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Two weeks ago, I put out a call for readers to tell me about one of your Big Goals, and I offered to design customized, mini action plans to help you get started on the first few steps.

The responses were amazing. You guys are working on things that are so vastly different and interesting and inspiring. I had originally planned to put them all into one big roundup, but when I hunkered down to brainstorm these plans, it became obvious that some of them were going to need more space to give them the attention they deserved. So I’m breaking them up into several posts.

My hope for these mini plans is that they help the letter writer, of course. But if you’re a reader who isn’t ready yet to step out and declare your goal (or you’re not yet in my email posse) I hope that you find something in them that you can use, too.

This is the first, and carries a Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual assault.

Anonymous writes:

I’d like to take a shot at being in a relationship that supports me. My biggest obstacle is fear. I was raped several years ago and had PTSD. I’ve made lots of strides in recovering from the trauma, and stepping back into life, but I’m still working on trusting anyone new. I’m ready to make my life bigger and meet new people!

I told Anonymous that, as I’m not trained to help survivors of sexual assault, I didn’t want to give advice specific to recovery. We agreed that what I could speak to is how to determine personal expectations and boundaries for new people that she may meet, so she feels safe, and learning to communicate those boundaries very clearly. This is a good process for anyone delving into dating who wants to spare themselves a lot of mucking about with people who aren’t a good fit.

So let’s dive in. We’re going to cover determining what you want and what you don’t from potential suitors, what you want your dating life to look like, putting some security precautions in place, and communicating clearly with people who come into your life.

1. Consider what makes you feel uneasy or unsafe and put those things in writing.

When you’re working through trust issues, the place to start is determining what exactly makes you trust or distrust a person. Your creep-detector is probably ratcheted up higher than most people. That’s not a bad thing. When you meet someone and your gut gives you a hard “NOPE!” you should trust that, always.

But there will always be people in that grey area who radiate inherent trustworthiness and say all the right things, but still do things that aren’t right. So let’s figure out what kind of things those might be.

Divide a piece of paper down the middle. On the left, write down the kinds of behaviors that might make you feel uneasy or unsafe. On the right, write down what your ideal person would do instead. Or you can download my Relationship Manifesto in this post to get you started.

For example, someone who talks over you in conversations probably doesn’t have much respect for your opinions. Someone who makes rape jokes or speaks badly about women in general is a hard fail. Maybe it makes you uncomfortable when someone makes plans with you and then tries to change them to something else at the last minute.

It might be a pretty big list, and that’s OK. It might feel uncomfortable to write and that’s OK too – walk away from it and come back later if you need to. The important thing is that you put it all down on paper. This is like a handbook that you’re writing for Future You.

The power of putting these things in writing is huge because when we find ourselves with a person who might have some very appealing qualities, it’s sometimes tempting to overlook some bad ones. This list will help you remember the high standards you’ve set for who deserves your time.

2. Think about what your ideal first few dates with a potential partner might look like.

  • Think about places: Do you feel better with a few low pressure coffee shop dates before things progress to dinner in a restaurant? Would you rather be in busy places, like an amusement park or a concert?
    Think about people: Would you rather do group activities or double dates with friends for a while before you’re alone with someone?
  • Think about physical interaction: Is dancing an option or would you prefer being able to keep someone on the other side of a table. Are you Ok with a kiss goodnight, or a hug, or just a warm smile and a see you later?
  • Brainstorm a few fun date ideas that meet all of your requirements. Keep those in your pocket. When someone makes an open-ended invitation to hang out, you can be ready with suggestions that feel good to you.

3. Decide on some safety precautions.

This is a hard thing to address, because I don’t want anyone reading to misconstrue this as advice to women that they should behave or refrain from behaving a certain way to protect themselves from rape. To be very clear: the only person at fault for a rape is the rapist, and the only thing all victims have in common is that they found themselves in the presence of a rapist.

That said, you can put some things in place up front that might make you feel safer as you meet new people. This is where, if you have some friends or family members who know your history and are firmly on Team You, you might want to reach out to them and enlist their support.

  • If you have your own car, you could decide that you will drive yourself independently to and from dates, no matter what. Or you’ll take public transport, or get a ride from a friend.
  • You could enlist a couple you’re friends with who will be at-the-ready to double date with you.
  • You could have a friend you can text from the bathroom when a dude is raising warning bells, so she can call you back in five minutes with an emergency that requires your immediate departure. Change her name in your phone to “Mom” or “Work” or whatever sounds serious.

Basically, build yourself some safeguards and escape hatches, so that you can feel secure while you’re with someone, or you can bail easily if you feel triggered or uncomfortable.

4. This has all been prep, more or less. How do you actually put yourself out there?

I would like to say unequivocally that I think dating sites are a bad idea in your situation. I know people who have found great long-term relationships that way, but you have to filter through the absolute dregs of humanity to get to that point. Some of the people you’d encounter would be gross, total assholes and they would probably be triggering to you.

Letting friends introduce you to people is one option, provided you truly trust the friend’s endorsement.

The best option would be to look for Meetup groups or activities around something you already like to do. is a great way to find groups around a hobby you enjoy, and they have groups for everything from book clubs to cooking to gaming to hiking to bicycling – you name it, there’s a group for it.

Libraries and community centers are another resource that you might not usually consider. A lot of them have activity groups that are open to the public.

If you Google “Event calendar <your town>” you can find alllllll the activities at alllllll of the various establishments around you. Pick through, find a few things you might like to try out, and bring a friend if you want.

Find activities in your area that you would want to do anyway, even if meeting someone wasn’t part of the goal. You just want to expand your world a little bit and meet some new people! You might want to date some of them, or you might just hang out and have some fun and go your separate ways.

Do a lot of this, but don’t put pressure on yourself to FIND SOMEONE. Think of it as practice. Practice being around strangers. Practice having casual fun with dudes who are new to you. Practice identifying the ones who clearly are Not Meeting Your Standards. Practice identifying the ones who know how to behave well and interact respectfully with other humans.

5. When you meet someone who seems interesting, revisit that Handbook and prepare some scripts.

As women, we’re socialized to people-please and to be unfailingly polite. It’s bullshit, but it’s a hard habit to break. This is where having some go-to scripts in your pocket is a big help to shut down interactions that don’t feel safe, or assert those boundaries when you need to.

Have some things to say when: you need to decline someone, call off a date in the middle, decide not to see someone again, or suggest an alternate gameplan.

  • “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested right now. See you around!”
  • “I’m uncomfortable with that. I think I’d prefer <alternative>. Sound good?”
  • “This has been nice, but I don’t think we’re a good fit. I’m going to head out. Good luck to you!”
  • “I’d prefer to drive myself to <dateplace> so you won’t need to pick me up. See you there!”
  • “I don’t do solo outings when I first meet someone. I’m sure you understand. But I know you’ll love <your friends> and we’ll have a great time!”

State your boundary, and then just stop. Get OK with uncomfortable silence. That people-pleasing instinct sometimes tells us to keep talking and provide elaborate explanations for why we’re saying what we’re saying, so resist that urge and just let your statement hang in the air like a piano dangling from a rope. The ball is in their court.

If you lay down a boundary like this, the kind of response you’re looking for is some variation of “Sure, no problem!” or “I understand completely, I’ll meet you there!” Normal, considerate people should immediately recognize these things as a boundary and act accordingly. If they don’t, there’s a problem.

If you get an argument, or a “But whyyyyyy?” or anything that resembles an attempt to negotiate down your boundary, that’s it. That’s the sign that (no matter how dreamy!) this is not the person for you right now. Revisit your Handbook. Remind yourself of what you will not tolerate.

And remember that “No.” is a complete sentence, and that “I don’t want to” is a complete and valid reason. You don’t own anyone an apology or a detailed explanation for why their plan doesn’t suit you.

You’ll probably notice that nowhere in all of this do I mention disclosing your past assault to anyone. That’s deliberate, because it’s nobody’s business unless you really want to tell them! And you should never need to tell someone about it to justify a boundary that you’ve set. You don’t need to justify your boundaries at all, to anyone, ever. Their feelings about your boundaries are not your problem to manage.

In closing…

This is just the very beginning of finding a relationship that really supports you. But it’s the most important part, because if you’re going to throw your net into the sea, you’re going to pull up a lot of fish that need to be thrown back. In fact, you’re going to want to throw most of them back. Knowing which fish to keep and which are garbage (This fish analogy is terrible and I’m sorry) will assure that you only continue on with the ones who make you feel valued and safe.

Eventually, even if it takes a lot of time, you’ll meet that one perfect, beautiful tuna (I just can’t stop!) who respects your boundaries, moves at a pace you agree to, and checks all of your boxes.

I wish you so, so much luck on your journey!

P.S. How to Write Your Relationship Manifesto and Finding Your New Normal.