From the perspective of the survivor.
“I’m heading inside right now, I’ll get us a table.”
I see this notification on my phone at the corner of my eye while I’m pulling into a downtown parking lot of a local diner. I see a tall guy with slicked back dirty blonde hair and a brown leather jacket, looking down at his phone sending me that text message. Well, that’s him. He actually came.
As I’m putting my car into park, I immediately feel like I’m going to simultaneously throw up and have a heart attack. What was I doing here? Why did I agree to this? I don’t even know if I really like this guy.
After 10 minutes of slowing down my thoughts and doing some breathing exercises, I walked in to meet my Bumble match, Andrew. (I respect his privacy, so we’ll call him “Andrew” instead of his real name.) I take one last deep breath and walk into this first date essentially dissociating.
At this point in time I was a sophomore in college. Two months prior to this date, I had been sexually assaulted at a party by the guy who invited me out. Shortly following, my boyfriend at the time raped me the next day and dumped me three days later.
This experience left me feeling shocked, broken, and helpless. I felt like an object to men and I wasn’t worthy of love, yet at the same time, I continued to reach out to guys through dating apps for validation. Using these apps for validation is why I was on this date to begin with.
I walked into the diner, we introduced ourselves, and I spent an hour and a half picking at a chicken caesar wrap and having a casual conversation. Being the emotional mess I was, all I vaguely remember is talking about everything you’re not supposed to talk about on a date: my ex, the recent mental breakdowns I had, all of the things you wait to tell a partner until you’re already in a relationship.
However, at the end of the date, we received the check and when I pulled out my wallet to split it with him, he picked up the book and said “I got this, don’t worry about it”.
Is he doing this because he feels bad about my sad life? Is he trying to buy his way into sex? There’s no way he’s paying for me because he likes me.
On our way out, he asked if he could see my car. I hesitate because my body was in a fight or flight response thinking he was going to kidnap me any second. The reality was he just wanted to make sure I made it to my car safe and give me a proper goodbye.
He smiles at me and says, “personally, I’d like to do this again”.
I was flabbergasted. I could barely get my words out. “Ye-Yeah.” Did I just say yes? I can’t do this again.
He smiled and said, “is it okay if I lean over?”, and so I nodded, got a peck on the cheek, and he walked to his car. I got into my car, took a sigh of relief, looked in my rear view mirror and said to myself, “I’m never seeing that guy again”.
The following day, I got a text from Andrew telling me he would like to bring me to his friend’s New Year’s Eve party as his date. My own instinctive fear kept me from wanting to see a guy who was interested in getting to know me instead of my past.
The week leading up to New Year’s Eve, we talked over FaceTime almost every night and having more fun conversations. However, these conversations came with a cost. I had to have a drink ready for my phone calls with him in order to “relax”. And I’m sure this comes as a huge surprise, but it only made it worse.
There were nights I would start sobbing over the phone, asking Andrew why he was trying to pursue me. I was clearly a mess, didn’t have a good relationship with myself, or have any self love. I asked this several times because I just couldn’t believe it at first. He always said something along the lines of:
“Because I think you’re worth it. I don’t want to jump into anything too quickly, but you’ve made me feel different from anyone else in a long time. I don’t think you see how amazing you really are. And if you need a little more time to get comfortable with me, I’m willing to wait for you.”
As much as I wanted to believe and be vulnerable around him, my trauma left me with an internal road block. I had fear, anxiety, and hyper vigilance stopping me from being open with someone who has given me no reason not to trust him, only the opposite. I always had a fear of being taken advantage of physically, even though he has yet to mention being intimate at this point and wasn’t planning on it anytime soon.
I realized he was a genuinely good guy who just wanted to get to know me and support me as a partner. So at New Year’s, I decided to put my fears and PTSD on the back burner and be with him. I wanted the normal and healthy relationship that I deserve.
Dating Andrew began to feel like exposure therapy. Most of the time he would have his arm around me or hold my hand and I would have to “take breaks” from being touched because it felt triggering. Many times I would leave my dates with Andrew being too anxious to give him a kiss goodbye.
However, during our intermissions that were in between me trying to show physical affection towards him, we actually spent time just dating. This would include going out to dinner, watching “The Bachelor” together and having a glass of wine, or going on long drives and just talking.
Unfortunately, this made our relationship dynamic black and white. Healing from sexual assault is not linear. Some days, I would see Andrew and immediately want to jump into his arms and attack him with kisses. Other days, my heart would stop at the thought of him looking in my direction. But for the most part a lot of days were this muddled gray zone, where I didn’t mind showing him affection, but it was only because I spent most of my time dissociating.
Dating while recovering from sexual assault is truly a challenge, not just for the victim but for their partner as well. I always had a constant battle in my head about how I was feeling while juggling how I thought he was feeling as well. I would overthink myself into a mess from a ludicrous chain of thoughts.
Am I okay to hold his hand right now? I think I am. But I feel like once I do I have to commit to it. I can’t grab his hand and then let go a few seconds later, he’ll know I’m anxious. But what about him? He matters too. He deserves to have his hand held. What if he gets upset if I hold it then let it go? Will he think he did something wrong? I don’t want him to think that. I don’t want him to feel incapable. I’m the ones who’s incapable. I feel so stupid, why can’t I do this? I should be able to —
“Is everything okay?”
At this point when Andrew would begin to notice my overthinking, I truly felt like I was going crazy. No “normal” person ever has to think like this.
That’s truly the root of the issues of what it’s like dating a rape survivor. It’s a lot of insecurity. A lot of doubt. It’s being vulnerable but in the worst way possible. But with that requires patience, perseverance, and grit in order to combat the negative thinking that you’re either not good enough or will be taken advantage of. Like anything else in life, it’s easy to get stuck in the loop of comparing yourself to others, or at least comparing yourself to what you think others are going through.
Check in frequently, communicate your feelings. It’s okay to not totally understand, but rather just be there for your survivor.
In all honesty, in order to make a relationship successful with these circumstances is to completely stop the comparisons dead in its tracks. Of course, this is easier said than done. Remind yourself why you’re here, why you’re with this person, and the way they make you feel. Practice positive affirmations everyday to remind yourself you are amazing and compassionate just the way you are and you are worthy of love.
Stop the worrying and stop thinking about how your partner thinks of you. If they truly care about you and are in the right place to support you, it won’t matter. Trust your instincts.
Unfortunately, I wish I could end this story telling you I’m still happily dating “Andrew” and I’m no longer afraid to be emotionally vulnerable, but we have gone our separate ways. We still care immensely about but each other, but you cannot love someone else until you love yourself first. Dating someone or not, survivors should take every chance they get to take care of themselves, build themselves up, and be there for themselves.
Date yourself first. You are the only person who will always be with you for life. Make sure you’re in good company.