Love When Your Partner Was Sexually Abused: The Healing Pieces & The Journey For Connection
How do you have a healthy relationship if your partner was sexually abused?
This article discusses a topic society rarely addresses.
The devastating sexual abuse epidemic stands in the societal limelight more than ever. Today, we provide more advocacy, research, and resources to survivors more than we ever have.
It’s still not enough. Unfortunately, rape and assault statistics continue to climb despite these efforts. While support slowly increases for survivors, there remains little to no discussion anywhere for the partners who love someone who has been sexually abused.
While rape does not discriminate, this article specifically addresses men in relationships with women who have been sexually abused.
- Because I predominantly work with women with histories of sexual abuse and because most of them struggle with intimate relationships.
- Because I believe most men want to support and help their partners, but they don’t necessarily know how.
- Because if your partner was sexually abused, chances are that nobody else is talking about it.
Healthy Relationships When Your Partner Was Sexually Abused
Neither of You is Alone
Your partner is part of a devastating epidemic:
- Perpetrators sexually assault someone every 98 seconds
- Perpetrators sexually assault a child every 8 minutes
- 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape
The journey towards healing sometimes feels bleak and unsettling:
- 33% of sexually assaulted women contemplate suicide
- 94% of sexually assaulted women experience PTSD symptoms during the first 2 weeks after the assault
- Those who have been sexually assaulted are 10x more likely to use illicit drugs
- Only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators receive prison sentences
Empathy First. Talking Second.
Not everyone experiences sexual trauma, and it can be challenging to imagine what it feels like if you have not been through it.
This is what it feels like:
Maybe you trust someone. Maybe you become a bit more vulnerable as time unfolds. You’re alone together one night, and he makes a move, and you don’t want him to. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe it’s just not a good time. The reason doesn’t matter. But, he takes advantage of that, in a way that you never anticipated, and you feel powerless, scared, and used. Then, you stop thinking and feeling altogether. You don’t know what to do next.
Or, maybe you don’t know someone at all. Maybe you’re just walking down the street and someone likes what he sees and assaults you out of nowhere and you’re flailing and crying, but your size can’t overcompensate his. Maybe you’re left with physical bruises- those fade- and emotional bruises that sting every single damn time you walk down any street.
Feel something? I hope so. Empathy paves the path for talking. Without it, you don’t have a compass.What comes up for you when you hear about sexual trauma or rape? Which feelings do you experience? What thoughts arise? Examine them. Analyze them. Work through them if possible.
Oh, and if nothing comes up, you have work to do, too. This is especially true if you want a healthy relationship if your partner was sexually abused.
We all know open communication maintains healthy relationships, but communication surrounding sensitive topics can feel tricky. Like it or not, we all carry innate judgments, biases, and reactions to trauma. While not good or bad, this matter needs continuous awareness.
As humans, we hold judgments, often without realizing. We also sometimes present with a lack of openness and receptiveness despite our best intentions.
The more you model discussing difficult or vulnerable topics (in any capacity) the more you demonstrate an openness and willingness for her to discuss sensitive issues as well.
Trust May Take Time
Sexual abuse both violates and betrays personal boundaries and privacy. Your partner may feel angry or betrayed. She may feel confused or scared. In fact, all these feelings may surface, at different points, and from different triggers.
If your partner was sexually abused, she may have a hard time trusting others. You may notice this in your own relationship. Yes, it can feel frustrating. And, yes, it can feel like you did something wrong.
Mistrust arises as a common symptom of trauma. Mistrust has less to do with you and more to do with having an automatic reaction to needing to protect and secure oneself.
All people want to feel safe and they will go to extraordinary lengths to provide that for themselves. When that safety becomes compromised or ruptured, we may react with becoming guarded. We might feel afraid to open our hearts and feelings, afraid to get hurt again, afraid of history repeating itself.
Be Mindful of Assumptions
No two people react to trauma in the same way. Assuming you know how your partner feels and thinks about the experience before asking embodies ignorance and potential for destructiveness.
Instead, ask respectful questions. Learn the typical responses and patterns. Educate yourself. Engage in an open, collaborative discussion. But, do not assume.
Trauma does not come with a singular cure. It also does not come with a guaranteed set of symptoms or reactions. Instead, it comes with limitless options, paths, and mazes for healing.
Like most obstacles in life, trauma responses ebb and flow. This happens because life events can reactivate and remind us of pain and difficulty. The difference between the person who achieves a stable sense of thriving often comes down to emotional regulation, coping skills, and sense of empowerment and safety. With that said, even the best “working through” distress and symptoms does not provide an automatic guarantee for future triggers or reactions.
Even feeling “totally over it” does not assure permanent resolve. Triggers evolve, increase, decrease, and shift throughout time in a complex rhythm.
In a nutshell, what felt difficult to deal with yesterday may feel totally reasonable today.
Trauma also compounds, and this rings especially true for those with extensive histories of sexual abuse.
There is No Timeline
If your partner was sexually abused, there is no actual timeline for her actual healing. Like most mental health trajectories, it depends, represents the main answer regarding how long certain symptoms might last.
In this regard, patience matters most. Compassionate partners gravitate towards the solution, rather than the problem. This means asking what you can do to help and asking how you can provide support. It also means taking a step back when needed. Learn the art of validation and practice it regularly.
Even if your partner lacks the answers, you demonstrate having his or her best interests in mind. That shows compassion and patience.
Remember, empathy emotionally connects partners. Expectations and pressure split them apart.
Your Needs Matter, Too
You represent half of this relationship, and your feelings and reactions and boundaries matter just as much as your partner’s.
Trauma can complicate everything. It seems easy and even tempting to minimize your own stress and problems in the wake of someone else’s trauma. However, doing this can lead to resentment and caregiver burnout.
It also seems natural to want to protect or rescue your partner. This codependent desire often backfires as well. In my experience, rescuers trying to throw a life ring to someone else risk drowning themselves.
In the process of being supportive and compassionate to your partner, you also have a right to your own self-care and emotional well-being.
Even if your partner was sexually abused, this should never be a viable excuse for her to mistreat or take advantage of you.
Love Isn’t a Cure, But It Can be a Medicine
Love alone cannot save your partner, and this can be hard for men to realize. Love cannot erase a gruesome past or eliminate the painful feelings and memories that surface. Love alone cannot “fix” trauma.
But, love- healthy, compassionate, patient, unconditional- can soothe. In being your best self, you lead the path for relief and joy and optimism for the future.
Remember, trauma isolates and often evokes themes of shame, worthlessness, and unlovability. While love may not reverse those thoughts, love can provide a new roadmap and a beautiful, new direction for change and hope.