would say it is really hard to figure out when coping mechanisms are no longer effective. Just to get to the point where we begin to realize something we do to cope may not be in service to us any longer is a big step. I think that point needs to be celebrated a moment.
Then, after some celebrating, I think it is important to step back and look at who we are and who we want to be. And this is where my current research and my second book is going.
So, I would ask: Is this coping mechanism (drinking, walks in the park, partying, one-nightstands, art projects, theater, and so forth into a million options) helping develop me into who I want to be or not?
And if the answer is yes, then I ask: does this coping mechanism help my body feel better? Does it clear and rest my mind? And how does it enhance my spiritual life (whatever that looks like)? I want to help them figure out if their body, mind, and spirit is growing and developing with that coping mechanism.
And if the answer is no, then I ask: What have you done in the past to deal with stress and overwhelming feelings that did help you become who you want to be? In Narrative Therapy this is called isolating the alternative story to help clients begin to see other ways that might have worked before.
How can we talk to our partners about our past trauma in ways that are productive? And what are some ways you’ve seen it produce productive conversation when someone does communicate about their trauma?
In the cases I’ve worked in, the thing that seemed to help effective communication with partners included the person (who experienced trauma) doing the work to learn what their triggers were. So, for example, if someone goes into a panic every time the mail is checked, their partner will probably realize the odd behavior. However, the person who is having a trauma response might have difficultly explaining the behavior. If we can figure out it is the mail that sends us into a trauma-response behavior, it can do two things. First, it will help us manage the trigger, and second, it can help us communicate to our partner what it is that sets off that trauma response.
Another way to phrase this is being aware of what you need. If you can identify your own needs, it is easier to communicate them to a partner. Often the things we need are connected to our past traumas. For example, if I experienced someone abandoning me, the experience of my partner walking away, leaving the house, and refusing to speak to me for a bit after a fight, might cause a serious reaction in me. If I can communicate, this is the trauma that happened and when you behave this way it reminds me of the past, it can be a springboard for healthy communication about what everyone needs. Maybe the partner needs a little space and they can (together) figure out how to do it in a way that does not set off abandonment alarms.
So, basically the way I believe we can best communicate in productive ways about trauma with our partners involves getting to know ourselves better. Ask ourselves: What are my own triggers (we all have them) and what do I need?
A good therapist can be so helpful when doing work like identifying triggers, and yet, many of us really struggle to find the right professional partner. What are some ways you recommend vetting a therapist?
When I am vetting a therapist I tend to research them. What type of license do they have? For example, if they hold an LCSW I know they did one major exam after about 1000 hours of clinical work and then another 3000 supervised hours and passed a second massive exam. That is a lot of time to be vetted by supervision and the state.
Then I investigate what they say about themselves. I ask several questions: Are they person-centered? Do they use words that give the impression they are trauma-informed? What do they claim their specializations are? Do they seem to be aware of oppression and the best practices with survivors of structural violence? What have they published and what are they saying in those publications? Who are the people who recommend them and find help by partnering with them? These questions help me learn who they are before I even meet them.
For healing after trauma, I recommend the kind of therapist who holds the story with you and points out how they notice your body responds to various stimuli. The kind of therapist who has insight into imagining how your strength was present in the trauma and the moments you seized your power. It’s always there. Always. Even when we do not realize it. It needs to be the kind of therapist who can dig deep enough to find your strength. The type of therapist who helps you find ways for your autonomy and agency to soar as you become who you want to be and empowers you with all the tools and resources to thrive.
In therapy, we also begin to question what negative beliefs we tell ourselves. For example, it might be “I am not enough” or “I am not competent.” If we bring these kinds of negative beliefs into a dating relationship, it affects how we relate. The things we desperately need (like validation that our negative beliefs are wrong) end up subconsciously coming out in the relationship. Then, the result is that our connection is affected by begging the other person to prove our negative belief wrong.
But a good therapist can help us shed these old beliefs and replace them with “I am enough,” “I am worth it,” “I am competent,” or whatever comes up. Because if we go into dating relationships with our negative beliefs in check, connections are so much deeper and pure.
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