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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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.