Dating itself can be a disaster zone especially in the digital age. Welcome to modern romance, where hookup culture reigns, the ease of dating apps have outstripped traditional courtship rituals and instant gratification is the norm. Yet dating is especially difficult when you’ve been the target of emotional, verbal or narcissistic abuse, a form of covert emotional manipulation where you’ve been belittled, isolated and controlled by a pathological person.
Not only are you reeling from the trauma of a toxic relationship, you’re not even sure you ever want to date again. Any survivor of narcissistic abuse can tell you that it’s exhausting to even think about being with another person after the mind games he or she has gone through.
I always recommend being single for a period of time after going through a trauma like this, because it is likely to affect your intuition, your boundaries and your ability to step back and reevaluate whether this person is right for you. However, I do receive letters from survivors who ask me questions about dating and looking for love after abuse.
Here are some tips I would recommend moving forward if you do decide to venture out to the dating world again:
1. Take the time to heal.
I can’t stress this enough. Our society has conditioned us to quickly get over someone by getting under someone else. While studies have found that there is some truth to the idea that a rebound can help us feel hope at future romantic prospects, it can backfire if the rebound relationship is unsatisfying or the rebound person in question turns out to be toxic too.
In the latter case, it turns out that we grow even more attached to our exes rather than detached if the person we date right after turns out to be of a similar pathological type. That’s why if you’re committed to the idea of a casual arrangement, I’d still recommend holding off until you’ve evaluated what your standards for that arrangement would be and to ensure that you’ve built up a sense of independence to move forward from any person you’re dating should they show red flags.
Even a casual date can be retraumatizing if the person in question is all too similar from the abuser you’ve just escaped from. It can lead to black and white catastrophic thinking about your romantic future if you’ve had far too many terrible dates or keep meeting toxic people. It’s honestly so much more satisfying to “date yourself” for a bit – nourish yourself, treat yourself, celebrate yourself and reconnect with the beautiful strengths you always had.
If you need to date someone, date yourself. Take yourself out, treat yourself as if you were someone you dearly loved and cared for. Learn the art of self-compassion. Know that you are worthy and inherently loveable, regardless of your relationship status.
In the immediate aftermath of abuse like this, it’s necessary to dedicate your time to repairing your body, mind and spirit. Use self-care practices like meditation, yoga, and a daily exercise regimen to begin healing the parts of your brain affected by trauma. Seek trauma-focused professional support to help process what you’ve gone through before you move onto a new relationship.
2. If you have worked on healing and are dating again, learn to trust yourself.
Far too many of us rationalize, minimize and deny toxic behavior from the onset because we’re committed to giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I have some counterintuitive advice: don’t. Instead, approach the task of dating with a neutral blank slate whenever possible. Let someone show who they are through their interactions with you, with others and how they treat you. You have plenty of time to invest in them later after you’ve seen that their behavior is consistent, their character is sound and their integrity …well, exists (this is the bare minimum these days). In the beginning, try to resist projecting your romantic ideals or fantasies onto this person.
It’s tempting to create a narrative about a new partner and how they’ve come to save us, but we all know that sometimes the people dressed as our saviors turn out to be the very people we need to be saved from.
3. Don’t assume everyone has a conscience. Better yet, assume they don’t unless they’ve proven themselves.
The fact is, 1 in 25 Americans are estimated to be sociopaths according to clinical psychologist and former Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Martha Stout. It’s really not that far off to assume that you might be dating one if they’re exhibiting a lack of empathy, entitlement and callous behavior.
In the timeless words of writer Sherry Argov, always look out for number one…you. If you see unsavory behavior, note it. If you feel a gut instinct, allow yourself to honor it. If it looks too good to be true, sometimes it really is. Be aware of excessive flattery and love-bombing – this is a manipulation tactic toxic people use to disarm you from the onset and get you to trust them.
You don’t have to announce to toxic dating partners that they’re toxic, by the way. That usually just results in narcissistic rage, retaliation or further attempts to ensnare you. Instead, quietly observe and let them hang themselves so to speak. Narcissists can’t hide for long. They always slip and their unmasking will tell you all you need to know. When they do, don’t listen to their explanations – let their actions speak for themselves and detach as soon as possible.
And remember: you don’t have to justify your decision. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and retraumatized by dating, it means you’re not ready to date. Whether they’re a healthy potential partner or a toxic one, it’s always a good idea to make time and space for inner work prior to committing to another long-term relationship.
4. Slow down.
Dating coach Wendy Powell recommends that those who are looking to avoid dating narcissists in the future would do well to slow down. Don’t let a potential partner sweep you into a fairytale romance that can descend into a nightmare. Instead, get to know them without falling for immediate intimacy, which can trap you into the vicious cycle of trusting someone too early on without knowing anything about them. If a dating partner demands you see them all the time, this is a red flag. If a dating partner is urging you to go too quickly (asking to take you on vacation, have sex with them before you’re ready, meet their parents) from the beginning, realize that this is not necessarily an indication of their affection for you.
Rather, it may be a sign of trying to control and take over your life early on. It’s wiser to recognize that people who have a genuine interest in you can wait to build that organic connection before they start shopping for wedding rings. Always be wary of anyone who claims to love you within a few weeks of getting to know you.
5. The Big Takeaway
The truth is, they likely don’t know you at all and if they claim they do in the early stages of dating, it’s suspect.
Remember that you don’t know them either.
Above all, honor yourself and your instincts. They could someday save your life.