When Your Partner Has History of Sexual Abuse
Sometimes the effects of past sexual abuse shows up in unexpected places. Even though it may have been many years since the abuse happened and your partner feels safe now with you, old trauma can cause the perception or feeling of anxiety or fear in the present. At times, simple things such as approaching from behind, unexpected noise, certain smells and more can cause the body to go into stress response (fight, flight, freeze) or trigger strong emotions. This can happen during intimate touch as well as day to day activities. It’s sometimes hard to understand why this is happening.
Such reactions can be confusing when you are the loving partner who would never hurt your spouse/partner or give any reason for them to be fearful with you. It can even be hard to not take it personally when your partner has a strong reaction to you. Here are some suggestions that can help both of you:
1. Accept your partner for who she/he is. You fell in love with this person and their depth is so much more than what you first understood when you met them. They survived and are able to love.
2. Safety in a relationship is critical. When they first disclose, or if you’ve just come up against a vulnerability of theirs, offer a break from the conversation if things get too heated. Make sure they know that you love them, but “taking five” is often a good idea.
3. Sometimes your partner may need a “time out” when memories need managing. Honor that need or request. When either of you calls “time out”, assure your love that “It’s not about you. It’s not about us.”
4. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and put it into words. If you aren’t sure, then say so instead of remaining silent. Silence is scary but responses (even imperfect ones) let them know that they are accepted. “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing.
5. Face the problems and work on solutions while staying sensitive to your partner—sometimes it’s best to defer things a while. This is difficult stuff. Assure them you want to come back to the discussion, when you are both ready. Don’t just drop the issue.
6. When something is triggered in your partner or a reaction seems disproportionate to what just happened, you’re probably dealing with a carryover from their childhood. Don’t respond in kind and try not to take it personally (your partner’s anger is most likely aimed at the abuser). It isn’t about you, but try and sort out what triggered the response together.
7. There will be some very stressful times, so learn how you can deal them. What will reduce anxiety for you?
8. You’re in a tough situation that requires a lot of emotional energy; you won’t do everything perfectly even if your partner sometimes expects that. Care for your own physical and mental wellbeing so that you can be a supportive partner.
9. Take care of yourself—you may want to get some counseling of your own (in addition to couple’s counseling). Keep doing things that refresh and renew your spirit.
Your acceptance of her/his unique mosaic will confirm their newfound belief about their worth. Every time your spouse smiles, each time she/he is tender with words or a touch, they are expressing their trust in you. Learning how to trust again is one of the biggest hurdles your survivor faces, celebrate that gift.
You are loved by a courageous, fascinating, multi-faceted work of art. Know that your partner lives in gratitude for the safety that is you.