How To Handle The Impact Of Sexual Trauma On Intimate Relationships?

How To Handle The Impact Of Sexual Trauma On Intimate Relationships?

Lauren discusses the psychological, emotional, and physical impacts of trauma and what to do if you learn that your partner was sexually abused or assaulted.
Sexual Trauma Impact
Sexual trauma is an umbrella term to describe any sexual act that is imposed on another person without their consent. Shutterstock Images

Denise, a thirty-year-old single female, wondered if she would ever be capable of having a healthy relationship. Since she got sober from drugs and alcohol about five years ago, she has been struggling with intimacy issues.

She goes out on dates but has difficulty letting down her guard and allowing herself to really be herself. She feels lonely and desperately wants a partner with whom to share life and perhaps even start a family.

However, the idea of allowing herself to be vulnerable fills her with intense discomfort. Every time a man tries to kiss her or touch her, she feels her body tense up and become rigid, feeling completely smothered like she did when her mom’s boyfriend used to sneak into her bed at night.

She used to pretend to be asleep, but she knew it was coming. She would lie in bed, praying that tonight would be the night he would drink too many beers and pass out on the couch, but it seemed her prayers always went unanswered.

She could still smell the stale odor of alcohol on his breath as he would crawl on top of her, crushing her with his fat, sweaty body, thrusting his tongue in her mouth.

When she was fourteen, Denise finally found the courage to come forward. Initially, her mother did not believe her and accused her of being jealous and trying to sabotage her relationship.

Her mother berated her for not being happy for her that she had finally found a man to take care of her and love her since her “no-good father” had abandoned them.

When her mother finally walked in one night to witness the abuse herself, she became enraged, accusing Denise of trying to seduce her boyfriend out of jealousy.

Denise’s mother then sent Denise away to live with her aunt, her mother’s sister, with whom she lived until she was an adult. Fortunately Denise’s aunt was kind and nurturing.

Although Denise had been afraid to confide in her aunt for fear that her aunt would throw her away too, she finally shared her secret. With tears in her eyes her aunt embraced her and told her it was not her fault. She also shared a little secret with Denise.

Sitting Alone

A Woman is in agony, sitting alone in an empty room. Shutterstock Images

She informed Denise that Denise’s mother had also been sexually abused as a child by an uncle but would never talk about it. Her aunt explained to her that her mother married the first man to come along as a way to get out of the house.

Unfortunately stories like Denise’s are all too common. The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is difficult to measure accurately because it is often not reported, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau estimates that about one in ten children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

One in five of them will be girls and one in twenty boys. Historically many victims have been reluctant to share their experiences due to intense feelings of shame and fear of consequences. Since every individual is unique, trauma effects everyone differently.

If the abuse or assault occurred in childhood, they may have kept it a secret in order to protect the perpetrator, who may have been a family member, friend, or trusted member of the community. They may have feared they would get in trouble or not be believed.

Many victims develop defense strategies to help them survive. Some of these are denial, dissociation, minimization, suppression, etc. While these defenses may have served them so that they could cope at the time and move forward in their lives, these defenses actually end up creating dysfunction for them later in life, especially in intimate relationships.

Creating true intimacy requires vulnerability, which, for many victims, has proven to be unsafe. So, as a result, they may either create walls as boundaries, pushing others away, or they may desperately crave intimacy yet at the same time not be able to tolerate it like Denise. This can lead to ambivalence and eventual sabotage in relationships.

Someone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse or assault may have learned early on that their bodies were sources of pain.

They may have felt betrayed by their bodies. For example, if a child was sexually abused, while it may have been unwanted, it may have physically felt good, which can not only be extremely confusing, but also cause a great deal of shame.

In adulthood they may feel shame about their body in general or struggle with an extremely negative body image.

They may view sex as dirty and shameful, therefore, becoming sexually avoidant or anorexic. Some may develop sexual compulsivity or addiction as a form of trauma repetition in a maladaptive attempt to try to gain control.

Sexually Avoidant

Sexual abuse may make you sexually avoidant or anorexic. Shutterstock Images

Some survivors dissociate from their bodies completely during sex because as a child or during a sexual assault, this is what they did in order avoid having to experience the full intensity of the violation.

As adults they may develop sexual dysfunction, such as difficulty maintaining an erection, excessive dryness in the vagina, inability to orgasm, or pain during sex.

It is extremely common for victims of sexual abuse or assault to develop eating disordersand other addictions, such as Denise, as a way to numb or escape from their feelings.

Survivors may struggle with trust issues in adult relationships because as children, the people who were supposed to protect them did not, and quite often perpetrators are people who have once trusted family members, friends, or members of the community.

The child often carries the disowned shame of their perpetrator and can develop a shame core, meaning he or she struggles with extremely low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness, which can significantly impact his or her ability to succeed both in life in general and to feel deserving of a healthy partner who treats him or her well.

Some other common behaviors of sexual trauma survivors are avoidance of certain people, places, things or topics in an attempt to keep themselves safe and avoid certain memories.

Some may suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, preoccupation, or may dissociate, which may look like “spacing out,” like they are in another world.

Traumatic memories can just pop up at any time of day or night. This can feel not only disconcerting for loved ones but also scary.

Another common symptom, hypervigilance, heightened sensory sensitivity for the purpose of detecting danger, can cause a state of increased anxiety, which can be exhausting.

To observers this may look like jumpiness, an overactive startle response, or preoccupation with safety. Mood swings are also common.

Someone who has experienced sexual trauma may have periods of seeming “normal,” then may lapse into depressive episodes or have frequent anger outbursts. There might not appear to be any external cause for them.

Anxious Woman

An anxious woman is sitting alone, undergoing many emotions which are becoming exhausting for her. Shutterstock Images

However, they are usually connected to a thought or memory that has come uninvited, and that brings with it some of the distressing feelings of the original event.

While relationships can be a place where difficulties with trust, intimacy, and sex can appear, they also provide an opportunity for issues to be worked through and resolved. All relationships entail time, effort, and commitment on both sides to be healthy and successful.

A relationship can be an opportunity to experience feelings of intense joy and pleasure, yet at times they can also cause considerable heartache and distress.

Healthy relationships involve vulnerability, a sense of partnership, and support, talking, sharing interests, and working together to address issues as they arise.

This does not mean that healthy relationships are problem or pain-free; instead, it is about having the skills, time, and energy to work things out and grow together. This is true whether or not one or both partners have experienced sexual trauma.

It is important to remember that individuals who struggle with these symptoms are not damaged people.

If your partner is the survivor of sexual trauma, it can be helpful to talk to your partner and understand how certain behaviors developed, the reason behind them, and how they are serving him or her now.

Sometimes they still are and sometimes they are not; however, it may be scary to let them go even if it is negatively affecting the relationship.

Having a discussion in which you validate the survivor’s feelings and reactions, express empathy and compassion, and praise your partner for his or her strength is crucial.

Once you have done this, it is ok to be open and honest about how this is affecting you, sharing your feelings and concerns while communicating with love, patience, and a supportive attitude. Definitely avoid blaming in any way!

Man is embracing his lady

Man is embracing his lady & expressing his empathy and compassion. Shutterstock Images

Since the closeness-distance dynamic is one of the common relationship struggles following sexual trauma, you must keep in mind that in all relationships there are times for togetherness and connection and other times in which one or both parties need a little space.

Checking in can be an effective way to gauge your partner’s need for closeness or space and keep current with how the other is feeling in the relationship without any pressure to have issues resolved right away.

You must also remember that although you may be impacted by the behavior of your partner, it is not all about you. One of the most important elements of healthy relationships is respectful communication.

If feelings become too intense, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a break and return to the topic when both of you have calmed down and become more regulated.

Read Next: Bring Sexual Pleasure In Your Life With Mindful Embodiment
There any many resources available if you and your partner decide to seek help. Couples therapy can be very healing.

Some may choose to see a sex therapist, but it is often beneficial if the survivor (or both partners) also participate in individual therapy in order to address the trauma or impact of the trauma on the partner.

Group therapy can also be very effective for healing sexual trauma because it can help reduce the shame. With enough support it is possible to develop alternative, more sustainable, and more relational ways of coping.


Ask the experts

Often, when anger is the first response, it’s considered impolite, crazy, bitchy or dismissed as overly emotional. Yet, there are many instances in which one’s anger is stirred, and the key is putting it to good use. For instance, when a loved one is unfaithful, or when insensitive remarks are made concerning one’s ambitions or dreams, when feelings are questioned or when a woman is told to be more vulnerable and subservient. Though family and social expectations place unnecessary burdens on women (and men too), they can channel their anger-filled responses into action by going against the grain, pursuing their own interests or business, going to graduate school and much more. In turn, they’re encouraged to surround themselves with like-minded individuals, committed to supporting and cheering on one another, and ultimately helping the other discover their true potential. This system of support will continue to help individuals convert their anger into action, and perhaps enjoy a few laughs, too.

Yes. One hundred percent. Women are socialized to put relationships before themselves, and this often leads to stifling anger or any feeling that might compromise the bond between two people. This is especially the case in their relationships with men, or in competition for men, and over time, women’s anger and aggression has become more user wraps, or covert. Passive aggression seems to be both the only “acceptable” means of communicating anger, but women are also labeled “manipulative” when they attempt to express themselves indirectly. It becomes a vicious circle of anger, denial or minimization of anger, and then make ourselves smaller just to avoid being a “problem.”

While it is becoming more acceptable for women to show anger, progress is slow. Most of the time, female anger is couched in comedy or parody, and only accepted in small soundbites. Those invested in a patriarchal perspective, men and women, hold firm in their beliefs that women ought to act a certain way, or not make waves. The vary act of saying “we’re angry!” is a bold and pioneering move. Further, some women hold more internalized oppressive views, and refuse to participate in a movement that is labeled feminist or angry. For some women, to do so would compromise their social standing, romantic relationships, financial security, etc. It is scary, because the backlash is real. To take a stand is mark of bravery, and not everyone is ready to avail themselves to the fiery response of those in opposition. My opinion is that over time, the backlash will subside and change will take place. Cultural growth is a slow moving process, and with every voice heard, the collective voice of a paradigm shift grows louder and more effective. I don’t think women (or men) should care about acceptability. The more those who are angry attempt to hustle for the approval of their oppressors, the more power is given away. From my perspective, those who are angry a well suited to unite and establish new norms, refusing to tolerate mistreatment any further.

There are so many way to channel one’s anger constructively. I do not condone any violence (unless in self-defense) and instead think about using anger as a collaborating force within and with others. Being of service to others is one way to channel anger. This is especially relevant because so many women today do not have strong female role models, who they can turn to for advice. Get engaged. Mentor younger women, get a mentor, get creative. How can you pass along the resources (i.e., emotional, financial, logistic, etc) that were not available to you and resulted in your marginalization? What do you wish existed that could have helped you through a particularly challenging experience? Create it. I did, and it changed my relationship with anger and helped me take it for what it is a healthy emotion that lets us know when we feel disrespected or mistreated. This is key information that keeps us psychologically and rationally healthy. Anger is invaluable and an essential part of the human experience. When we embrace that, we can make it work for us in myriad ways.

As a psychologist, patients, friends and family are always asking me advice on their relationships and, let’s be real, everyone else’s relationships. One of the biggest questions they have, is why are there no good men or no good women out there? There are good people out there, I reassure them, but they inevitably come back with some retort about having to settle or face being single forever; for some, a fate worse than death. So herein lies the conundrum stay single forever or settle. Well, let’s back out of the black and white thinking that keeps us stuck for a moment and think about what it means to settle. Most of us have arbitrary ideas or checklists we drag around to assess our swiping situation. Does he make a certain amount of money? Is she pretty enough to take around my friends? Is she/he tall enough/too tall? Is she/he fit enough? What kind of car does he/she drive? Do they like dogs? All-important questions, but what do they really mean about a person’s character or how well you’ll get along? When considering the question of settling, it is important to ask what we:

  1. need in relationships
  2. want in relationships and
  3. won’t tolerate in relationships?

No two relational blue prints will look the same, and there are no right or wrong answers. Let’s look at needs first. We all have intimacy needs, like support, trust, security, communication, touch, respect, etc. They may change over time. That’s okay. Its hardwired in us. We also have relationship wants, the qualities that might ignite our fire a little more intensely. Physical appearance, fitness level, similar hobbies, values, job, financial standing, etc. are examples of wants. There is nothing wrong with wanting whatever you want in a partner. But many times, we mistake our wants for needs and then we feel like we’re settling if the want boxes are not checked, because we’re ignoring the meaning we assign to these traits. For example, consider meeting someone who is two inches shorter than your preferred height in a partner. He or she is funny, witty, charming, consistent, honest, and generous with their time, all of the other wants and needs you’ve identified. They just happen to be a little short-changed in the height department. What does height mean to you? Does it represent strength? Safety? Protection? Status? What does it mean about you if you date this person anyway? Whose judgment do you hear in your head? Why is their judgment so important? Asking these tough questions can help you decide if this is a want or a need, and if the underlying meaning is a need, can that need be met in other ways by this partner or other people in your circle? We often expect our partner to meet all of our needs, and overlook the inevitable disappointment in that expectation. Many people do not know what they need or want in relationships, because they are so eager to be in a relationship that they haven’t stopped to consider what they are looking for in their other half. They accept what is available, to avoid being alone. One day, they wake up and think, “Hey, I think I want more than this. I wish my partner would….” and realize that they might be settling but are afraid to leave. This brings me back to the last point, knowing what you won’t tolerate in relationships. It is just as important to know what doesn’t work for you when considering whether to start, stay in or leave a relationship. For some, deal breakers might include violence or infidelity. For others, perhaps smoking or liking heavy metal is the end of the line. Knowing yourself is key in defining your needs, wants, and deal breakers for relationships. If you don’t know some answers to these three factors, perhaps you’ve been neglectful (and settling!) in the most relationship of all, the relationship you have with yourself. Only when you set intentions and cultivate a relationship with yourself can you invite in the kind of love you are seeking and deserve to have. Until then, you’ll be running in circles, chasing ideas and looking to define yourself in the reflection of another.

Obsession, a thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind, is often what drives addiction. Obsession is about hypervigilance. When we feel the object of our affection (whether real or in fantasy) may not feel the same way, we perseverate about them, ourselves and the relationship. This rumination and over-focus is an emotional survival strategy that keeps our brain playing out all of the what-ifs and looking for answers to the sometimes unconscious ques- tion, “How can I make sure my partner doesn’t leave me?” A milder version of obsession can look like ruminating thoughts. “What if he likes her more than me?” “Did she talk to her ex-boy- friend last night?” “If only I lost those last 10 pounds…” Perhaps you find yourself checking their social media accounts for proof they are with you, or have moved on. Maybe you enlist your friends or family to investigate or check on your desired. At the extremes, obsession can morph into stalking and domestic violence. If we feel threatened at the loss of someone, and re- taliate with this level of possession, it can be dangerous for everyone involved. Contrary to what may be glamorized in movies, extreme jealously and stalking are not healthy courtship behaviors, and can lead to emotional and physical trouble.

Obsession with another person may be a symptom of love addiction, which is essentially an ad- diction to the experience or “high” of being in love, and generally appears on the form of putting another person on a pedestal, creating the fantasy that they are perfect or the one, ignoring their faults or certain red flags that point to the contrary. Love addicts often expect their partners to care for all of their needs. Love addicts often neglect to care for or value themselves while they in the relationship. There often exists a toxic bond or an obsessive attachment in love addicted relationships. Love addicts often continue to engage in the relationship, trying desperately to connect as they search for their self-worth in the relationship, even if the object of their desire is pejorative, hurtful, or abusive. Inappropriate boundaries, abuse, neglect, intimacy issues, chaos, drama are some of the deleterious characteristics of these relationships. Love addicts suffer from profound feelings of shame, anguish, and fear of abandonment.

Since love addicts typically suffer from an anxious or preoccupied attachment (hypervigilance about their partner or the relationship), some signs to watch out for would be someone who is wanting speedy closeness, says “I love you before the first argument, has poor boundaries, is constantly expressing insecurities and worrying about rejection, is often very unhappy when not in a relationship, plays games to keep your attention, has difficulty with direct communication, struggles to effectively express their wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings, expecting you to guess or read his or her mind, acts out, tries to make you jealous, always makes things about him/her- self in the relationship, lets you set the tone of the relationship, seems preoccupied with the relationship, calls or texts excessively, stops by your home or work unexpectedly, fears that the small acts will ruin the relationship, seems to be trying too hard to keep your interest, and is extremely jealous.

If you suspect that the person you are getting to know has obsessive or love addicted tendencies, this does not mean you have to cut them out of your life completely. However, it is important to take things slowly, establish very clear boundaries, assess what works for you and get consulta- tion from friends and loved ones about your experience, pay attention to any attempts to get you to change or disregard your boundaries or needs, use direct, clear communication, and effectively verbalize your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. – Dr. Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., CSAT-S, Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and Lauren Dummit-Schock, LMFT, CSAT, CoFounder

The first step to getting help from this type of toxic relationship is to recognize narcissism in your partner or spouse. This involves identifying the traits and warning signs of this disorder, which you may have been living with for quite some time. At Triune Therapy Group, we have skilled clinicians who are highly trained to treat those that are in a relationship with a narcissist.

To help you understand the condition and how you may or may not have been affected, please explore the following Frequently Asked Questions and Answers provided by Licensed Psychologist Dr. Kate Balestrieri: Read More FAQs About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Perhaps the greatest hope surrounding the #MeToo movement and other similar movements is that it will generate an awareness of the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. In doing so, maybe it will initiate and rebirth conversations regarding equality that have since gone underground. This is important, because many people fail to see the ways in which others misuse power and privilege, and how this leads them to engage in predatory behaviors. In another sense, the #MeToo movement could educate people on how to avoid being exploitative, while enlightening them on affirmative consent, power imbalances and how to classify and pursue intimacy and happiness in a authentic, healthy manner.

I work with new mothers and I have on multiple occasions worked with mothers who have experienced a the loss of a pregnancy close to becoming a mother. It is indeed a double whammy. There is so much that gets stirred up, and it intensifies the transition into motherhood and the processing of these loss, exacerbating common life-cycle events, and resulting in undue pressure on new moms, emotionally, physically, spiritually. When we’re trying to understand how motherhood and losses affect us, it is imperative to remember that the transition into motherhood and assimilation of loss are multi-dimensional and encompass physical, social, emotional, spiritual aspects of humanity. Although we mostly associate motherhood with new beginnings and joy, the questions of loss and death and endings actually also come up. Becoming mothers is a definite end to our earlier self, our pre-motherhood bodies and relationships, and mothers must mourn how the idealized fantasy of motherhood is never matched with the reality of the day to day. This is all considered “normal” to go through unless it gets complicated with trauma or major stressors. But if the transition to motherhood coincides with a loss, mothers get all of this thrown at them at the speed of light. It’s like existential pressure overload. – Helena Vissing, M.S., Psy.D. Clinical Associate, Psychological Assistant

The mental health of mothers is a major public health concern. Research demonstrates that depression and anxiety in mothers impact their children. The exact ways children are impacted by their mothers’ mental health involves a complex interplay of factors. We always have to look at the unique combination of risk factors and protective factors for each mother-child couple. If you grew up with a mother who suffered from postpartum depression, you are not necessarily determined to suffer. But we know that on a large public health scale, there is a clear connection between mothers’ mental health and lifelong mental health of their children. The immediate effects of mothers’ depression is that babies become withdrawn and irritable. This is happening at a sensitive time when babies are beginning their lifelong development of emotion regulation. Development is layered and scaffolding throughout life, so a baby who is experiencing these challenges already during their first years will be What we often experience in the consulting room is adults who struggle with feelings of shame and inadequacy or “never being enough”, even when they are normally functioning. They might describe a vague sense of unworthiness that has always “haunted” them. Although it’s widely acknowledged now that our sense of ourselves is rooted in our earliest relationships, it is still overlooked how issues in this area can stem from the emotional pain the child of a depressed mother experienced. This pain does not just disappear as the child grows or if the mother’s mental health improves, as it has influences the very core of the child’s sense of self. Infants and children are developmentally unable to make sense of the intensity of their mother’s depression, but they still feel it. This is because our earliest sense of self is built from our early nonverbal and physical experiences of being cared for. The only way and infant can interpret the signals from a depressed mother is to internalize it, which manifest as a sense of never being enough. Even when the child grows up to be an adult who can rationally separate their mother’s emotions from their own self-worth, the early experiences can still linger and manifest as issues with unworthiness. For each person, it’s a unique story of with all the risk factors and the negative impact on one hand, and then all the mitigating factors and strengths on the other hand. The adult who describes feeling shame and unworthiness might struggle to pinpoint the root of their issues, especially if their mother’s emotional issues were hidden, denied in the family, or minimized. The mother’s emotional state during the crucial early years is often that missing piece to help an adult fully understand their development and life story. Often they are not in a position to communicate about sensitive material with their mothers. This is why it’s crucial that maternal mental health is addressed clearly at all levels of society. The taboo still surrounding motherhood and postpartum emotional issue has devasting consequences for the entire family. I know this is a lot. Feel free to use what makes sense, and let me know if I should clarify things? I tried to use language for laypeople. – Helena Vissing, M.S., Psy.D.