Healing after sexual trauma can be a challenging and emotionally painful process, but also a very rewarding and empowering one. This courageous journey takes an immense strain on survivors of sexual abuse, whose trauma along with the accompanying feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing inevitably affect their intimate relationships. During this time, the survivor’s loved ones can feel disempowered if they do not know how to be supportive. The romantic or sexual partner of a survivor might find it particularly difficult to be an effective source of support, as romantic and sexual contact could be triggering for survivors.
While it is common for the partner of a sexual trauma survivor to feel helpless, there are many ways that they can be an excellent source of support during this challenging journey. If you are in a relationship with a sexual trauma survivor, here are a few things to consider:
Educate Yourself on Sexual Trauma
Rape is, by definition, non-consensual sex. However, on an emotional level, it is so much more than that. It is an invasion of one’s bodily autonomy. It is a physical violation of one’s personal space, which uses an intimate form of human contact in order to assert authority over another body. It is important to understand that a trauma of this magnitude severely compromises the psychological health and intimate life of the victim.
A survivor may experience a range of emotions, including guilt and shame, hopelessness, numbness, helplessness, loneliness, anger and fear. Sexual trauma can also result in memory loss, confusion, flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. These are normal and trauma responses, and usually they are experienced differently by every survivor. They are not a sign of weakness or abnormality. With therapeutic support, a survivor can heal, grow and form healthful relationships. Trauma survivors can be thrivers.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience and healing process is unique. Some survivors will want to share the details of their experience. For others, talking about the trauma can be very re-traumatising. Do not pressure them into talking to you. They need to go at their own pace, taking steps only when they feel ready. And, because the healing process differs for each individual, you could never anticipate exactly how the survivor wants to be supported. Instead of assuming how to support your partner, they need to tell you. For this reason it is crucial that open communication is practiced.
As the act of rape involves a rapist assuming control over a victim’s body without their consent, it is extremely important that the survivor is able to feel in control of their own healing process. Allowing a survivor to make their own choices helps rebuild trust, because you respect their autonomy. Also, it is very important to focus on incorporating consent into all aspects of the relationship. Your partner has had an experience of their boundaries being violated and therefore boundaries must be established and honoured in their relationship.
If sexual intimacy is difficult, explore other ways of expressing love and connecting. What is your partner’s love language? It is different for everyone, and you will not know unless you have open conversations about it. Your partner may need some time and space to feel comfortable with sexual intimacy. Sexual desire and sexual arousal can be difficult to experience for someone who has been sexually assaulted, and it can take time for the survivor to feel comfortable again.
Having careful and non-judgemental discussions about potential triggers, can be a very helpful part of establishing safety and nurturing intimacy in the relationship. Sexual trauma affects the mind and the body. Some survivors can experience PTSD symptoms when exposed to situations that trigger their trauma.
Whilst supporting your loved one, make sure you take care of yourself and your own needs. Being honest about your needs in a non-judgemental manner, will cultivate a spirit of honesty, transparency and safety in the relationship. Failure to identify your own needs and take care of yourself, can eventually lead to building resentment.
If the survivor is in therapy, it is important to bear in mind that they might discuss things with their therapist that they do not want to discuss with you, and this is a boundary that needs to be respected. Pushing for information could be counter-productive. It may be beneficial for you, the partner, to seek therapeutic support to take care of your emotional needs, explore the impact of your partner’s trauma on you and your role in their healing process. Trauma-informed couples therapy can also be a great resource of support for both of you while cultivating intimacy. It can help you explore safely very painful topics and nurture your emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.
We often tend to focus so much on PTSD and other trauma symptoms, that we forget that trauma can lead to growth. Like a tree that has been severely pruned, it would seem in the short term that the tree was too damaged to resemble its former self. But, in time, the tree rebuilds itself, flourishes and is stronger and more beautiful than ever. The process of post-traumatic growth can be like that.
Written by Eva Koumpli