I am no shrinking violet…no truly effective advocate can be. For all those men and women who were sexually abused as children I am firmly planted in their corner. I am there to support, guide each and everyone of them through the dark and very difficult path of recovery.
With all that said, the other day I got to thinking about how childhood sexual abuse affects relationships; how difficult it must be -not just for the survivor-but the partner as well. Aren’t they also paying for the sins of the father? Aren’t they just as deserving of advice and support?
Clearly sexual abuse traumatizes its victims, but it also profoundly affects all those who love the survivor: friends, co-workers and most especially, their partners and spouses. The survivor often feels trapped inside a bubble. Others can see inside and roughly guess what is going on, but it is virtually impossible for those outside to understand what the survivor is going through. Victims themselves often don’t fully understand what triggers them. How then could they possibly articulate what they are feeling to anyone else? And more often than not, it’s actually harder for the survivor to discuss their feelings with the person closest to them.
In my practice, I hear a lot about but don’t meet many partners of survivors. Years ago, a man (I’ll call him Lou) came in with his sexually abused partner (I’ll call her Linda). I had been working with Linda in a women’s group for about 6 months. They were married, with one child. They obviously loved one another very much, but were communicating on different frequencies. Predictably, this was causing tension and friction.
I could also sense Lou’s frustration (and even resentment). Often times, a survivor’s emotional lock-box is unaccessible to partners who desperately want to understand why their spouse or lover continues to suffer. And because reactions can come at the most inopportune times (during sex), partners are often caught off guard and/or hurt by the survivor’s emotional and often times, even physical retreat. A strong reaction can be based on the most mundane stimuli: a touch on the waist, a phrase said a certain way, etc.. To the survivor’s partner, anything and everything seems to “trigger” a anxious, panicked reaction to a degree they just don’t understand.
Lou was at the point where he felt he was never going to fully understand Linda’s abuse and how it contribute to their relationship. After all, he loved her. He was not a perpetrator. Someone else did that. Why should he continue to suffer the consequences of her abuse? It didn’t seem fair.
The truth is, you are never going to understand or own your partner’s abuse in they way they do. It’s just not possible. But for those who care about a suffering survivor of sexual abuse, I have some suggestions that can vastly improve your relationship. These tools can raise the floor of understanding for you both so things don’t “bottom out” for the two of you emotionally and/or sexually:
- Leave Repair to the Professionals. Don’t try to “fix” your partner. Let them work out issues within the safety of their therapist’s office. The survivor already feels something is “wrong” with them. When a person they intimately trust offers to fix them, that is not helping, it is reopening a raw wound of inadequacy. Don’t do it. Be supportive and offer suggestions, but remember that you are a passenger on the survivor’s road to recovery. Don’t grab the wheel; just enjoy the ride.
- Get an Education. Read everything you can about sexual abuse. It’s the only way you’ll understand what a complex psychological challenge your partner is up against. Educating yourself will give you an appreciation for how brave your partner is being just to confront the abuse. Most people don’t and instead end up abusing drugs, alcohol or engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors.
- Don’t hold Your Partner for Ransom. With the understanding that sex is already a very difficult and confusing experience for survivors, don’t make unrealistic sexual demands on your sexuall abused partner. Partners often feel sexually frustrated because they are not getting enough sex; or become angry when their partner “checks out” during the act itself. These are classic after-effects of sexual abuse. Again, show some patience and don’t take it personally. Your partner’s struggles with their sexuality have nothing to do with you. It has to do with the fact that their innocence was taken away from them as a child.
- Leave Judging to the Courts. Don’t judge your partner for their behavior, even if you don’t fully understand it. Don’t tell them to “get over it” or “move on” because it happened so long ago. Understand that the abuse happened at a time (childhood) when the terror of the experience is really seared into the brain. They can find tools for healthy coping, but survivors are never just going to “get over” their experience.
- Recovery is Not Just for Survivors. It is important for partners to participate in the the recovery process. They can never completely understand why the survivor behaves the way they do in certain situations, but they can empathize with the unpredictability of the survivor’s emotional life. The best way to do that is to become involved. Come in with your partner for a therapy session. It’s your opportunity to ask me questions. I can help facilitate a line of communication between you and your partner. Learn what you’re partner is struggling with. Allow me to suggest tools you can use to help. The more you participate, the more improvement you will see in your relationship.
- Take Responsibility. Realize that the perpetrator never took (and probably never will) take responsibility for what they did to your partner as a child. However, the responsibility, shame and guilt had to go somewhere. That somewhere was to your partner. The more you take responsibility for your own actions the less it will trigger your partner.
So when it comes to sexual abuse, I could tell my client’s partners that life is simply unfair, but that doesn’t really help anyone deal with the consequences of the abuse. Incest is unfair and cruel, and the best way to deal with the after-effects is to offer love, understanding and patience to the person traumatized by it. Don’t punish the victim for something that wasn’t their fault. If you really want to get back at the perpetrator for their crime, help the adult survivor of abuse cultivate a healthy, intimate relationship. Don’t let the perpetrator win. Together you can have a healthy, loving relationship. Together you can reclaim a healthy sex life and intimacy that you both deserve. What lies ahead is a future of fulfillment, intimacy and love that you can help make possible.
-I’m on your team-