Building Healthy (& Intimate) Relationships After Sexual Abuse

When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s not over even if the actual abuse is. Sexual abuse affects us long after the incidences have occurred and have a negative impact on most, if not all, aspects of our life.

It goes without saying that dating and marriage relationships will also be impacted because  of sexual abuse. Not only is sexual abuse a betrayal of trust, but it also attacks how we feel and think about sex, making intimacy and sex within marriage often difficult to navigate. Being touched, hugged, kissed, and engaging in sex require vulnerability and trust. It can be scary to let someone get that close physically and emotionally to you after being hurt so deeply.

First, you need to make sure you’re seeking healthy connections. It’s easier for victims of abuse to fall into future abusive relationships. Healthy relationships are based on mutual trust, respect, love, compassion, and safety. Those who abuse physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually are not candidates for a healthy relationship. Watch for red flags suchBuilding Healthy Relationships.jpg as times where you are made to feel less-than or your significant other tells you that you deserve the poor treatment for whatever reason. Those are major indicators of an abusive relationship that should be avoided.

One you’ve found someone who will love and respect you, whom you can trust (or maybe you already found this special one), you may be dating heading toward marriage or already married. This is when intimacy naturally increases and we may begin to notice problems we have in regards to intimacy, yet another negative impact of sexual abuse.

According to healthysex.com, the 10 most common sexual symptoms of sexual abuse are:

1. avoiding or being afraid of sex
2. approaching sex as an obligation
3. experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
4. having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
5. feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
6. experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
7. engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
8. experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
9. experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
10.experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties

How can we overcome these and build healthy, intimate relationships?

  1. Realize the abuse is not your fault and the abuse is not a part of who you are, but is something that has happened to you. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, disgust, discomfort, etc. that come from being sexually abused are normal, yet not something we want to feel. As you learn about how abuse has affected you and begin to heal, these symptoms will begin to alleviate. Being a victim of abuse does not change who you are. It’s not your fault.
  2. Establish healthy boundaries. As relationships progress, intimacy usually does as well. While dating may only involve hand-holding and kissing, and marriage takes intimacy steps further, any type of intimacy can be triggering. You need to know your personal limits and honor yourself by sticking to them. You probably don’t want to tell every person you’re dating “Hey, I’ve been sexually abused, so don’t do XYZ” but you can simply say you’re not comfortable with this or that yet, but such and such is OK. In marriage, it is probably a good idea to tell your spouse about your abuse so he or she can pay attention to your cues–if you tense up or disengage mentally–then whatever is going on during that moment needs to stop. Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse to stop doing something or say you need a break because you’re being triggered by past abuse. It’s not your fault if you struggle with any aspects of intimacy.
  3. Learn to ground yourself in the present. When flashbacks and memories creep in during intimacy, make a plan for yourself that will help you snap back to the present with your spouse. Take a deep breath and latch onto your current surroundings. Communicating and being deliberate with thoughts or touch during intimacy can help keep your focus straying to past events. It’s not your fault you experience flashbacks and triggers.
  4. Learn to trust. Trust is a huge part of intimacy. Sexual abuse is a huge breach on trust and sexual boundaries, so reestablishing trust takes time. Hopefully, you’re in a situation where you have every reason to trust your spouse and you can allow yourself to open up to trusting your partner. Building trust and being vulnerable takes time, so don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t happen overnight. Start with little things that require trust and build to bigger things. It’s not your fault that trusting others is hard.
  5. Avoid behaviors that trigger unwanted memories and feelings. Flashbacks and triggers can be unpredictable, but when you notice that certain acts or touches cause you discomfort–physically or emotionally–avoid them. You may need to tell your spouse that touching you here or there or doing this or that makes you uncomfortable or triggers memories so he/she can avoid it in the future. It’s not your fault that some kinds of touch are difficult.
  6. Take charge of intimacy. This can seem a bit scary, but it’s actually empowering. Learning what does or does not feel good and allowing sexual exploration between husband and wife is a healthy way to get more comfortable with intimacy and sex. Sex should be fun, enjoyable, and bond a couple closer together. Taking charge of bedroom activities means that you get to decide what happens when and for how long. While being sexually abused, we had no control over our situation. By taking that control back, we are giving ourselves permission to be intimate in a safe environment. You are not broken if you don’t experience sexual pleasure the way you want to. It’s not your fault intimacy is difficult to navigate.
  7. Understand the difference between healthy sexual intimacy and abuse. On healthysex.com, Wendy Maltz states: “The first step in sexual healing is to learn to distinguish abusive type sex from healthy sex. If you commonly use words like, “bad,” “dirty.” “overwhelming,” “frightening,” “hurtful,” and “secretive” to describe sex, you need to realize that these are descriptive of “sexual abuse.” Healthy sexuality is something very different. It is characterized by choice, consent, equality, respect, honesty, trust, safety, intimacy, and sensual enjoyment. In the books that you read and the movies you watch, decrease your exposure to abusive sex images and increase your exposure to examples of sex in which partners are responsible and express love and caring for each other.
  8. Seek professional help. Healing from the trauma of sexual abuse is very difficult and requires therapy. This may also include seeking marriage counseling. Getting therapy is a healthy step. It means you recognize there is a problem and you want to solve it. Healing from sexual abuse will lessen the negative effects on intimacy and other aspects of your life. This is a huge step in having healthy relationships after abuse. Including your spouse in the therapy process can help him/her understand what has happened and what you’re going through better so he/she knows how to help you better. Please consider taking this big step toward becoming more whole and healing. Being sexually abused and the subsequent effects are not your fault. You should never feel ashamed for needing help to heal from these traumatic experiences.

This list isn’t all encompassing, so please continue to seek for ways to improve your relationships–especially with your spouse. There are other resources available. Healthy relationships are possible and vital to your well-being. Look for websites or books with more information and ask your therapist for recommendations as well.

Resources (remember to take what you want and leave whatever doesn’t resonate with you. Not everything is for everyone.):

Healthysex.com

The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz

And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura M. Brotherson

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