It can have devastating impacts on trust, intimacy, control, safety, sexual boundaries and sexual functioning. A couple may have periods of calm and happiness, where the survivor seems to be coping well and healing incrementally. At other times, the survivor may feel like they’re just hanging on, and they may feel like trust and safety is eroding.
Many survivors experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), as well as addictions and depression, which can take a toll on survivors’ relationships and the partners who love them. The healing process varies from one person to another, and sometimes things may get worse before they get better. Many survivors experience a lot of sadness, anger and grief. Counselling often excludes the partner, so he or she may feel more like a spectator than a participant in their partner’s healing process.
What to Expect
- Exhibit avoidance behaviours and not want to talk about their feelings and memories. Unfortunately these have a way of surfacing unexpectedly, and can throw the survivor into a whirlwind of emotion and anxiety.
- Be triggered during intimacy by a range of stimuli including certain music, cologne or perfume, a particular kind of touch, certain tones of voice, etc. Survivors often have direct memories, in addition to body memories, that are non-verbal and deeply embedded. Even feelings of sexual arousal can trigger conflicting feelings of shame, fear, and unworthiness.
- Appear to cope well for periods of time, and then falter in times of stress, or at different points on their healing journey. Coping mechanisms that suppress traumatic reactions take huge emotional energy. Sometimes a survivor may just not have the reserves to effectively cope.
- Lash out in anger during intimate moments. This often hides vulnerability, grief and loss. It’s not usually directed at the partner, but rather at the abuser. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the lack of romance, their partner’s constant need for sex, or some other complaint, rather than see the reasons for their own diminished libido or sexual dysfunction that was caused by the abuse, with the resulting feelings of anxiety and revulsion.
- Blame him or herself, and put pressure on themselves to hurry their healing process.
- Exhibit a range of feelings including being frozen or shut down, powerless, numb, or timid. They may avoid sexual situations, and get trapped in a psychological aversion to intimacy which prevents them from working on the issues proactively. At the opposite end of the continuum the survivor may instead seek out sex compulsively, and exhibit promiscuous behaviour. Both are normal responses to the abuse that they’ve experienced.
- Feel like their only value is as a sex object. They may feel an overwhelming responsibility to please their partner, at the expense of their own pleasure. They might also force themselves to have sex in a self-sacrificing way, or may have trouble receiving pleasure. This can become increasingly draining, and it interferes with genuine intimacy.
- Have a skewed understanding of love, and believe that the only way to receive it is through performing sexual acts. Also, pleasure and pain may be inextricably linked for a survivor, especially if they experienced arousal and pleasure during their abuse.
- Have issues with trust and control, dominance and submission. These are destabilizing feelings related to the abuse. Couples may need to carefully find their way together, to create and maintain safety and trust.
What You Can Do
As a partner to someone who has experienced sexual abuse, it can feel like there’s always someone else in the bedroom with you. It can also seem like things will never be normal, and that you’ll never enjoy a satisfying sexual relationship. The reality is, that there may always be issues you need to face together with love, respect, and care, in order to create safety and trust.
How you can help:
- Educate yourself about the impacts of sexual abuse, so you can create safety in the relationship. Connect with other partners or family members of survivors. Don’t try to go it alone;
- Remember that we all have issues to overcome, lessons to learn, healing from trauma of different kinds to go through. Relationships will suffer if one person sees themselves as being whole while the other is ‘broken’ or ‘wounded’. Commit to a mutual relationship where you both give and take and are willing to learn from each other. It is a rare person who hasn’t also experienced trauma of some kind in a life. Being in a relationship with someone who has experienced sexual violence /abuse may tap into your own unresolved issues. This can be an opportunity for you to make your own changes and to learn from your partner;
- Assure your partner that you believe them and that you’re there for them. Many survivors feel damaged and fear rejection;
- Offer a break from the conversation if things get too difficult.
- Be willing to stop lovemaking if the survivor is being triggered or experiencing anxiety. Be prepared to give up some, or all, sexual contact for a period of time. Your partner may need some time that is free of expectations and pressure. Safety in the relationship is essential;
- Face the issues directly, and work on solutions while remaining sensitive to your partner and his or her needs;
- Create a list of touch that is safe. This is dynamic and it could change over time, so there’s a need to continuously check in and ask permission at every turn;
- Try not to take things personally, and don’t respond in kind. Remember that intense feelings can come from the person’s abusive past. Sometimes, as feelings of trust and safety increase, your partner may push back because they feel too open and vulnerable. Being able to stay in the moment and ground him or her, reminding them that they are safe, and that you are not their abuser, can help them regain their equilibrium;
- Take care of yourself, and cut yourself some slack if you don’t say or do things perfectly. It can be very challenging to be in a support role. Taking care of your emotional and physical well-being is critical, so that you have what it takes to continue to be a supportive partner;
- Accept your partner for who they are, and where they are, on their healing journey. Blaming them, or putting pressure on him or her to hurry up and get better, is detrimental to them and to your relationship;
- Be honest about how you’re feeling, especially if you’re struggling and/or feeling those feelings that are ‘unacceptable’ to you. Try to put what you’re feeling into words rather than remaining silent. Reach out for help and support. Silence, or non-communication, can lead to bitterness and resentment and can be damaging for your relationship;
- Use your support network of friends and family, or consider talking to a counselor, or the partner of another survivor. Just being able to honestly express some of the challenges can help to provide perspective and hope;
- Express your commitment and love for your partner. Let them know they are not alone, and that you are in this together. Survivors have wounded souls. Creating and maintaining trust is not about trying to fix things for them, rather, it’s about being present for, and with, him or her.
For more information
www.supportforpartners.org - Resources and support for partners of survivors of child sexual abuse
www.malesurvivor.org/partnersinhealing - Support for partners of male survivors
www.pandys.org - Support for survivors and partners
www.livingwell.org.au - For male survivors and their partners
www.pasac.net - For partners of adults sexually abused as children
Browne, Marie H. - If the Man You Love Was Abused: A Couple’s Guide to Healing
Cameron, Grant - What About Me? A Guide for Men Helping Female Partners Deal with Childhood Sexual Abuse
Davis, Laura - Allies in Healing
De Beixedon, Yvette - Lovers and Survivors: A Partner’s Guide to Living With and Loving a Sexual Abuse Survivor
Gil, Eliana - Outgrowing the Pain Together
Graber, Ken - Ghosts in the Bedroom
Hansen, Paul - Survivors and Partners: Healing the Relationships of Sexual Abuse Survivors
Murphey, Cecil - When A Man you Love Was Abused