May We Dance Upon Their Graves

Incest Survivors, Spirituality and Ceremonies of Justice – the story of a woman living a rich, fulfilling life while waiting to dance on her sociopath father's grave.

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,
“Yes.”

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:

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59 comments on “Primer for Partners of Sexual Abuse Survivors

  1. Pingback: Healing from Child Sexual Abuse « Kate1975's Blog

  2. balbrouckan
    March 15, 2011

    Thanks for thinking of our partners… I hope it will help fellow survivors.
    I’ve been so hurt by the husband, who manipulated me into confessing it all, and then used the knowledge to slowly bring me to the edge of suicide in the course of a 10+ years mariage with children, that I’m now unable to speak about abuse to a partner. It works better for me.
    When bad thoughts intrude during intercourse, I push them back, and it helps me to think that the partner did not notice anything : it makes me think of here and now. Besides, I don’t want anybody to know how frail I’ve just been. It works for me that way because I got the whole pack : abused as a child and abused as a spouse.
    You’re very courageous to be that open about your traumas with your wife – she must be a very nice person. I admire both of you and send you love.

    • sworddancewarrior
      March 15, 2011

      Hi Balbrouckan,
      What an awful experience. It makes me angry that someone would do this. I’m so sorry.
      I’ve been open about my traumas with all my partners, so I guess I’ve been lucky. I can understand why you have that boundary. I don’t think I would want to have sex with someone, except very casually once or twice, if they didn’t know about the abuse though. Of course, I’m married now, so that’s kind of hypothetical.

      I get you on not wanting to show how vulnerable you were. In the early years I told them the facts but not much of the emotions, because that was the part that felt vulnerable. My current partner pretty much knows everything. Being fully seen and loved at the same time is very shame reducing and healing, I hope you have a relationship at some point where you get to experience that.

      love and admiration back at you.
      SDW

  3. butterflysblog
    March 15, 2011

    This is such a great post!!! Thank you Warrior!!!

  4. Pingback: For Partners and Supporters of Survivors « Kate1975's Blog

  5. Rescuing Little L
    March 16, 2013

    This is an excellent post….made my heart sing…found you through Sarah Olson on Twitter…I am re-blogging this. Possibly too late for me and my partner but others should have the benefit of your loving heart and words….Blessings to you!

  6. Rescuing Little L
    March 16, 2013

    Reblogged this on Rescuing Little L and commented:
    Here are the words that I wish I could write for the partners of sexual abuse….for now, I will use these…

  7. love
    March 17, 2013

    I found this post as iam trying to figure out what I can do to help a long time friend and lover with finally dealing with abuse he experienced as a child. Im learning slowly of all the things I took personally and looked at as faults and i’m learning that they were really symptoms of his abuse, Im trying to find the balance to allow him to heal and to be true to myself in terms of possibly leaving him to find love. Its been hard because i really do care and want to be there but I do realize it is not about me. So this post is really helping me in terms of making a decision for the both of us and I thank you.

    • sworddancewarrior
      March 27, 2013

      I’m glad it’s helpful. Those are hard decisions to make. Good luck with them.

  8. Just came across this and I wanted to say thank you–it’s helpful. I’m a survivor and I’m getting married (to a different man) in less than six weeks. We’ve been hitting some rough patches and I’m going to give him this to read! Thanks!

  9. sworddancewarrior
    May 20, 2013

    I am so glad, ChickOpinion. If you or he have any questions, I’d be happy to respond to them as well. Congratulations on having a loving relationship and getting married. May you have a beautiful and loving life together.

  10. Pingback: Ask Jenn Vicious: On Sensitivity, Sex, and Survivors | In Our Words

  11. mrfixitfails
    June 21, 2013

    ” I got the whole pack : abused as a child and abused as a spouse.”

    Not sure how I ended up here but… thank you. After 27 years of marriage and 6 children my wife has almost completely shut down, finally confiding in me that she was molested by her grandfather, I had known since we met that her sister was. I started with the quote from balbrouckan because I feel sometimes as though I have caused this same pain for my wife. I think I had all of the standard initial responses and to her confession and quite frankly I’m not very proud of any of them. I’m not looking for a pat on the back for figuring this out, finally. I just wanted to say to anyone else that’s reading that you hit the nail on the head; I cannot “fix” my wife, I cannot deal with her feelings for her and I cannot-this is important- I cannot even begin to imagine the pain she bears. If I may offer, here’s what I can do: I can make sure that I am healthy and strong and close by to support her-if she asks, I can learn not to pout like a child when my selfish needs are not met and perhaps most importantly I can make sure that I am not the second person to abuse her. My surviving spouse is the strongest person I know, she is my best friend and the love of my life. If only I could tell her that….

    • sworddancewarrior
      June 22, 2013

      Well, it’s good she’s finally telling you and dealing with it. I’m sorry it’s taken her so long to face what her grandfather did. I am assuming he is dead? If so, good. May she find the strength and healing she needs, and may she one day dance on his grave, if only by living well and happy while he rots.

      You can try to imagine the pain she bears – think of the worst thing that has happened to you, the greatest loss, any time you’ve had your life threatened, that thing you grieve. It won’t give you the ability to say you understand, but may provide a way in to connecting with her if and when that is possible.

      Shame, which is another word for self-hatred, is a big block to intimacy for survivors. It is almost always completely unjustified, and the antidote for it is self-love. Love from others helps, but self-love is the cure. I recommend this book to help you understand your own shame, which may help you understand hers. http://www.amazon.ca/Daring-Greatly-Courage-Vulnerable-Transforms/dp/1592407331

      Good luck to you and your wife in your journeys.
      SDW

  12. Caitlin
    June 21, 2013

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s the most helpful thing I’ve found about how to be supportive as the partner of a child sexual assault survivor. It helped me have new insights into our relationship, and some language to put to emotions that have been jumbling around in me. Thank you so much for this gift.

    • sworddancewarrior
      June 22, 2013

      You are very welcome, Caitlin. That’s exactly why I put it out here. Yay. (and nice to meet you). If you ever have questions, I’m happy to hear them.

  13. sara
    June 23, 2013

    I was sexualy abused by multiple men my whole childhood. My partner of 9 years and the father of my son doesn’t understand my issues with sexual intimacy. He is a light hearted jokesteter about most things including sex. He doesn’t get why he can’t be handsey in a joking way with me. I have not been able to have sex with him in almost a year. I do sexual favors for him because I dont want to loose him but I’m numb the whole time. He has been patient with me but not without reminding me of it. How do I get him to understand that pressure and guilt, no matter how subtle, just makes me hate sex more. And he just can’t understand how touching my sensitive parts, even in a joking way, triggers negitive touch sensations throughout my body. If he wants our sex life to improve and increase there are things he can’t say and do with me. I’ve said this over and over but he still doesn’t understand. I don’t think he truly believes a person can be reminded of tragity by a touch. He is a good man and a great father. His childhood was great so it’s hard for him to grasp mine. Any ideas on what I should do?

  14. Nuha
    July 26, 2013

    Hello, My name is Nuha, i am a partner of a sexual abuse for 4 years, our relationship was so difficult in the past years because i didn’t know how to act with him to now, i’m reading lots of articles about how to help him heal. but he keeps shading away from me, we separated for 8 or so times because he gets numb and say “no future for us” and leave, but somehow we keep coming back to each other. i’m the only one who knows about his past and this is so heavy to take, now we are separated but we are talking to each other, he doesn’t want me to leave because he needs me to talk, but in the same time he thinks our relationship is over! i can’t leave him and it’s also hard to stay. what should i do?

    • sworddancewarrior
      July 29, 2013

      You need to look after yourself first, Nuha. He will need to find a qualified therapist to work with to heal. You can love him and be his friend, but he needs therapy. You are too close to him to do this work with him/for him. If it were me, and I was doing emotional support for someone but not in a relationship with him, I would go inside and figure out how much support I wanted to offer and stick to that. He is a very strong person to have survived what he did, and he will figure out how to get some help. Good luck. SDW

  15. smizz
    September 21, 2013

    Great post, thank you. I’m trying to think of how to word this properly. I’ve known my, now partner, for almost 11 years. For years she couldent even remember what happened. She is 2 months from finishing an outstanding program, and has come so far. I can’t be more proud of her.
    The list of people goes far back, including her father and ex finance. There have been rough points, but I am getting better at supporting her in the way she needs.
    My problem comes at this. How do I get over it? How do I deal with her ex (who I’ve seen from time to time) but more importantly, her former excuse of a father (no longer in her life) I’ve always been good with calming myself and dealing with situations. But this lights a fire in me that I can’t put out. She knows its there, but not to this extent. I just don’t know what to do.

    • sworddancewarrior
      September 23, 2013

      My advice, smizz is to feel the feelings till they’re done. What you are experiencing is akin to grief, and anger is part of grief. It’s a terrible thing that these abusers have done to your partner and you’re justified in being angry about it. Once you’ve experienced the feelings fully, you will be more likely to make a decision based on what will be most practical. I totally understand the impulse to protect her. I personally avoid all contact with my abuser. Keeping in mind this is still new for her, I would take her lead on how to deal with her two abusers and ask her how she would like you to behave toward them. Also keep the kvetching order in mind: https://sworddancewarrior.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/rules-of-kvetching-applied-to-survivors/

  16. jim
    October 27, 2013

    thank you for such a great post. seven years into my relationship with a survivor; I feel I am getting to a place where I can get over my own ptsd enough to support their healing. this is the best resource I have found to date. keep it coming.

  17. Pingback: I just screwed up - Page 12

  18. Katie
    January 29, 2014

    I want to thank you so much for writing this. I’m so in love with my girlfriend (who is a survivor) and sometimes struggle to care for her and care for myself at the same time. I literally said ooohhhhh to myself several times while reading this. I have a wonderful therapist, but reading your blog entry was revelatory to me in terms of bridging the gap of supporting and empathizing with her while practicing some self-care (and not getting hurt, confused or resentful). Thank you thank you thank you.

    • sworddancewarrior
      January 29, 2014

      I’m so glad! That’s why I do this. What parts were the most helpful to you?

  19. Pingback: Help for Partners of Childhood Sexual Assault Survivors | May We Dance Upon Their Graves

  20. PartnerAndPunchingBag
    June 23, 2014

    Thank you for the great blog. Is there any way to send you an email? I would like to get your thoughts on my own situation, but do not feel comfortable sharing everything here. Thank you again.

    • sworddancewarrior
      June 23, 2014

      Hi P,
      I’m not giving out my email address publicly, particularly with posters I’ve just met – unfortunately, I’ve had some problems with predators. However, I can leave your comments to me unapproved so other people can’t see them, and then be discreet about details in my posted reply or write in general terms in response. Would that work? Nice to meet you. SDW

      • sworddancewarrior
        June 23, 2014

        Hi P,
        I read the message you sent me and this is my advice. This isn’t a healthy relationship. If you are having a lot of drama early into a relationship, it’s not a fit. Good relationships that last start out well and stay running well for the first year or two. After that there may be power struggles and such as people get more connected. I suggest letting this woman go with your blessings and find someone who is available for a relationship with you and clear that she wants that. I also suggest looking at your own self to see figure out what about yourself makes you open to being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat you well. This is especially true if this a pattern with other girlfriends. All the best to you.
        SDW

        • PartnerAndPunchingBag
          June 23, 2014

          Thank you. So, it strikes you as being a relationship issue specific to me and her rather than something she will have to overcome with anyone she dates? She has always tried to present it to me as “I don’t know how to love, but I believe that you can teach me.” She says I am the only person who she ever really trusted or made her feel good, but then she treats me so badly. I think you are right that I should have walked away a long time ago. I have done it now, but I still find myself hoping against hope that she comes back. She often said that she is scared of learning how to love me, but after it is too late.

          • sworddancewarrior
            June 24, 2014

            Hi P,
            In response to your question about whether your ex’s difficulties relating to people (as a survivor) are about her relationship with you or her ability to have relationships in general – I stand by what I wrote earlier. She’s just not ready, not a fit for you, or she’s just not prepared to treat you ethically. We don’t know, it could be all of these. Healing takes time, and it could be years of work, if she even choses to do that work before she’s ready for a relationship, or she’s just not a fit with you. Either way, giving up and looking after your own needs and growth is my recommendation. I’m going to write something about survivors in love at some point, maybe it will help.

          • J
            June 24, 2014

            P and SDW

            I wanted to add a bit about my experience to this discussion. I don’t know if that is welcome but it seems appropriate, from what I glean from the public part of the exchange.

            I have not left my survivor partner, though I have ended up being an emotional punching bag over most of the last eight years. it has seemed like an extremely unhealthy situation for me to put/leave myself in. however, there have been benefits from sticking it out. I have been looking within myself to find out why I stay, why I choose this type of partner. this investigation has been illuminating for me. I am beginning to make sense of my own traumas. I used to compare them to my partners history. I ended up feeling that I did not have the right to be traumatised. but now I realise that I fragmented memories, dissociated from my experience, withdrew from life, refused to make sense of my history… now, I am finally taking care of myself, providing myself with a safe place. and so the memories are coming back, I am making sense of my life, I am feeling the pain and moving through it.

            it is true that it would have been nice to have a partner that could show me the way; and I know that my survivor partner (like P’s partner) wants me to show her the way to healing. only I can heal myself. and the best I can do for my partner is to find a way to heal myself; perhaps witnessing that process will inspire her to do the same. I know that already there are huge changes. the more I respect myself, set boundaries, engage in self-care (eg: good diet, exercise, cleanliness, regular counselling, peer discussion groups), the softer and more willing, understanding, loving my partner is. not only towards me, but also towards herself.

            whether or not this relationship lasts, I am thankful for these positive developments. I don’t believe I could have got to this point without being faced with the turbulent mix of grief, defensiveness and anger in my survivor partner. I hope she finds her way to healing. I intend to be there to encourage her along the way.

            J

            • sworddancewarrior
              June 24, 2014

              That’s really lovely, J and exactly on topic. Thank you for that. Self-care and self-responsibility is key for all survivors, and so are good boundaries, even with people you know are hurting.

              • PartnerAndPunchingBag
                June 25, 2014

                Thank you both for your responses. J – I think our situations have been very similar. I could take being the occasional punching bag, but I always felt like I was in the dark about her true feelings. She did things that made it so “obvious” that she wanted to be with me, and she did others that made it so “obvious” that she did NOT want to be with me. Of course, they cannot both be right! I have started seeing a counselor for myself, but I miss her terribly. She does not speak English, but she asked me to try to help her (months ago) to find her a copy of the book in her language. The book is impossible to find to purchase, but I finally tracked it down at a library. I am hoping I can get an inter-library loan, copy the book, and mail it to her. That will give me some closure and provides her with a great resource for getting the help she needs. I miss her so much, but I finally accepted that I DO deserve more than the way that she was treating me.

  21. J
    June 25, 2014

    P, what book are you referring to? maybe I should read it as well.

  22. PartnerAndPunchingBag
    June 25, 2014

    The book is called The Wounded Heart, and it is written by Dr. Dan Allender. It is a Christian book so you may not be interested if you are not a Christian. A lot of it would be applicable to non-Christians, but a lot would not. The author Laura Davis also has a very popular book called Courage to Heal, AND a book for partners which is called Allies in Healing. I have not read either of them, but both are popular. I think you have taken the right approach by leading by example. I have started working on myself and drawing boundaries, but I think it came too late. I can draw all the boundaries I want now because (sadly) there is no one around to see them!

    • J
      June 26, 2014

      P, I have Allies in Healing, it was very good. I wasn’t raised with a christian background, but I will look at Wounded Heart anyway. A book that my partner found very helpful (but I have not yet read) is Private Thoughts by Wendy Maltz and Suzie Boss. and two books that I have found very helpful are: Adult Children of Abusive Parents by Stephen Farmer, and Your Depression Map by Randy J. Paterson. that last one has been really great for developing self care and boundaries.

      it is never too late to love yourself P. cultivate your self care, establish a strong routine and boundaries. and you will be ready for when your relationship reignites or you find a new partner.

  23. J
    June 29, 2014

    SDW

    like you mention above, there has been a sexual dry spell between my partner and I. you say to expect a couple of years at some point. it has been a few years now for us. what we are finding now is that she wants to end that dry spell. so do I, but I don’t know how to enter that potential minefield of triggers, after so many years. where do I start? do you have any suggestions?

    J

  24. sworddancewarrior
    June 29, 2014

    Hi J,
    I remember when I was first healing and it felt like I’d never be able to have sex without triggers, and now they’re really really rare. It happens, sometimes faster than you think possible and sometimes painfully slow.

    What has changed is that I did the work in therapy, by which I mean learning to parent, ally with and comfort that inner child or children that hold the pain and stories from the abuse, and to listen to them. I let my therapist see those vulnerable parts of me, and let myself grieve and feel in therapy. This vented a lot of the traumatic ‘steam’ so that it didn’t come up whenever I got intimate with someone.

    So my recommendation is to make the lists as described above, and update them often. Do the mutual green things a lot. This will give you a lot of trigger-free successes to build on. Work on being present and open hearted with one another. Breathe together. If tears happen, no problem, it’s part of the process. Touch one another consciously. If you find yourself dissociating, then take some deep breaths and feel your feet, back off and get back in your body. It’s about intimacy first. Then the body will open.

    SDW

  25. Anna
    August 8, 2014

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am beginning a relationship with a wonderful woman who has a similar experience to yours, and your post is extremely helpful. I am struggling to understand how I can support her in her feelings of shame and “brokenness”. If you have any insight into this, I would so appreciate it. Please feel free to email me directly. Thank you again.

    • sworddancewarrior
      August 8, 2014

      A major antidote to shame is self-love. Love from other people helps of course, but self-love is the ticket. Another antidote to shame is empathy. If your partner shares things that have shame attached with you, a helpful thing to do is to express empathy. If you can’t empathize with the experience, you can empathize with the feelings of fear, sadness, anger etc… It’s important not to put your own feelings on her experience and very important not to give advice or mention hot buttons like forgiveness or reconciliation with abusers and complicit family. Empathy as opposed to pity or sympathy is tricky to do. Brene Brown has some good books and videos on shame that should be really helpful for you.

  26. JC
    December 11, 2014

    Can someone please help me with some advice. After 20+ years, my marriage is literally on the verge of ending. After years of counseling with no real resolutions to our marital problems, my wife has recently told me she wants to separate with the hope it will force me to more diligently address and resolve my flaws that negatively impact my ability to be a good husband and father. While I admit I do have some issues I need to resolve, I believe my wife’s complaints are greatly exaggerated and/or off-base due in large part to the molestation she suffered at age 12/13 at the hands of her brother (older by 2 years). I believe this abuse, which my wife began to recall about 10 years ago, is the main cause of her generally poor treatment of me and problems with our sex life, both of which have had an equally, if not a greater, impact on our marriage than the issues I have not yet fully resolved. Therefore, I believe that no matter how much progress I make with my issues, it will never be enough to save our marriage because (1) my wife refuses to consider the molestation she suffered could have any negative impact on how poorly she treats me or on the problems with our sex life, and (2) so long as my wife does not seek treatment for her molestation, she will continue to subconsciously associate me with her abusive brother and, as a result, will never be willing to acknowledge the positive steps that I do make toward change.

    Since my wife told me she was molested, I have asked/begged her to see a therapist who specializes in treating sexual abuse victims because I believe the abuse she suffered is the primary cause of the problems with our sex life (and, as I’m starting to realize, the main reason for her overall poor treatment of me).

    For the past 8-9 years beginning shortly after beginning to recall the suppressed memories of abuse, my wife has been seeing a female social worker. Unfortunately, this social worker does not specialize in treating sexual abuse survivors, nor has she been able to make the connection between my wife’s molestation and some of the problems in our marriage — even though I, my therapist AND our couples therapist clearly see the correlation. (I’ve talked to our couples therapist separately about this because my wife refuses to address it during our sessions.)

    How can I help my wife realize she needs to see a therapist who specializes in treating survivors of sexual abuse before she decides to end our marriage? (Our couples therapist is hesitant to tell my wife this point blank for fear of ‘losing’ her. However, I fear she’ll file for divorce before realizing it.)

    • sworddancewarrior
      December 11, 2014

      Well… The short answer is:
      – Nurture You can’t make other people change.
      – It’s always best to work on your own self instead.
      – it’s frustrating when people won’t do what you think they should do to fix a health problem that is interfering with your sex life. I’ve been there and it sucks. However, gettong into a power struggle about it doesn’t work.
      – All you can do is decide what your bottom line is and make it clear in couples counselling what behaviour you need to change in order to be happy. If she doesn’t want to and would prefer to end the relationship, you can’t do anything about that.
      – Have you read about love languages? I’ve found it really helpful about relationship things, even though it is very Christian and I’m not.

  27. J
    December 11, 2014

    JC,
    speaking from my own experience… it sounds like it is convenient for your wife to focus on your lack of action instead of facing what must be very traumatic and difficult action for her to take. I know that as I have taken action on my own issues, I was surprised when I started making serious progress that my partner could no longer blame me for my inaction, and she got rather angry with me for taking away that crutch. I was able to explain that what I was doing was important not only for me but also for us, and especially for her; as I am now better able to support her in her healing process, since I am taking a very responsibility for my own healing. I recommend a great little book called Leadership and Self-deception. it is geared towards business situations but the concepts are very useful for navigating these tricky dynamics.
    it sounds like you are already taking action, seeing several therapists. but it also sounds like you both are blaming each other for not taking enough action. stop worrying about what she is not doing and start doing what you need to do for yourself. become the healthiest, strongest, most supportive partner you can be and you will weather this storm with her.
    J

    • JC
      December 11, 2014

      Thank you both sworddancewarrior and J for your responses. While I suspected I was going to receive responses similar to what you provided, which are helpful and very much appreciated, I guess I was hoping for something different because for the past 10 years I have tried to nurture. We even stopped having sex 3 years ago — at my suggestion — in the hope my wife could see how much I cared for her and would be more willing to address (or be better able to cope with addressing) her abuse. Unfortunately, that only lead to more problems outside of the bedroom, with my wife treating me worse than she had previously — by projecting her negative feelings for her brother onto me? — and with me being less willing to ‘take one for the team’ when she did treat me poorly because there was no longer any incentive for me to do so.

      I’m also frustrated that someone who holds herself out as a therapist and who has been ‘treating’ my wife for the last 8-9 years cannot see the connection between the abuse my wife suffered and the problems in our marriage when it’s crystal-clear to me, my therapist and our couples therapist.

      If it weren’t for our 2 beautiful daughters, I would be much more wiling to concentrate on my issues and just be there for her. However, if my wife decides to divorce, I’m certain my daughters will hold me solely responsible regardless of what we tell them.

      Again, thank you both for your advice.

      • J
        December 11, 2014

        JC
        my survivor partner and I also agreed to abstinence for awhile, it has lasted more than three years. what is really surprising is that I seem to be the one who is having greater difficulty rekindling our sexual relationship at this point.

        I want to clarify that I did not mean to say that you should nurture your wife more (it sounds like you are pretty good at that already). I am saying that you should nurture yourself, know yourself, love yourself. and out of that change in yourself magic can happen. and it will help if you are communicating in your partners “love language” as SDW suggests.

        in a way what I’m suggesting is that you take some selfish time for you. perhaps a weekly activity, or time alone, or a course that you feel passionate about. something frivolous and inspiring; something just for you. you deserve it!
        J

  28. sworddancewarrior
    December 11, 2014

    There is magic that happens when you concentrate on your own issues, and provide love in the way the other person needs it expressed without worrying about how they respond. It seems counter-intuitive I know, but focussing on what she needs to do isn’t going to get you anywhere.

    Also, I had a hell of a childhood and I don’t treat my partners badly, so it’s no excuse. We do end up dating people who remind us of our family members, but everyone does that, not just survivors. Harriet Lerner’s books really are good with disentangling that stuff. The thing is, it goes both ways – the things she is doing and the way she is with you is also about your stuff with your own family and working directly on those issues will help a lot to defuse what’s going on with your wife.

    I did have a partner early in my healing who was very angry at my abuser and blamed the abuse for our issues. However, he wasn’t going to get what he wanted from me regardless of the abuse, since I just wasn’t interested in having sex with him as much as he wanted, which was literally in the three times a day range. Since I now know I’m gay, that didn’t have much to do with the abuse either, although we both thought it did at the time. as a gay person, I was really only with him in the first place because my abuse had made me disconnected with my own desires, so paradoxically, if I hadn’t been abused, I wouldn’t have dated him at all, and dealing with my abuse is what broke us up. He reminded me of my father, because he was pushing unwanted sex on me all the time, which also explained why I let him get away with it for awhile. He had some issues he wasn’t addressing that made him so hyperfocussed on sex (and also he was just a young guy and they’re like that), and me having the flashy horrible issue distracted him from that. He’s now married to a nice woman and we are still friends. I also dated a guy who didn’t want sex very much at all and when I healed enough to get my libido back (and realize I’m gay), that didn’t work either. Healing is good, but it makes change, and both people have to heal for you to stay together. I’m sharing this to let you know, that even if it feels like it’s all about the abuse, it’s often a lot less about the abuse and more about normal relationship stuff that people have than you’d think.

    • JC
      December 12, 2014

      Thank you again, J and sworddancewarrior. I’ve thought quite a bit about your most recent and prior responses, which is also basically what our couples therapist has been saying to me, and I believe I’ve experienced an epiphany of sorts — instead of focussing all of my energy on healing/fixing myself and just being there for my wife, I’m focussing a lot of my energy on trying to somehow control what my wife should do to help our marriage because it’s extremely difficult for me to deal with situations that affect me greatly but over which I have no control due to my inability as a child to do something to stop my sexual and psychological abuse.

      Going forward, I will focus my energy on healing/fixing me and, in time, I’ll hopefully be able to follow up with good news and/or to provide insight to a poster facing a similar dilemma.

      From the bottom of my heart, thank you both again so very much for your time and advice.

      JC

      • sworddancewarrior
        December 12, 2014

        That epiphany sounds spot on. Good luck to you and your wife and daughters.
        SDW

  29. Pingback: Being Intimate with a Sexually Traumatized Person | Butch and Brat

  30. Kelly Bryson
    March 15, 2016

    I’m deeply in love with my girlfriend, wanting to propose to her. We’ve struggled with this and I’ve tried to find the tools I need to support her through her healing. This is immensely helpful, thank you.

  31. JoJoDancer
    April 2, 2016

    SDW, several times while reading your blog I’ve come across comments from men who’ve suffered sexual abuse and who were seeking information. While looking for support groups in my area, I found these two websites: Male Survivor – http://www.malesurvivor.org – and 1 in 6 – http://www.1in6.org. If you’d like to post, please do so; you seem to have a large audience of all genders/asexuals.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog and for helping others, especially me, break the silence and the shame that comes with this territory. Much love and support to you!

  32. JoJoDancer
    April 2, 2016

    This is another site rich in resources, if you’re interested in posting it: http://www.naasca.org/010111-Recovery.htm

  33. Pingback: Reasonable Expectations from your Partner | Roots to Blossom

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