Dating and Body Image After Abuse
When I planned to write about relationships last week, I thought I’d write about dating. But, once I actually started to put words down, the article took on a life of its own.
So this week I do want to get into what it was like dating after sexual abuse, and talk a bit about body image.
Let’s start with body image, because it’s been a constant in my brain ever since I was very young. I think it’s pretty common these days to point out ads and media and tie common insecurities back to photoshopped models, blaming unrealistic images for instilling in our culture an unattainable ideal.
Of course, as an American youth I felt some of that. But most of my body image issues weren’t really connected to the way I looked.
Body Image and Abuse
My body was abused, and even after the abuse stopped, those feelings stuck with me for a long time. I felt violated, and broken, and dirty, and used.
Any sort of trauma leaves residual scars, if you will. Sexual trauma though, breaks past just the physical and emotional, and penetrates the spiritual. Sexual intimacy is at its core a spiritual experience, and when it’s forced upon you, it can be damaging in a way that any other sort of violence isn’t.
To me, when I looked in the mirror, I saw the equivalent of a car crash.
I saw something that had been destroyed, even though no one else could see it.
Forget a flat tummy or shiny hair; all of me felt wrong and unloveable.
My Relationship With My Body
The fact that I squirmed in my own skin meant my relationship with my body was never great. I wrote in this article about how I dealt with subtle versions of self-harm.
It wasn’t until after I got married and was in a better place emotionally that I noticed a real change in my body’s makeup. I can see now, even looking back at pictures, that I was subconsciously holding onto a lot of weight. Like, literal weight.
I never dealt with any health issues regarding my weight. Now though, I see that my body held onto little fat deposits. I think this was so the unending stress would have something to eat on.
It’s kind of crazy to think about how much our thoughts rule us. We may be doing everything else right to take care of ourselves, but if we don’t address the core issues, and clear the subconscious stress, our mind will keep our body in survival mode.
Dating as a Teen
I guess I technically started dating as a teenager. That is, I went on a few dates as a teenager, but that about sums it up.
While my friends would go off with their boyfriends, or pine over someone they liked, I just had a difficult time feeling comfortable or safe around guys.
It took me a long time to build trust, and I didn’t offer that chance to many people. I secluded myself, and I recognized it, but it felt safer to me. I really didn’t want to date, and I think that’s okay.
Making Friends with Good Men
My real shift, in my relationship with men, came in a setting where romance was off-limits.
At 19, I chose to serve a mission for my church, and traveled to Russia to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I lived with other sister missionaries, and worked every day with 18-24 year old young men. (We call the male missionaries “elders” in my church.)
As a missionary, you are one hundred percent focused on preaching the gospel. For the 18-24 months of your mission, you commit not to date. That’s not to say most of us didn’t have someone back home, but all those relationships go on hold.
The other part of things that made a big difference was the kind of men I was working with. They were kind and focused on their faith. They’d chosen to give two years of their lives to selflessly serve other people.
So the fact that any romantic dynamic was taken away, coupled with the fact that these men were just really awesome people, meant conversations opened up in ways they never would in high school.
I was able to establish trust quickly and build friendships as we all served together and focused our joint efforts on helping other people. I was able to see men at their very best.
Panic and Vulnerability
Something forced me to open up even more than that.
I hit my lowest of lows while serving in Russia. I was suicidal and having panic attacks almost every other day.
There were some panic attacks I could will my way through. Then there were others that laid me out on the floor shaking and crying. My companion would have to call the elders over so they could give me a blessing.
Letting these men see me at my absolute worst and most vulnerable seems like it should have been really hard. It wasn’t.
They would pick me up off the floor and empower me, and remind me of God’s love for me. I always expected them to look at me like I was broken and unloveable, but I always received the opposite.
They would tell me how much they admired me for my strength, and willingness to fight through whatever it was I was struggling with. They always showed me love and acceptance, which was so different for me, because those are things I never gave myself.
Dating for Marriage
After my mission was over and I was back at home, I found myself in a position to really start dating.
This was terrifying, but I knew I didn’t want to give up any more of my life. I had to choose to embrace the experiences that came my way, and I committed to really try to put myself out there.
I actually found myself laughing just the other day, because I realized that I’m part of probably one of the only churches in the world that creates a separate congregation for young single adults. It must sound so crazy to other people!
On my very first Sunday attending that young single adult congregation, I met (or I guess I re-met) the man who, a whole, long, two months later, would be my husband. But that’s a story for another time.
Right now I just want to explain how dating with long term relationships and marriage in mind required me to adopt a new mindset.
Dating Advice from an Authority
Not long before I left my mission, we had a conference with a general authority, and all of the sister missionaries had a meeting with the wife of this general authority.
I was surprised when she chose to talk to us about marriage. She told us that our missions were really preparing us for marriage and that one of the special opportunities as a sister missionary was being able to observe these stalwart young men in a setting outside of the dating world. We could learn what we like and don’t like, and what we’re looking for and what that looks like.
So once I was home and facing the dating world, while I didn’t have a ton of experience in romantic relationships, I at least knew what kind of man I was looking for. I also knew I’d have to be living up to my best in order to find him.
That’s what really scared me.
I was so sick and beat down when I got home from my mission. I was still having crazy panic attacks, and I still struggled to see how anyone could love me.
What made the difference is that I chose to date anyway. I chose to be vulnerable. If someone was taking me on, they’d eventually have to know about the depression and PTSD, and trying to hide it wasn’t in my best interest and wasn’t going to work.
I had to embrace who I was and what I was dealing with, and allow others to embrace me too. Even if I didn’t think a whole lot of myself, I decided to believe that I deserved to be happy and I deserved to feel loved, and that God would help me get there.
While I was dating my husband, I did have a couple of small panic attacks. Seeing how he handled those was a big part of what moved our relationship forward so quickly. We chose to share our baggage and the skeletons in our closets pretty early on, so all it really came down to for us was deciding that we wanted to be together, and after that there was no point in waiting a long time before getting married.
Body Image After Marriage
My body image drastically improved after marriage. For the first time, someone was able to reach me on that spiritual level and tell me he thought I was the most beautiful thing in the world.
I’ll make the distinction here that we shouldn’t rest our healing on outside reassurances, but I think what I discovered is that I’d been misframing my fear.
I wasn’t scared that I wasn’t beautiful. The real fear was that I would never find someone who thought that I was beautiful.
That means, as much as I’d worked to accept my body and create a healthy relationship with it, that fear still lurked in the back of my mind, until the day it was proven false.
Work in Progress
I don’t want all of this to sound like some disney princess movie where the girl gets married and the man solves all of her problems.
Marriage doesn’t solve problems. If anything, it amplifies them.
I was still in a very unhealthy state when I got married, and there were days and weeks where I was stuck in bed, and panicky, and my anxiety shut me down so I could hardly talk, and it was really hard on my new husband. Seeing how hard it was for him just made it even harder on me, and it was definitely not the dreamy honeymoon scenario most people hold in mind.
Still, it was a pivotal time for me and I learned something important.
Up to that point, I’d leaned into the cultural wave that told me it was okay to be depressed. It was normal and so many people struggled with it. I’d accepted that my life was one of mental illness.
Once I got married, I realized I couldn’t live that way any more. There was no way I could be the wife and the mother I wanted to be if I lived in my depression. So rather than sit in it and wait for it to pass, I made it my mission to find ways to get healthy.
It’s still a work in progress.
Creating My Own Change
I’ll be honest, there are still times when I get very uncomfortable around men. I get tense when I’m walking around by myself because my brain always jumps to the worst case scenario, like someone is going to pop out from the bushes while I’m pushing a stroller down the sidewalk.
I still struggle at times with my body image and self confidence. I’m not always the best version of myself, and I don’t always show up one hundred percent for my husband.
But I try my best.
I’ve learned that no one else is going to fix my life. No one else sees all of the things that I think are wrong with me.
I create my own change through vulnerability.
Thank You For Your Support
Still I Bloom T-Shirt
To support and spread awareness for my Healing From Sexual Abuse Series, this super soft and lightweight t-shirt can act as a conversation catalyst! Not only is it the most comfortable shirt you’ll own, but the words on the shirt can lend strength and confidence to your healing journey, or the healing journey of a loved one.
“You buried me. You broke me. Still I bloom.”
The tri-blend fabr…