It’s not easy for someone to come forward about being a survivor of sexual abuse. And sometimes it’s even harder for survivors of sexual abuse to enter into an intimate relationship. If your partner has confided in you about past sexual abuse, consider it a major step on the path to their recovery.
The road to recovering from sexual abuse can be complex to navigate and it helps to have a support system. These tips for how to be in a relationship with someone who was sexually abused can help you grapple with conflicting emotions and provide you with information on how to be there for your partner.
Tips for How to Be in a Relationship With Someone Who Was Sexually Abused
Be an Active Listener
Upon learning that your partner was sexually abused, you may find yourself at a loss for words. Recognize what a courageous act it was for your partner to open up to you and let them know how grateful you are that they shared this information with you as well as let them know you are there for them if they need to talk about it further. Never try to forcefully pry information out of them. Instead, be an active listener, offering advice when asked.
Consider the Effects of Sexual Abuse
People respond to sexual abuse in different ways. A sexual assault survivor may:
- avoid sexual interactions, physical touch, or “getting too close” to someone
- display promiscuity or hypersexualized behavior
- go through periods of increased desire, followed by the inability to commit
- experience erectile dysfunction or an arousal disorder
- struggle with body image/eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or substance abuse
- react with dissociative patterns that make them seem aloof, disconnected, or uncaring
Take It Slow
Be conscientious about establishing consent with the smallest steps forward. During intimate relations, take a moment to assess your partner’s comfort level. Make sure they are comfortable with every interaction.
Your personal preference may be physical contact and sexual intimacy to affirm the relationship, but not everyone speaks the same love language. Consider other ways of deriving satisfaction from the relationship, as outlined in Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. Quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and words of affirmation are other ways to express love and consideration.
Understand It’s Not About You
Flashbacks or triggers can happen anywhere, at any time, for any reason. For some, the smell of alcohol can bring back sexual abuse that occurred while intoxicated. For others, it might be a news story or derogatory comment that sends a survivor into a deep depression. The important thing is to understand that these reactions are not about you; it is about your partner.
During these moments, your partner needs support more than ever. You may need to take a step back and listen or sit in compassionate silence to convey that you accept your partner—the good and the bad. You may need to work toward changing a habit or action. Your comfort and reassurance may be just what your partner needs to get through the pain of a situation.
Plan for Challenging Moments
Moments will arise that surprise you, where you don’t know what to say or how to react. Thinking of a few responses ahead of time may help you stay grounded and re-direct the conversation. For instance, you might say:
- “That was then… the pain is still here and now, but this is a very different time.”
- “I’d like to discuss this more in couples therapy.”
- “I’m here for you—on the good days and the bad.”
- “I notice you’re upset. Let’s take a step back and slow this down.”
- “I may never fully understand, and that’s okay. We’re in this together.”
During a flashback, you could also:
- Offer a glass of water to stimulate the prefrontal cortex.
- Say, “I’m here for you. I’m listening.”
- Remind your partner he or she is safe with you.
- Call attention to the present sights, sounds, date, or location.
Understand your partner may be unwilling or unable to explain the situation to you. Sometimes a sexual abuse survivor doesn’t understand why a situation occurred and can’t find the words to describe all the emotions and feelings they’re experiencing.
Understand You’re Not Alone
Partners of the sexually abused often experience:
- Anger: Your desire to inflict pain upon the abuser takes control away from your partner.
- Disbelief: It can be difficult to believe the person you love has suffered such betrayal.
- Grief: Your partner will undergo many changes, which can be stressful for both of you.
- Inadequacy: Your need to fix things can leave you feeling powerless and subpar.
- Relief: Now that your partner’s behaviors are put in context, you understand.
To play a helpful role in your partner’s life:
- Believe: Resist the urge to reject or minimize what happened.
- Listen: Let your partner arrive at their own conclusions.
- Respect: Be patient and allow privacy.
- Separate: Maintain your own identity, clearly asserting your own needs as well.
- Support: Go with your partner to counseling, support groups, or litigation meetings if asked.
Seeking support outside of the relationship can also be helpful; whether it’s a friend, counselor, support group, or even an attorney.
Support a Partner Wanting to Seek Justice for Sexual Abuse
When a survivor is ready, there are multiple paths to seek retribution. Pressing criminal charges could lead to the abuser serving time in jail, sentenced to pay fines to the state, probation, and registration on a sex offender registry.
Contacting a civil attorney is another option which can hold third parties such as church dioceses, schools, or youth organizations liable for failing to protect your partner. Many civil lawsuits result in compensation to cover your partner’s medical expenses, lost wages, and emotional pain.
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