I have a first date at a restaurant in Jordaan. It’s the first date since my debut You never wanted to allow that is out, a feminist textbook about my violent relationship from several years ago. Online, my date and I have already exchanged words and added each other on Instagram, through which I now know that he designs shoes and listens to the UK Jungle, and he knows about me that I like to eat seafood and have written a book about my abusive ex-partner. That’s why I sit at a fish restaurant and talk nervously about the most vulnerable moments in my life with someone I’ve just met. “I usually ask for someone’s favorite color on a first date,” he says with a smile, “but now we’re suddenly talking about therapy.”
A while ago, I kept the violence in my relationship a secret from people around me. Somehow I found it very embarrassing to admit what my ex did to me. I should have stopped it, right? Why did I allow the violence? With the help of my therapist, I learned to understand that violence is never allowed and that for a million reasons it can be very difficult to leave a violent partner. Victims often experience a state of shock, are manipulated or are (financially) dependent on their partner. In our last session, my therapist advised me to start dating again if I needed to, so I could have fun experiences again and write a new script for my view of relationships.
I have always been quite comfortable with my sexual side, but after the bad experiences with my ex, during dates and casual sex, I felt I had to see my limits extremely closely. As a result, I paid almost no attention to my own pleasure. This feeling was driven by a series of triggers, such as touching a specific spot or cold water on my body. According to my therapist, trauma can be processed as soon as you can admit a painful memory while both parts of your brain are active. “If one half of the brain serves you emotions and flashbacks, and the other gives you the rational realization that that memory is in the past, you can work toward a solution,” my therapist says.
I describe in my book how we exposure therapy do, a method where you confront your traumatic memory without distracting yourself or anxiously thinking about anything else. This can be done by discussing the situation at the time in detail, or by recalling elements of the memories, such as the sounds and your posture, and then playing out the memory. My therapist carefully asks about the moment I am so scared: how did I lie, what could I see? What sounds did I hear? How did I feel? We play it together in her consultation room. After a few sessions, the triggers are greatly reduced. I can happily slut again without panic feelings.
“Was it hard to start dating again after that?” My date touches his gingerbread and I love being able to talk to him so openly but also a little crazy. “Yes,” I answer. “I thought it was scary.” The moment you become intimate with someone, you are inherently vulnerable: you can not develop real feelings for anyone if you keep pulling up a wall. Still, of course, you keep an eye out for red flags that you may have overlooked in your previous relationship. “So how do you know if you’re setting healthy boundaries or if you’re reacting because you’ve become paranoid? he asks.
“Boundaries are subjective,” I tell him. At first I was very afraid that my trauma set my limits too narrow, but now I think: if I need those limits to feel safe, then so be it. To me, for example, it looks like this: I stop dating if someone is inconsistent and say one thing but do another. I also indicate if I do not want to hear certain comments, even if they are meant as a joke. The best way to know what healthy boundaries are for you is to find out what your desires are. What kind of relationship or date life would you like? If you do not completely trust yourself in it, you can also use a trusted friend or family member as a soundtrack. What do they think is healthy in a relationship? And why? A conversation can help deal with boundaries and desires more consciously.
During the main course, my date talks about ugly sexual experiences he has had. “I find that quite exciting because I have an idea that women find it unattractive when men are vulnerable,” he says. When I wrote my book, I was also afraid that I would only be seen as vulnerable and pathetic instead of the happy, flirtatious and sexual girl that I am. “Of course, it’s not a good idea to dump unsolicited trauma with someone you barely know,” I begin, “but I do not believe that true love exists if you can not be honest about your feelings and your past.”
In the book From repulsion to sense again by Carlie van Tongeren and Ingeborg Timmerman describes how to start a conversation about sexual trauma with your new partner, and what tricks you can use to make sex feel safe. For example, they suggest inserting breaks in the first sex parties after a bad experience, giving ‘subtitles’ by clearly stating how you experience something during sex, and indicating in advance which parts of your body are ‘red zones’ and your partner must not touch you.
My date and I share dessert and I do not feel nervous at all anymore. I actually feel confident. Because of this transparency about my past and about what I want and expect from dating, I know for a fact that I am sitting here for myself: I am not concerned with what he thinks of me, but with what I will. In addition, my date also felt room to talk about events in his life for the first time. Dating after a toxic relationship can be exciting, but I have never felt so close to myself.
You would never let it go: When love becomes toxic van Tessel ten Zweege was published in February by Uitgeverij de Geus.
Are you exposed to partner violence, or do you suspect? In the Netherlands you need to call 0800 2000 for advice. In case of emergency call 112. You can also chat with the aid organization FIER. In Belgium you can call 1712 for free and anonymously or email or chat with them. (In case of emergency, call the police on 101.)