Dating Trauma: It’s Real, and Here’s How to Know if You’ve Experienced It

Thinking about writing this post makes my heart hurt a little, you know?

If you’re a millennial, an individual in your mid-late 20s and 30s right now, you might be navigating the dating world. The reality is, at least for many people I know, that this process can feel a little daunting and even scary. The sad thing is that, for some people, it does end up being daunting and scary. 

This reality is not meant to scare you out of pursuing online dating or blind dating in general, but to create an awareness that if something happens to you within the realm of your dating experience that has a negative impact on you emotionally, mentally, sexually, or intellectually, it doesn’t have to be something that entraps you forever on.

I think that the word “trauma” can be a scary thing to think about. For many, our minds go to these worst case scenarios of incredibly traumatic and scary things happening to people. The truth is that trauma is on a spectrum and is incredibly subjective. While I want to paint a clear picture here of some scenarios that can result in a person having experienced dating trauma, please understand that you may not relate, or there may be parts of this that you relate to but other things that you don’t feel are/were a problem for you. 

That’s totally okay. 

The idea here is to identify if a particular event, environment, or relationship with a person you engaged with once or multiple times may have led you to experience trauma symptoms. If the answer is yes, it is possible and even likely that the repercussions of these experiences can affect your future relationships to others and to yourself - so it becomes something worth processing and trying to heal. At Millennial Life Counseling, that’s just what we help people do.

Couple on bad first date

I’m pulling from some real examples I’ve helped clients work through, as well as common indicators to help you identify if you’ve experienced dating trauma:

Sticky situations:

Dating can be uncomfortable and even scary if you don’t know what your boundaries are or what your limits are. Examples of what I mean here are: going to a person’s house on the first date, allowing a person to pick you up and drive you for a first (or first few) date, kissing or fooling around early on, etc.

No one, I repeat: NO ONE, can be the enforcer of your boundaries besides you.

So it’s really important to have an idea of the hard lines and the things you are not okay with on a first date or early on in the dating experience with someone. 

I have worked with multiple women who felt awkward or “lame” for not listening to their inner voice or for saying no and agree to go to a date’s place after dinner on the first date. You might be thinking excuse me, WHAAT? I’d NEVER do that! - but this is indicative of poor personal boundaries.

For some, it was this idea of “how bad could it be…we’ll just talk or watch a movie or something basic and safe”, only to realize that agreeing to go home with someone can open up a whole can of worms in terms of the other person’s expectations.

Most of the time this stuff isn’t discussed or outlined on the date, so it just happens and unfolds and a person ends up in a very uncomfortable situation. Lack of boundaries and limits can lead to traumatic situations occurring.

Being stood up:

While being stood up in itself may not be a truly traumatizing thing, I bring this one up because everyone walks into the search for their adult partnership with their own history (some might even say “baggage”). The reality is that many people have attachment wounds, or unresolved hurts and negative experiences from their family of origin relationships- some of which may have been traumatizing. 

So where am I going with this? Events in our adult life can re-traumatize us. If a person experienced a lot of emotional neglect or feeling “not good enough” from those who should have taken the most care of them (parents, family, past partner relationships), then something like being stood up on a date could really trigger those feelings again. It’s important to be aware of how you are interpreting what happens in your dating life and what you’re telling yourself that means about YOU. Personalizing others’ behaviors or negligence might become more harmful for you in the long run.

Sexual dating trauma:

Being coerced by another person, or feeling pressure within yourself, to be sexual in ways you’re not ready for is absolutely a form of dating trauma. It’s actually incredibly common for this to happen, too. In today’s world, the expectations and social norms around the role sex has with dating has changed substantially in the past few generations.

Just because it’s normalized in our society doesn’t mean it’s normal for you.

If casual sex is a comfortable and normal part of dating for you, then this idea of it being traumatic won’t resonate because that’s not trauma. How you know if it’s an issue is if you know that it’s not actually what you want to do or if it’s beyond your comfort level because you don’t know the person well enough for it to feel right. There are still plenty of people who gravitate to the idea of saving sex for marriage (or much further into a committed and defined relationship). But the pressure is out there, and it’s pretty huge in terms of the likelihood that you’ll be faced with confronting sexual activity with a person you’re dating within the first 1-5 dates. 

Drinks and drugs:

It’s definitely appropriate to enjoy some drinks together on a first date, and for many people, this social lubricant helps them feel more comfortable opening up to a new person. The problem occurs when things get out of hand or, worst case, when a person doesn’t realize there may be an ulterior motif at play. Unfortunately, people do get drugged and roofied on dates. More than 30% of victims who experience date rape have some type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following the occurrence.

Even if you don’t experience something as situational as a date rape, drinking can often become a crutch that helps people get through those first date awkward feels. It can lead people to behave in ways they may not normally be while sober.

It’s really pretty important to know your drinking boundaries and what your threshold is to remain coherent and cognizant of the situation and your conversations - because this could lead to an unhealthy dependence or pattern that affects how you are experiencing dating. Sometimes, these unhealthy phases and behaviors in life become things that greatly affect us later, and things we need to process and recover from.

Alright - these are just a FEW specific examples of scenarios that can become traumatic dating experiences. Remember, these things are subjective and will be experienced differently from one person to the next. Symptoms that this is having a traumatic effect on you:

  • You experience increased anxiety around dating

  • You notice yourself feeling depressed, self-conscious, or low self-worth

  • You experience dreams or nightmares that revolve around the experience(s)

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating

  • Frightening or fear-based thoughts about dating or meeting new people

  • Avoiding places (restaurants, bars, neighborhoods) where the event happened

  • Shutting off dating platforms, isolating

  • Feelings of guilt, blame, or shame

  • You stop engaging in activities or relationships that bring you joy

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, reach out today. Your mental, emotional, and relationship health deserves to heal and process what you’ve been through. Oftentimes, the voices of guilt and shame try to keep you from opening up and connecting to a professional who can support you through it, but if you can get to the first step and reach out, there will be someone to walk with you the rest of the way.

Our practice specializes in helping couples and individuals navigating the dating world. Our trauma specialist, Michelle, also works with couples, individuals, and women re-entering the dating realm and is trained in EMDR, a research-based and effective treatment to help you work through the hold that experiencing dating trauma may have on you.