Dating with PTSD due to MST
The process of dating can be both exciting and anxiety-producing for healthy people. When someone has PTSD especially from sexual violence it can be one of the most uncomfortable experiences for them to endure. I certainly know the feeling. Dating is usually fun at first. It is exciting to connect and learn about someone new. Learning about who they are, what their back story is, and what their hopes and dreams are, make dating feel like a whirlwind of passion and excitement. That is until I catch feelings. Once I begin to attach to someone emotionally, this is where my struggle emerges and for good reason. I have chronic-PTSD and due to a highly dysfunctional upbringing full of physical and emotional abuse combined with experiencing Military Sexual Trauma (MST), I have an extremely difficult time feeling safe when people are getting close to me.
Navigating the sea of single men isn’t fun but I can certainly share what I have learned. People with PTSD go through their own emotional stages of what I like to call the awaking process. At each stage, dating is quite different depending on where a person is in their life. To fully understand what dating is like for someone with PTSD, let’s start by discussing what each stage looks like for someone living with this disability. The chart below puts the stages in perspective for you:
Stage 1: Having symptoms but no awareness
I just want to start by saying this stage is dangerous for anyone getting involved with some who has PTSD and has no idea they have it. This person is dangerous and you shouldn’t be dating them. Run for the hills and run fast. Dating someone at this stage means they have flashbacks and don’t know the difference between reality and memory, they have anger outbursts, they can get easily violent or emotionally abusive. You are not here on planet earth to be their savior. Your flight response is telling you to run for a reason. At this stage, this person isn’t even aware enough of their own emotions to tell you how they feel let alone express their authentic feelings to you because they don’t even know how to name their feelings or set healthy boundaries. The honest answer is this person is way too sick to be in a relationship with you or anyone. I am telling you this from first-hand experience.
At this point in my life, I just got out of the Marine Corps. and I knew something was wrong with me but I didn’t know what was going on. I hurt a lot of men during this stage because I was suffering from a disability that I didn’t know how to manage. Let them figure out that they need help. If they prefer to be stuck, well you just avoided a life sentence to hell. That is what a relationship feels like with someone at this stage. Free yourself from this and get your own healing. Everyone deserves happiness and we can’t change others. If you are attracted to severely damaged people, find out why from your therapist and learn how to stay clear of someone at this stage.
People with untreated PTSD are often critical, violent, rude, egotistical, mean, guarded, jealous, untrusting, and angry especially when the bonding process starts. At this point, the only type of bond they can form is a negative attraction pattern. This is due to the fact that their serotonin levels are low and they can only feel negative emotions. At this stage, they can not feel happiness, joy, love, empathy, compassion, vulnerability, and all of the other healthy positive emotions that are necessary to form a healthy bond. They have a long way to go in their journey. Being single is what is best for them. If you see this negative attraction developing in your interactions, cut off the relationship immediately, and seek mental health treatment for yourself. You may end up being traumatized as a result.
People at this stage often play games to try to conceal both their dysfunction and avoid getting too close because they will not be able to tolerate healthy intimate relationships. They will have to constantly keep you at a distance. Relationships with them will feel intensely passionate and the sex may be amazing but the reality is that the chaos and hell you will go through will damage you. If you are trying to figure out if someone is at this stage, you will know if they can not demonstrate humility. It will be impossible for them to express humility at this stage. Maintaining their fake sense of pride is for the self-preservation of their ego and is a delusional defense mechanism they build to protect themselves. This is really their disability. While they think they are protecting themselves; they are actually just hurting themselves and everyone around them. Don’t try to reason with them because they won’t trust you enough to believe what you have to say anyway. Just walk-away. Listen to your intuition and move on a.s.a.p.
At this stage, they will lie to you, cheat on you, have multiple relationships at the same time, have substance abuse issues, and do a host of other harmful behaviors just to have their ego boosted temporarily. Your feelings won’t matter at this stage because they don’t even know their own feelings. Empathy is foreign. People at this stage have never known what a healthy, loving, and trusting relationships look like so they can’t function in a relationship with you. I can say that I didn’t know what a safe and healthy relationship looked like until I was 23 and I got into a relationship with this one guy from Costa Rica. He totally changed my perspective on men. Even at that point, I still wasn’t healthy enough to maintain that relationship because I knew I had PTSD but I wasn’t managing it. Find someone who knows what a healthy loving relationship looks like. Stay clear of this person, you are dating your way to hell on earth. People who only know pain will hurt you. To any of the men that I dated when I was at this stage, I am sorry and I hope this serves as my amends.
Stage 2: Becoming More Aware
At this stage, the person is realizing they have a pattern or a struggle. They can recognize that there is a problem. I’ll give you an example. At this point in my life, I saved every court case I was in ever since I was a child. I noticed a pattern that I dated violent men and that every single man I dated cheated on me and our relationship ended with them hitting me. When I looked at court cases back to my childhood, my mom and dad separated over a host of issues from my dad’s infidelities to my mom’s violent behavior. I was playing out this relationship dynamic that my parents played out with me as a child. While I recognized the pattern, I didn’t know how to fix it and I wasn’t ready to get help. I thought I could overcome this issue with my own inner strength because my bloated ego thought I could. Welcome to living with PTSD. Literally, no humility even during the rough patches.
At this stage, there is a level of awareness emerging that there is a problem that needs to get fixed but it doesn’t seem that serious. When I experienced this, I thought I had the power to change my behavior and just live a normal life after that. I tried to do exactly that. I went on to have a relationship, get married, and get pregnant. I thought I was fully functional at that point and moving on from my past. That was until, my then-husband cheated on me with a multitude of women in one weekend while I was pregnant and they all called me together on the phone to tell me, the heartbreaking news.
I left him because I didn’t want my baby to see me hurting and have a poor example of a father and relive the unhealthy relationship that I grew up with. It seemed like no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't break these chains for myself but I wasn't going to let my baby endure my life struggle. I knew I had to make an extremely difficult choice. I was ready to take on single motherhood despite being terrified of doing so. When I left my ex-husband he came to the condo to pick up stuff and broke in and punched me in the stomach. Despite the pain, I gained the strength to fight back and get him out of the condo. I locked the door and moved my furniture behind the door. He got a knife and started trying to cut my metal lock on the door and break in again while he was threatening to stab the baby out of my womb. I can not even begin to express to you how traumatic this was for me.
I called the police and got a restraining order because not only was I in fear for my life but I was in fear for my baby’s life. It was at this moment that I really started to awaken. How the hell did I end up in this situation, married to a Marine combat veteran who was violent and willing to kill his own child because I was leaving him? I still wasn’t understanding how I ended up here playing out this pattern again and this time it impacted my baby.
At this point, someone with PTSD is aware they have a mental disability but they are in denial about how much their disability adversely impacts their lives. They have relationship issues, they are playing out negative attraction patterns and they still think they have control over the PTSD. In reality, they might behave better in a relationship with you then they would at stage one but the fact is you still need to run for the hills. They need to get into treatment. They are still playing out the negative attraction pattern and it will cause you hell. They have to experience pain so severe that they become desperate to get into treatment. You need to move on.
Stage 3: The Awaking Phase
This phase is insanely painful. When someone is in this phase, they will begin to realize they have a serious problem. They will be in enough pain that they will have a severe PTSD episode relapse. They will surrender to getting help. During this time any additional stressors will be pushed out of their life and that can include you. They won’t be able to tolerate negative interactions because they will be so symptomatic that they will contemplate suicide or attempt it. This is when they will realize PTSD isn’t something to be overcome but a disability that needs to be managed. It is in this moment that they will either die by suicide or go to the VA or hospital to get help.
I miscarried halfway through my pregnancy after experiencing everything I mentioned earlier. The combination of post-partum depression combined with a PTSD episode relapse led to a more severe episode then when I got raped in the military. The pain was so intense I could not function at all. I wanted to die. Losing my baby was the awaking. I felt like I had failed at being a mom and the first time I really felt what it was like to love and protect someone from a genuine place and I fucked up. I realized that the most important life decision I will ever make is the person I choose to be with. At that point I was so symptomatic, I knew I couldn’t be in a relationship. I was so fragile and vulnerable, these are all the emotions that I couldn’t tolerate without medication so I pushed everyone away including my best friend since childhood. I was so overwhelmed that I isolated myself. I did a hard cut off to everyone in my life except three people that I could trust. I was on the verge of life and death. I was tired of this fight.
At my most broken, I became my most woke. I had this epiphany that I needed to fix myself. I could not continue living life like this. I also realized that being a mom means protecting my baby and picking the right man from the beginning. I had no clue how to do that. What was familiar to me was abuse. It is literally all I have ever known. I also had no clue how to manage my disability. When someone is at this point, you need to leave them. They need to heal. They need to heal alone. They have to learn about themselves and their disability before they can foster a healthy relationship. They need to have healthy thoughts and behaviors before they can offer anything significant where you both thrive. Let them go.
Stage 4 The rebirth, understanding, and disability management:
At this stage, someone with PTSD is safe to date. They will be self-aware, understand their triggers, have developed emotional regulation skills, communication skills, and have developed healthy coping mechanisms, and even be on medication that helps them to live life as close to normal as possible. Life won’t be completely normal and neither will dating them. You’ll have to date someone with PTSD differently than you will a healthy person without a disability. At this stage, the person is capable of forming a healthy secure attachment but it will require work.
How to date someone with PTSD who is capable of forming a healthy bond:
Communication: You will have to communicate at a higher level. Sometimes your connection will cause your partner anxiety. It could be because the bond is developing too quickly and you’re spending too much time together and they may feel anxiety because they feel vulnerable or because there is too much distance and they feel abandoned or a lack of trust. When they tell you they feel anxiety, the best response you can have is to ask what they need. If they feel overwhelmed and need space, give them space and set a date to check back in with them before you give them space so you both feel secure. If they want more communication and connection ask them what they need to feel secure and work to meet and maintain that standard (as long as it’s healthy and reasonable). If you fail to meet this standard someone with PTSD will cut you off because they will feel misunderstood and unsafe with you.
Consistency: Not only does your communication need to be consistent but you will need to be consistent in your behaviors and interactions. Before someone with PTSD decides to trust you and puts their guard down; they are going to assess their interactions with you and if they feel negative and unsure about your interactions, they are going to push you away. If you want them to trust you, you have to consistently show up as a safe person who will protect their emotional wellbeing. Otherwise, you might as well stay single or date someone without PTSD. They will always factor in their emotional wellbeing first, in all of their decisions because they need to be able to function and if you are the reason they begin to relapse, well it's a no brainer that you aren't the right fit for them. In that case, it's best for everyone to move on. If you really care and see this dynamic emerging, fix the problem a.s.a.p. You should not be dating someone with a disability if you are going to irritating their disability. Hopefully, they are self-aware enough to tell you this and they move on from you.
Authenticity, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion: You will have to exemplify all of these on a regular basis for them to feel safe with you. You have to show up as a protector who has good intentions. When you set the standard of showing up authentically and communicate your vulnerabilities they will be inspired to move closer to you in an organic manner. When you are empathic and compassionate to their struggles with PTSD and you are supportive during that time such as a quick phone call or showing you care about them in little ways like taking some stressors off of their plate or getting them food so it’s one fewer task to think about, they will work hard to reciprocate when they are feeling better. Just keep in mind that you are dating someone with a disability so there is a higher level of care in mind to build a solid and functional relationship where you both are safe and happy.
Reciprocity: When you date someone with PTSD you need to match the effort and depth with the person you are dating. If they call you and you don’t pick up, it is okay to text but if you never call them or you never pick up your phone. The lack of reciprocity will be seen as a red-flag and they will start to move away from you. If they feel like they are investing more into you than you are investing in them, they will push you away. You have to match the level of connection they are offering so they are willing to build and deepen the relationship. If you aren't capable of this, dating someone with PTSD is not right for you. Maybe consult with your doctor or therapist about why you struggle with reciprocity.
Intimacy: Both emotional and sexual intimacy can be exciting and scary for someone with PTSD. Communicate a lot before and after sex. After sex, emotions are heightened and they will feel the most connected to you. This is your opportunity to show your protective side and ensure their emotional wellbeing is intact. This will go a long way toward having a fun and happy relationship where your partner feels comfortable and more functional with you. This is what will lead them to trust you and want to commit to you.
These emotional currencies will go a long way to help you to develop a healthy connection and relationship with someone who has PTSD. If you can’t deliver that you should probably stay away from people with PTSD. Remember if you date someone with PTSD you need to be healthy, transparent about your intentions, and have a strong sense of emotional regulation so that you create a safe place for them. It is that experience that will lead them to fall in love with you. When you create this space for them in your interactions with them, that is how you will lead to success.
Once you start playing games or trying to manipulate someone with PTSD they will cut you off. You will feel familiar and dangerous to them. Keep in mind that if you date someone with PTSD who has been through trauma, you really have to bring your best foot forward. Only you know if you are ready for that! You have to develop a positive attraction pattern. That means that your interactions have to be full of positive values such as what I mentioned above. Delivering on these emotional currencies is what will build a secure attachment worth having. People with PTSD develop deeper connections to the people they love because it is a rarity for them to let someone in that close. When they bond with you it will feel much deeper than any other bond you have. It can be very fulfilling but you need to put in the work to arrive there. When you build that connection your partner will work as hard as they can to maintain that state of heaven for the both of you. Remember, they've been through hell and they don't want to go back. Ride the waves to heaven together and foster a love that is deep and powerful.