6 Things I Learned About Dating After I Survived Intimate Partner Violence

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A few years ago, I was sexually assaulted by a partner.

At first, I didn’t believe it had even happened. Then, one sunny day at a cafe, I found myself sobbing in front of a close friend, narrating my sexual trauma.  

Afterward, I dated. A lot. I like to say I dated like it was a competitive blood sport, and I was a Spartan.

I thought that my ability to continue being in sexual relationships meant I was better, healed. For years, I said things like, “I survived intimate partner violence and came out the other side,” the implication being I was totally fine. I believed I was a survivor, nothing more and nothing less. I could talk about it on stages in front of audiences and in front of entire classrooms of students.

Because for me, being a survivor meant being unscathed, unchanged. It meant I had made it through one of the deepest forms of violation of my body and heart and come out unharmed and largely unaffected. I took pride in the ease with which I could tell my story and feel—well—nothing.

But I’ve had a few experiences that have nudged me to come to terms with what it means to be both a survivor and a victim of intimate partner sexual violence – and to be in an intimate romantic relationship with another person. I’ve been triggered in some pretty unexpected and profound ways.

So this is an ungeneralizable list of things I’ve learned, four years in the making. And while not every survivor is the same, these are some hard learned lessons with which I’ve had to reckon as someone who’s experienced intimate partner violence.

1. Sex in a Relationship Might Never Be Safe

A partner once told me, “You’re safe with me. You know that right?”

The thing is, I don’t. And I may never. And that needs to be okay.

I don’t carry around my trauma like a kid with a red wagon. It doesn’t feel like an everyday thing. Honestly, I’m generally okay. I did what feels like fifteen forms of therapy, and I can go to dinner, hold hands, and date with the best of them. I can even sleep with people. That’s not something with which I struggle right now.

I might even trust a sexual partner with a lot, – with my body, my preferences, and my kink. But that in no way means I will always feel safe with having sex with them.

Because sex with an intimate partner is how I was hurt. I trusted someone I loved, someone who was my partner, someone who knew me and my family, who was my friend – and they hurt me in one of the deepest ways you can hurt someone.

The intimate violence I experienced made partnership itself scary – not to mention sex. For me, being in a partnership means that someone with whom you have had (and continue to have) consensual sex can turn around and rape you. And the element of surprise is fucking terrifying. And the absence of that trust may never go away.

But it also doesn’t mean I don’t trust my partner in important ways when it comes to care, affection, and fidelity (whatever that means for our relationship at that time).

It just means that when it comes to sex, I might have two proverbial hands up for distance – and that’s simply a necessary part of the relationship for me.

2. I Don’t Want to Talk About It

It took me four years to write this article.

First, it took a long time because I deluded myself into thinking I was okay (total nightmare). Then, it took a long time because this isn’t necessarily something I want to talk about all the GD time (because that’s also a total nightmare).

Listen, my life isn’t defined by sexual trauma. Let me say that again so the folks in the back can hear me: My life isn’t defined by sexual trauma.

So sometimes – and, for me, most of the time – I don’t want to talk about it.

My being a survivor doesn’t impact whether or not I want to go to Target to buy tampons. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m pissed my partner forgot to pick up ice cream on the way home. And it sure as hell doesn’t make me someone a partner can endlessly psychoanalyze through the lens of IPV.

I’ve had partners who want to spend our entire relationship processing my experience, and it’s not something I’m into – because I’m past the point in my life where I want to have that conversation.

Unless I solicit the time and or the space from my partner, I don’t want to spend a ton of time talking about it – because it probably doesn’t apply to the fight we had at IKEA.

3. Or Maybe I Do

That being said, coming out to a partner as a survivor of intimate partner violence is challenging at best and agonizing at worst.

I tell people because I want them to know. And if I’m talking about it, I want you to know how I feel. It’s important for you to know, and it’s impacting our relationship someway or somehow.

Sometimes I need my partner to know because I feel triggered. Maybe I found out something my current partner does reminds me of the person who assaulted me, and despite not having talked about it for an entire year, we now need to carve out some space for a long conversation.

There are times when this is pretty much a silent part of my life – and there are times when it’s very, very loud.

Both exist for me – and both need to be respected.

4. I Still Love Them – So Please Don’t Hate Them On My Behalf

This is probably the hardest one.

When I come out as a survivor, my partners frequently wind up hating the partner who assaulted me. The thing is, I don’t.

I see this person as someone who was scared and broken and was probably stuck in a cycle of sexual violence themselves. I came through the grieving process of disbelief, bargaining, and violent anger at this person, but now I’m back at loving the part of them that didn’t assault me. 

Now, don’t get it twisted, I don’t want to have coffee or even see them through a window ever again, but I loved this person once and I refuse to go through life stockpiling hatred.

Black Feminist Audre Lorde said anger is “what I have learned from my travels through its dominions. …Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death.”

I might be angry as hell sometimes that this happened, and I – like all other survivors and victims – didn’t deserve it, but I have neither the time nor the energy for hatred. That needs to be okay.

My partner can’t have more hate for this person than I do because at the end of the day, my sexual trauma is about me. And a partner taking up the space of anger isn’t supportive or helpful – it’s entitled.

5. My Partner Needs a Solid Poker Face

My partners have to hold a lot. I recognize that.

Being with a survivor of IPV has its own set of challenges, especially when that partner is me. My schedule is wild, and I hate talking about feelings, but I also know I have to, so I tend to wade into it with all the ease of a cat taking a bath.

Okay, okay, I’m kidding.

What I mean to say is that I know I ask a lot of the people I date, so here’s the last thing.

When I tell a partner I’m a survivor of IPV or that I need to talk about it, I don’t want to hear any of the following things:

I can’t imagine that. It’s awful.

You’re amazing and so strong.

Because what I hear is this:

What happened to you is atrocious, and I won’t ever want or even try to understand it.

You’re a superwoman and you seem fine now, so let’s not talk about your vulnerability, okay?

Neither of these works for me.

What does work? Listening. Without judgment. Without reaction. Just listening. And maybe asking a question or two about what I need in terms of support.

My current partner did this phenomenally well when I told them, which is a huge part of why we’re together.

6. I’m Hopeful – And Healthy Relationships Are Possible

Maybe none of this applies to you.

Maybe all of it does.

I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: I’ve had terrible partners who have done all of these things right. I’ve also had awesome partners who have fucked up royally on numbers 1-7. That is to say that I, like almost everyone else, have had successful and unsuccessful relationships. Being a survivor hasn’t changed that.

What it has fundamentally changed is how I date and how I am in relationships because suddenly, all of this stuff matters.

***

I’m past the point at which I can ignore or pretend that intimate partner violence doesn’t affect how I date, have sex, or am a partner – because it does. And honestly, I’ve learned a lot about myself through the healing.

If there’s anything surviving intimate partner violence nudged me to understand, it’s this: I have boundaries.

Being a survivor has created a clear map of my limitations, of things I can and can’t do as a partner. Before and right after I began healing from IPV, I neglected my boundaries, especially in dating and sex. Now I don’t.  Because I can’t. And I’m so much healthier for it.

I can and do have healthy relationships. I’m not broken. Not damaged. I’m whole. I’m a survivor.

Kim Tran is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s also a collective member of Third Woman Press: Queer and Feminist of Color publishing.  Her academic and activist commitments are to laborers, refugee and queer communities.  She facilitates workshops on uprooting anti-black racism in Asian American communities. She is finishing her Ph.D in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley where writes on race, gender and economics.  Her work has been featured on Black Girl Dangerous, Nation of Change and the Feminist Wire.  She can be found in any of these capacities at www.kimthientran.com