Young Adults: Relating and Relationships
By Jessica Irven, MS, LRT/CTS, CCLS
Connections to one another are a key element of support, security, and moving forward in life. They include both in-person interactions and relationships, as well as digital interactions (chat rooms, email, social media, video chats, etc.), and range from casual interaction to friendship to intimacy and commitment. This continuum does not always proceed in a set order and we can have different relationships at each point on the continuum (for example, friendship and romance) at the same time. Everyone can identify with some—or often multiple—points along this spectrum of relating and relationships.
However, burn injury at any point in life can impact or interrupt a burn survivor’s interactions with others. That is why a discussion about relating to others and forming relationships on various levels and how they impact happiness brought young adult participants at Phoenix World Burn Congress 2014 together to listen and support one another. The Relating and Relationships discussion group served to both present the full spectrum of social and relationship experiences and to support participants in moving forward.
Panelists represented key points along the spectrum. They included the 2014 Phoenix UBelong Young Adult peer mentors Kiki Vo, James Strain, and Jeff Jordan, along with past workshop facilitator Blake Tedder. All spoke from the perspective of being a burn survivor, although age at time of injury varied. From casual contacts and friendships to dating to marriage engagement, the panelists shared the evolution of their own comfort levels in relationships. Discussion in the room quickly turned into insightful questions and sharing viewpoints. Most importantly, everyone was very supportive of one another.
Key Factors in Relationships: Confidence and Trust
While participants were admittedly at various points on the continuum of relationships, our panel stressed that confidence and trust were key factors in moving from one stage to the next in relating to others and in building relationships. Confidence is recognized within research as a barrier in this area and overcoming this issue very much affects adjustment for burn survivors. A recent study1 found that young adult burn survivors had poor perceived appearance (how attractive they saw themselves) and this limited their social interactions with others (regardless of burn size). Our panelists’ perspectives provided insight as to how they each overcame these feelings to be more confident within social relationships of all levels and even attractive (to themselves and others).
The panelists shared the issues related to trust they have faced in relationships—with new friends, dating partners, and even more committed relationships. Finding ways to trust is highly personal and depends on the situation. It is common for survivors to only feel comfortable telling their story once trust has been established. Many described the need for trust being mixed with a fear of rejection (in intimate situations, as well as more general relationships). Several mentioned that having hidden burns was a barrier to trusting someone in a dating relationship until after the scars were discussed and/or shown.
Moving Forward: Wisdom, Peer Support and Advice
Panelist Jeff Jordan kicked off the discussion by reflecting on general interactions and friendship. Jeff revealed that when he was younger his defensiveness was a barrier to relating to others. Jeff’s description of how he has learned to open up was applicable to all levels of relationships.
Kiki Vo discussed dating and intimacy from the perspective of a female burn survivor. Through both her personal experiences, as well as findings from her undergraduate research project, Kiki has found that confidence and seeing your personal appearance as attractive play major roles in dating and intimacy.
Panelist James Strain revealed that sharing his survivor story with his fiancée brought the relationship closer and solidified trust. James describes this relationship itself as part of the evolution and growth of his story, explaining the relationship “…has a whole layer to it that is my survivor story. She is my survivor story. Even though I was burned way before we met, I knew she is why I survived.” He described how his fianceé has embraced his survivorship, saying, “We talk about the accident occasionally and she even tells people my story! She volunteers with the foundation just as I do.”
Blake Tedder, at the older end of the young adult spectrum, spoke openly and honestly about his owninternal struggles through social interaction and intimacy as a teen and college student. He shared the contrast between his earlier social and dating situations, when his burns were newer and his confidence much shakier, and situations he faces now with more grounded confidence and less social discomfort. Blake illustrated how his burn scars used to take center stage in his mind in any new situation. This reflected the confidence and trust balance that many young adults negotiate and relate to. He felt the need to explain his scars right away in new social situations in anticipation that others would make assumptions and form opinions of him. Doing so served to release some internal tension because he felt like he was able to control what people were thinking. Unfortunately, Blake admitted, that was almost never the case. Now, Blake says, he realizes “people weren’t always thinking about the burn scars, and often hadn’t even noticed them—I brought them up due to my own internal anxiety about being judged for my scars.” He concluded that “people are going to think what they are going to think and, ultimately, how burn survivors hold themselves and feel about themselves leaves more of an impression on others than the scars themselves.”
Dating and Choices
Wherever you are on the spectrum of relationships, choices are many. Participants highlighted this in their different viewpoints about dating. From dating a lot but not wanting to get serious based on life stage (desire to focus on school, career, etc.) to never having dated anyone, to long-term committed relationships, experiences among participants varied greatly. Despite this, support in the room was positive and solution focused. The question “How can I date people?” was met with affirmations of the individual’s great qualities and encouraging stories of how others were able to “put themselves out there” (to be confident and put themselves in social situations). Advice included “Keep being real,” and “The right person will recognize the great person that you are and value all you have to offer.” Not wanting to have emotional intimacy but staying focused on casual dating was viewed as a choice that could be positive, depending on the intention. However, some discussion examined the connection to fear of intimacy and its impact on willingness to have deep relationships.
Scars and Dating Partners
Showing scars, especially those that are hidden by “street clothes,” was a source of anxiety for many but not all. Some reported that their dating partners think their scars are attractive, others described feeling positive about their own appearance (including their scarred areas), while others admitted to feeling apprehensive or even unattractive and reluctant to show scarred areas.echoed by many throughout the burn survivor community and are well documented in research literature. Burn injuries have a significant negative impact on sexuality, as well as more general body image satisfaction, for survivors. These issues are concerning based on the potential long-term impact on relationships and quality of life for burn survivors.2
Physical contact with scarred areas brought great discussion as well. Having a partner who feels unsure about touching scarred areas, or even being afraid to hurt the scars or contractures, was an experience several had in common. All agreed that talking about it wasn’t always comfortable or easy, but could really make things easier for both you and your partner.
We’re All in This Together—Bringing It Back to Peer Support and Wisdom
Through the varied experiences and some shared struggles, the voices in the room all pointed in the same direction: supporting one another as a community of survivors. The following key pieces of wisdom brought out the value of both shared experience and peer support:
“Put yourself out there.” Basic reminders that you have to show up to be a part of something, start conversations or return the conversation of others, and actually put yourself in places where you can meet people or interact are keys to getting started in relationships of all kinds.
“Be ‘real’/be authentic.” Let your personality and true self shine through. This will help people know you’re okay with yourself and you can then trust that they like you for who you are. Besides, said one participant, you can’t keep up the acting forever.
“Confidence and self-respect are key.” Show that you feel you are valuable and worthy of respect from a dating partner. If you expect it, the right person will deliver it. (If they don’t, they’re not with you for the right reasons). If you lack self-respect and confidence, you could end up with the wrong person for the wrong reasons.
“Sharing your survivor story and your scars is personal.” What’s the best way and time to share your story? It depends on the goal you have for sharing. While sharing right away might clear the air, it’s okay to limit the information you share and save most parts of the story for someone you really trust. In discussing your scars, as well as in intimate situations, it’s important to be able to say what’s “okay touch” or “not okay touch,” what it’s like for you (such as having decreased sensation on a scarred area), what feels good, what hurts. That sets you up to trust your partner and for your partner to trust that you’ll be honest too. Communication in all relationships is paramount; approaching experiences openly, when the time is right, affords the other person the opportunity to respond with compassion.
Phoenix Burn Support Magazine | 18 | Issue 2 2015
“I need to love and respect myself first”
by Huyen Kiki Vo, Young Adult Mentor
I’m a third-degree female burn survivor. Growing up, I thought I was not worthy of love and affection. I thought no one could ever look beyond my scars and love me for who I truly am. My mentality shifted greatly when I started attending burn camps and being a part of the burn community. It was at burn camps that I met many other burn-injured individuals who embraced themselves wholeheartedly despite the severity of their scarring. I was so inspired by their confidence that I vowed to never let myself think I’m not beautiful or worthy of a man’s love or affection. Thus, ever since I began attending burn camps at the age of 14, my thoughts about relationships and love changed completely. I recognized that in order to be in a relationship with someone, I need to love and respect myself first. Therefore, I started to focus my energy on building myself stronger mentally and emotionally. I also began to shift my attention to education as a tool to empower myself. I wanted others to look at me and judge me based on my intellectual capacity instead of my scars.
Once I accepted my scars wholeheartedly, others started to notice my beauty from the inside out. Thus during my years at UC Berkeley, I became very confident and sociable. It was easy for me to meet people and go on dates. Cliche as it sounds, once I stopped worrying about finding love, love started coming to me in different forms. Nowadays, my approach to life and relationship is pretty simple—if it happens, it happens. The less time I spend concentrating on finding the “right” one, the more likely the “right” one will come! I honestly believe that and have personally experienced many beautiful memories dating great people.