Help for Partners of Childhood Sexual Assault Survivors

I had a comment just now asking for resources for partners. I am a survivor and have been involved with women who are survivors. I think that most of this will be applicable to partners of survivors of all genders.

Partners will find these posts particularly useful:

Primer for Partners of Sexual Abuse Survivors

Photocredit: Sebastian Crump: Glass mosaic in the Kew Gardens Rhizotron entrance to the treetop walkway

Unlike my other posts, this isn’t written for survivors, but for their partners. Okay, I lied, it’s really written for survivors to give to their partners, and has both answers to frequently asked questions and some helpful tips. I’m mixing up the pronouns here, because a lot of this applies to both women and men, but some of it will apply mainly to partners of women sexual assault survivors.

I’ve strugged for 20 years to explain adequately to my partners how it is to be a child sexual assault survivor and what this means in a relationship. First off, it was because I didn’t know. I spent a long time figuring out how to identify what I was feeling and needing, and how to take care of my own self, and in the interim I gave a lot of mixed messages.  Example: “I’m strong and independent but secretly want you to rescue me, but know that’s not a good idea, so when I feel needy I’m going to hide.”

If you love someone who was sexually assaulted as a child and don’t have related experience yourself, it’s going to be hard to get into their head and vice versa. Being abused makes it hard to have some of the illusions regular people have about the world, and this creates a kind of culture shock between survivors and non survivors.

Because of this, it’s really easy for even well-meaning non-survivors to have reactions and attitudes about survivors that are just not helpful. I had one boyfriend who told me, on seeing a cute picture of me as a child that “you were so cute that must be why your father loved you so much” Don’t say anything like this, he was an idiot and I dumped him. Two years of listening to me grieve and report my father to the police for rape and he says a dumb thing like that? Yikes. Some of my partners would kind of ‘go blank’ when I’d talk about anything abuse related because they didn’t want to ‘get me worked up’. Also not the best response.

My wife has had over ten years to get to know me, and she gets me as well as anyone ever has. Part of it is that she loves me and is a stellar human being, but the other part is I’ve gotten a lot more healed and better at explaining what I need and negotiating for it. I hope to share some of that with you to help you avoid some of the pain and misunderstandings my partners and I have experienced.

Here’s some common questions partners have.

1) Can’t my partner just stop focussing on what happened and get over it?

Post traumatic memories, flashbacks and all the other strange and emotional things that survivors do can’t be ‘forgotten’ or resolved with any quick fixes. Give up on that right now. Here’s  something to read that  hopefully will explain what it’s like to have PTSD and why that’s not possible. By trying to block your partner from getting into his or her feelings about the abuse, you’re just slowing down the process of working it through.

2) I find my partner’s emotional upheaval  overwhelming and I can’t seem to fix it. How long is this going to go on?

About five years for the most intense part of healing, if she or he is in good quality therapy with a qualified therapist on a regular basis and not numbing out with substances. Then another five years or so where she or he will have bouts of intense focus on abuse healing followed by times when things are normal. After that the bouts of focus will happen from time to time, but not as often, usually triggered by a major life event like having a child, experiencing something traumatic as an adult, or the death of an abuser.

If your partner was abused by multiple people, in multiple interpersonal contexts, the healing will be slower and longer. For example, I was abused by my father, severely, but so far as I remember, by no one else. As a result, my friendships, relationships with strangers and colleagues, and general social relationships are relatively abuse-toxin free.  I have a bit of an issue with older men who want to have authority over me, because that mirrors a father-daughter dynamic in some ways, but can tolerate it in contexts where it is necessary if I consent to it. If I had been abused by a relative, and a teacher and a boyfriend and a stranger, the result of that would be that there would be very few  interpersonal situations that weren’t fraught with triggers. This is much harder and slower to recover from, even if the abuse in all of those contexts, overall was not as invasive, because so many types of relationships have been rendered unsafe until they are healed, and are a source of triggers.

Five to ten years sounds like a lot of time, I know, but the good news is that it is very likely that things will improve steadily and rapidly throughout this time for your partner. She or he may not ‘fix’ all the things you find most distressing first, but if she’s in effective therapy and feels safe there will be lots of movement. It’s kind of exciting, really. Your partner is most likely going to continue to grow and heal for the rest of their life. Why not do the same?

It also bears saying that your role is not to be the one who fixes your partner. Yes, you may be a safe haven she or he goes to, the person who is there to hold her when she has night fears, or spot when he has gone numb. This is invaluable, but your partner will also need both a good therapist and other survivors to talk to, even if she thinks you are the only one she can trust. You can do a lot just by being grounded yourself and present, but you’re too close to the action, so to speak, to be her only resource. This ideally will help with the overwhelm, because you can do what is manageable – be present, non-judgemental and love her/him. She or he survived horrors. Your survivor partner is a lot stronger than they look at times. If you are not sure what to say, this may also be helpful.

3) Am I ever going to have sex with my wife or husband again?

Survivors often need to take a break from sex. This is for any one of several reasons. The main one is when a survivor is having intrusive flashbacks (emotion, sight, sound or touch memory fragments) that, unfortunately can be set off by intimacy or sexual touch. They don’t have much control over this yet, and part of healing childhood sexual abuse is learning to process these memory fragments so they stop intruding. It takes awhile to learn this control, to be able to pull oneself into the present day. Some of it is practice, but mostly it’s work done in therapy to hook the memory fragments to one another so they can be put to rest.

When she or he is doing deep work on the abuse, those memory fragments can be close to the surface and harder to dismiss for a while. This means that even if your relationship started with a sex life that seemed to work, she may go through periods of time where she can no longer have sex with you or do certain kinds of sexual activities with you. If she or he has been numbing out emotionally in order to have sex with you without triggering memory fragments (as many survivors do before they start healing) and then learns to stop doing that (which is an essential part of healing) things are going to be really raw for awhile. It will take time to learn the skills to adjust to this new way of being. This could entail drawing back from sex for a bit until she or he has a handle on the intrusive memories again from the new numb-free perspective.

Other reasons for a sexual slowdown are that your partner may have a hard time feeling physical sensations, and be physically numb. It’s hard to enjoy sex or have an orgasm when you don’t feel the pleasure. Often she or he will be numb specifically in the parts of the body most often seen as sexual, because that’s where she or he was injured. These injuries may be physical ones (as in my case) or emotional ones. Having sex without pulling oneself back into the present and feeling safe (as your partner may have done before she or he started actively healing) just makes things worse.

You can expect to have a dry spell of a couple of years at some point with your partner, longer if she or he is not in therapy. I’m sorry. Think of it as if she has a broken pelvis and needs for it to heal thoroughly before getting back in the saddle.

4) What do I do if my partner has a flashback during sex?

First of all, learn to notice when this is happening and check in. Your partner might stop moving or participating, look ‘spacey’ or get quiet. It’s a really good idea to notice this as soon as possible and check in with her or him.

If you don’t get a firm ‘go ahead’ from your partner, stop what you’re doing and back off but stay available. Remind him or her where and when they are, and who they are with. For example, “Susan, it’s okay, you’re safe now. You’re here in our apartment with me. I’m right here. That bad stuff is all over now.” A general term like “that bad stuff is over” is a good idea rather than say “I’m not your grandfather” because you don’t actually know what she’s reacting to. It may have nothing to do with the abuser or abuse you know about, for example. She doesn’t need the additional triggering of being reminded of specifics, particularly if she has multiple abusers or trauma incidents. However, you can always ask what would be comforting for her (when she’s not triggered) for you to say.

If you check in with your partner early enough into a flashback, sometime your partner will be able to stop it before it gets going too far and continue, but most often this is a game over situation, sexually, but not as far as intimacy is concerned. Try and be really really graceful about it, as your partner is particularly vulnerable at these moments. Somebody put their sexual needs before hers in a really traumatic way, so you need to be nothing like the abuser. Handling this gracefully and building trustwill help prevent further flashbacks while having sex with you. If your partner can figure out what triggered the abuse memory fragment, then you two can modify what you’re doing to avoid triggering it again. She might then bring that trigger up in therapy, and by processing it there, calm it down.

Making love with a survivor who is fighting to get her sexual self back might look like taking a break in the middle for her to calm down, have a cry and reassure herself she’s safe, maybe tell you what she experienced, and then going back to making love. This can be a very intimate way to make love if you’re open to it. You may find that by being open to her vulnerability, it makes you feel safe to express your own, or that you enjoy being the one who gives her safe haven, and sees the fierce beauty of her courage.

5) How do I help my partner to keep me separate from the abuser in her or his mind?

Physical differences between you and your lovemaking environment and the situations where your partner was abused are very important. I cannot stress this enough. It makes a huge difference.

The place where you make love should smell and feel different from where she was abused. It should have radically different lighting, colours, sounds. If  your partners abuser had a mustache, shave yours off. If drinking was involved in the abuse, never come to bed with alcohol on your breath. If she had to be quiet during the abuse, making a lot of noise might help keep her present. It will make your life together a lot easier. You and I and your partner know you are not her abuser, but her mind will be playing tricks on her, and the less it has to latch on to, the better.

6) How do we have the best sex possible with my survivor partner?

Make a written ‘safe sex’ list and stick to it. In this context safe means ‘no or low abuse triggers’.  The survivor can make a list of things that are sure fire abuse triggers and things you can do that have no abuse gunk attached to them. These will be unique to each survivor. Group the list by level of safety. Green light items are things that never trigger flashbacks. Red light things will pretty much always trigger flashbacks. Yellow light things might be possible from time to time but the survivor should initiate them.

If there is a sexual act or practice on the red light list that you really really like, give up all hope of ever doing this thing with your survivor partner. She or he might give in and do it, but it will do serious harm to your relationship if she does, and will set you back a lot. You can make a green, yellow, red light list for yourself too. Put on it things you really like (green), things you aren’t that into but will do to please your partner or things you like less than the green things but still like (yellow), and things you pretty much never want to do (red). If some of your red light things match with your partner’s that’s great, neither of you have to do that thing again. Find all  the mutual green light things you can and do them often, or things that are on your survivor partners green list and on your green or yellow list.

Be open to including in your lists activities and experiences that are sensual but not normally thought of as sexual. These will often be relatively trigger free and, especially when there is a dry spell going on, can help a lot to keep  you connected physically and build body associations of pleasure and safety between you that can ground you in your lovemaking.

One last thing, respect your partners need for control. She or he might have only one way that works successfully to make love right now, and which needs to be a certain way in order to come off without flashbacks or tears. Respect that this is the reality now and go with it. I’m not going to promise anything, but chances are that if you stick to the green things and go easy on the yellow ones, some of the yellow will gradually become green and maybe even some of the red will become yellow. However, that will never happen if you rush, pressure or guilt your partner into it.

7) My partner is so spacey and forgetful. I don’t think she cares about my needs.

Okay, spacey and forgetful is a symptom of PTSD – it’s called dissociation. Your partner can no more stop being spacey at will than a person with their leg in a cast can tap dance. It will get better as they heal, but is not under conscious control. It’s not about you. Some things my spouse and I have done to handle my inevitable spaciness is to develop a system of reminders. If she needs me to do something, she sends me an email and I put it into my calendar at work where I will be nagged to do it. We have a nag board where requests can be written down, because I will forget or not hear sometimes when she talks to me. I also now put my purse and keys in one specific place all the time (takes awhile to learn to do this consistently) so I can find it.

8 ) What’s good about loving a childhood sexual assault survivor?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Your survivor partner is a veteran and deserves the respect of one. As she or he becomes more healed, she or he will have a great capacity to hear and understand the pain and passion of others, and as she heals, an almost super-human bullshit detector.  My wife values my compassion, and my willingness to do the hard things when they are necessary. Survivors make great activists, advisors and leaders.  When the going gets tough, you want a healed survivor at your back.

More Help for Partners of Childhood Sexual Assault Survivors

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming,
from the book The Invitation
published by HarperONE, San Francisco,
1999 All rights reserved

Here is some other information that might be helpful: