By Pieter De Wit
Although my partner and I both have our little demons to fight, luckily we’ve both been spared any major trauma. But for the one in five women and one in 13 men sexually abused in childhood globally, their relationships may be enormously impacted.
If you’re one of them, I can tell you that you’re not alone and that it’s possible to recover from this. And if you are the partner of someone who was sexually abused in the past, you can play an important role in this process to benefit your partner, yourself and your relationship.
The Impact Of Sexual Abuse
As you might know, our experiences in our past and especially in our childhood create a big part of our character and how we perceive the world. When those experiences are traumatic, the impact on our future personality can be enormous and create deformed beliefs. People who experienced sexual violence often assume they can’t trust people who are supposed to love and protect them, they believe they don’t have control over their bodies, and that other’s needs come before their own. They often feel that attention and affection are almost always followed by sexual demands and that they’re in danger if they’re not in complete control.
These extreme polarised beliefs can result in undesirable behaviour, particularly for men. This can manifest as anger, anxiety, fear, mood swings, self-blame, isolation, low self-esteem, and difficulties with relationships and intimacy. What follows are the 3 stages many victims go through in overcoming their trauma, and what you as a partner can do to help.
The Crisis Stage
The trauma of sexual abuse often lies hidden under the surface. People hide what really happened and don’t talk about it for years while busy getting on with life. They often seem quite happy and healthy, and besides sometimes displaying the difficult characteristics described above, you would never guess something major had happened in their past.
But in many cases, stressful life events, like having a baby, moving home or a job change, trigger the trauma and the scars of the abuse can resurface in the form of very destructive symptoms. This is known as the crisis stage. Intimacy may become a problem, your partner might start to drink or cry a lot.
The most important thing you can do is try to understand what is happening, but never put pressure on your partner. You can get more information on this by calling a sexual assault centre or organisation and talking to a counsellor for insight into your partner’s behaviour.
The Middle Stage And What Not To Do
In the middle stage, your partner is ready to start doing the hard emotional work, making this the most crucial time to show support. Encourage them to talk to a counsellor or go together as a couple. As with the crisis stage, one of the key rules is not to pressure your partner. The process isn’t easy, and they must make the decisions themselves. You need to be aware that some common reactions won’t help and more constructive behaviour is required. Here is what not to do:
- Express Disbelief
Denial of what happened is not only common for victims, but also for their partner. It can be a hard pill to swallow when you discover what your loved one is going through. But if you deny what happened, you will increase their sense of shame and lower their self-esteem. You must express your belief to support your partner in the first step towards healing.
When going through these difficult times, you must never tell your partner to move on or that their pain is not important. Recognise that there’s no exact timing for this kind of recovery and they’ll need a lot of patience, understanding and love. Otherwise, your impatience and minimising will be very counterproductive.
- Get Angry At Partner
If you find that the challenges in your relationship are a result of abuse, you might accuse your partner of being “the guilty one”. Refusal to have sex or they were upset a lot of the time doesn’t seem to be your fault now. But pointing fingers doesn’t do anyone any good. What helps is looking forward, getting insight into how recovery works and how to improve your relationship.
The Resolution Stage
After all the hard work, you enter the resolution stage. Although not fully recovered, your partner should feel stronger and more confident to deal with emotional issues when they come up. You both can then focus on the other things that make life worth living.
All relationships have times when one or both partners face challenges. What makes a difference is whether you talk about it and work on the problems together. Even with traumatic events like sexual abuse, there are ways to recover. But to do so, you must create the right climate of trust, patience and love. Although it can be a long process, the insight and growth you’ll both experience will make you richer as people and stronger as a couple.