THE BLOG
12/29/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2015

How to Understand Your Partner's (Or Your Own) Sexual Abuse History

After reading this post on a woman who hates sex because of her childhood sexual abuse history, a reader suggested that I write a post for partners of people who have experienced sexual abuse.  This is a great idea, since this often comes up in couples counseling.  By the time they come in for treatment, there have likely been many years during which the partner abused in childhood has not enjoyed sex (if she ever did), and her partner is frustrated, confused, angry, and hurt. (I'm going to use examples of a woman with a sexual abuse history and her upset husband, since that's what I most often see in treatment, but my points will apply to people of both genders in any type of relationship.)

A woman (or man, but sticking to woman for simplicity in this piece) in this situation often feels guilty and ashamed for never having "gotten over" her sexual issues stemming from the abuse.  Then, these negative feelings are exacerbated by her husband's disbelief that she could still be reacting to something so long ago, and so apparently unrelated to having consenting sex within a loving marriage. It is common for a man in this situation, who is highly intelligent, very nice, and an otherwise supportive husband, to say things like:

-- "I don't get it.  What happened to her has nothing to do with me and our life together."

-- "She's using this as an excuse because she doesn't want to have sex."

-- "How could it be that traumatic for her now? She was having sex with me just fine when we were dating."

-- "I am not an abuser.  I am a guy trying to have sex with my wife.  There is no connection."

-- "The way she recoils from me makes me feel like a pervert, and that's not right."

-- "My parents used to beat the crap out of me and it doesn't bother me now.  She can move on the same way."

-- "I don't even think that [what happened to my wife] counts as 'abuse.'"

-- "I can't picture that happening.  I've met [family members who abused wife]."

These husbands do not mean to sound unempathic.  They are truly bewildered, hurt, and angry about their situation.  With their whole beings, they believe that their wives have a choice to be more openly sexual and uninhibited, and they are just not trying hard enough to put their abuse history behind them.  And that's a best case scenario; in a worst case scenario, the husbands feel like their wives are tricking them, using some possibly invented series of events to "get out of" having sex, because the wives are lazy or self-centered.

It is understandable why these men would think the way they do.  Firstly, they are often told very vague, limited information about their wife's sexual abuse, because their wife is too ashamed to talk about it in depth.  Also, she often has tried so hard to push these events out of her memory that she herself may no longer remember specifics, except when she is highly stressed (like when she is put in a similar situation to when the abuse happened) or possibly in dreams.  Also, the men do not have any psychological training, and are unaware about how trauma works, and how it leads to post-traumatic stress disorder.  So, here's a little PTSD primer:

1. Something traumatic happens.  It is something so out of the ordinary, that it forever changes how you view yourself and the world.  Having an adult touch your privates can be traumatic, or, if you're very young when abuse starts, the trauma can even be the first time you realize that what's been happening to you all your life is very bad, e.g., by sensing something different as you get older, by trying to pull away and realizing you're not being allowed to stop, or by being told by the perpetrator that this is dirty and a secret.

2. Any time that anything remotely similar to this event happens, you feel the same as you did during the event itself. So, for a combat vet, hearing fireworks on the Fourth of July can plunge him right back into the war zone. He literally feels like he is in combat right that second, forgets where he really is, and reacts accordingly, like by hiding under the bed or grabbing his gun to defend himself.  For someone who was sexually abuse, this can be any form of physical contact.

3. If PTSD is not processed and worked through with a therapist, it can continue forever.  It doesn't just go away; that's not how the brain works. The brain is supposed to remember very bad things and keep us away from them. If a dog bites you, your brain is supposed to train you to stay away from dogs. If sex hurts you, same deal.

4. On a positive note, there are very effective forms of therapy for treating PTSD, some of which I learned working with veterans myself, like exposure therapy. Exposure therapy in this case comes from talking about these extremely difficult memories, which most people never have done before, over and over, until they no longer make you feel ashamed or scared in the moment.  They will likely always make you sad and/or angry though.

5. The reason most people never talk about traumatic events, especially sexual abuse, is that it makes them feel ashamed. Here's why:

-- The body responds to sexual stimulation no matter whether it is "wrong" or not.  So, some women orgasm during rape, because their body just naturally does that. Then they feel like they are truly insane, or they "wanted it," or they are "dirty," or whatever else. Children who are sexually abused many times enjoy some of the physical sensations.

-- Children enjoy feeling loved and prioritized by a grownup. If the only time you are Daddy's special girl is when he is touching you, and you're four, you will likely understand that somehow this is "wrong," but you also like Daddy paying attention to you.  When you get older and remember any positive feelings you had about the episodes of abuse, you will likely feel ashamed, dirty, and so forth because you think that you "should" have thought it was disgusting.

-- They were likely explicitly told by an authority figure never to tell anyone. Also, this grownup likely threatened that terrible things would happen if they did tell anyone, like that nobody would believe them, everyone would think they were bad and dirty, the whole family would break up, and other terrifying outcomes.  Old habits die hard and it is very hard to train yourself to openly discuss something that you thought would be the end of the world to say out loud.

-- They may have told people already and been dismissed. Both as a child, and now, within their relationship, by a partner saying things like, "But that was then and this is now" and other well-intentioned but extremely invalidating statements.

6. Therefore, it may be specific sexual acts that trigger your partner to feel that she is reliving the abuse (and to be flooded with shame, anger, sadness, and other very non-sexy feelings), or sex as a whole, or even hearing certain words, a certain tone, anything.

7. If you keep diminishing your partner's perspective, she will never feel close enough to you and trust you enough to be able to work on this issue.

Also, to address the "we used to have sex just fine issue," women are terrified after sexual abuse that they will be sexually damaged forever after. They often sleep with many people to prove that they work just fine and are "normal," and also because they have been taught that the way to get people to pay attention to you is via sex. They may orgasm and everything too.  But once you get married and are close emotionally, the tides change. Now, you're closer, there is more of a family and deeply emotional bond, and this may trigger the trauma response more.

Also, your wife is no longer in subconscious abject terror that she will never find anyone to marry because she is so dirty and broken.  Her brain damped down her trauma response during dating and courtship so she could rise to this emergency of needing to find a mate in order to feel good about herself and to prove that she was okay and fine.  Now that she has you, though, she subconsciously relaxes and the trauma comes out again.  It's like research from WWII that showed that people who suffered from debilitating migraines for decades just magically didn't have them at all while they were imprisoned in concentration camps. If they were freed, though, after the war, they got migraines again.  Why?  Because if they had migraines in a concentration camp, it would have been a death sentence, so their body just didn't do it. If your wife had been unable to have a male touch her at all during courtship, this would have been an emotional death sentence for her, nobody would have married her, she would be unable to find a loving relationship in which she could finally feel secure and loved. So her brain just didn't do the same trauma response. But now she is securely with you, so it comes out again.  It's like the moms who can pick up a car when their kid is trapped under it. The brain is a mighty thing.

So, what are some ways that you can use your new knowledge about trauma and be supportive and loving rather than dismissing and invalidating?

1. Tell her that you are sorry that you didn't understand how long lasting the effects of sexual abuse can be, and that you're sorry for saying she should just "get over it" or what have you.

2. Encourage her to seek individual therapy to process and work through her trauma history with a trained counselor.

3. Allow her to set boundaries around sex.  If she sees that you can be trusted in this way, she is much more likely to grow more trusting and try more things with you as she feels more and more secure. E.g., if your wife was forced to give oral sex to her abuser, she may say, "I just can't do that right now." If you have agreed, but, in the moment, you try to convince her verbally, or move her physically, to do it, she has lost trust for you. No, you're not an abuser, but you're also not trustworthy, and this feeling of not trusting someone is going to really trigger someone with an abuse history.

4. Offer and encourage her to attend couples therapy with you to work on her feelings about the marriage and your feelings of anger or resentment about sex.  Just because you know WHY she acts the way she does, doesn't mean your own feelings of loss around the sex life are invalid.  Both of you can learn to empathize with each other, which will deepen your connection dramatically.

5. Offer and encourage her to attend sex therapy with you to work on ways to gradually try new things in bed, while being conscious of the fact that it will take her longer than other people to expose herself and feel vulnerable in new sexual ways.

6. If and when she shares any specifics of the abuse with you, just listen and empathize with how she must have felt. Don't ever say, "Really?  That's all?" or "I thought it would be worse." If you say things like this, not only is is illogical (because apparently, yes, that was enough to traumatize her, whatever it was), but it will confirm her greatest fear: that you really will not understand and will judge her in some way. On the other hand, if what she says makes you disgusted or angry, try to moderate these emotions as well. The best thing to say is "I love you, thank you for telling me, and it doesn't change how much I love you at all."

Please share with spouses, clients, or anyone that would benefit from this information!  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks That Just Having Access To Information About Trauma Can Change How People Respond to It.