How to be supportive in a relationship with a survivor of childhood sexual abuse

In 2011, I finally accepted that I had been sexually abused as a child. I had been in a relationship for a year at this time. I thought this realization would be the end of that relationship. I thought my then boyfriend wouldn’t be able to handle the new me that was a hurricane of unfamiliar and overwhelmingly negative emotions. Even though I knew the abuse wasn’t my fault, I felt that the way I was reacting to it made me unlovable. If you’d like a little more of my backstory, please read this post.

Despite the many, many new challenges that this new trauma brought on, Michale stayed by my side. It wasn’t easy at all for either of us, but we knew we loved each other very much, we felt we were meant to be together, and we knew we would somehow make it work. We got married in August of 2014, and we’re happy together. Now that four and a half years have passed since I began experiencing the trauma, we do still face some of these challenges in our relationship. It might sound cliché, but it’s most definitely true that healing is an ongoing journey without a particular timeline or destination to reach.

If you’re dating or married to someone experiencing the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, maintaining a healthy relationship can be difficult, but it is absolutely possible. For those who are new to supporting a partner through his or her trauma, some of the most common symptoms of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Hypervigilance (increased awareness to supposed threats)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self-blame
  • Shame/feeling like a bad person
  • Intense fears
  • Loss of trust
  • Low self-esteem
  • Dissociation
  • Feeling detached or numb
  • Anger or desire for revenge
  • Flashbacks
  • Loss of identity
  • Self-injury
  • Excessive drinking/drug use
  • Loss of important beliefs
  • Depression/hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts/attempts
  • Eating disorders
  • Pain, fatigue, tension

How does a partner of an abuse survivor offer support?

It’s important to note that trauma is different for each survivor, and different factors when the abuse took place play a role in how the survivor reacts later in life.

Listen.

Talking about abuse is very difficult for anyone and takes a lot of courage. If your partner starts opening up to you about the abuse, she/he trusts you and wants your support. Don’t ever tune your partner out or say you’re tired of hearing about it, or she/he won’t feel like you’re a safe person to talk to about any important issues, whether related to abuse or not.

Just as listening is essential, it’s important to note that sometimes talking about the abuse may add to the pain.  If your partner wants to change the subject or stop talking about the abuse, please respect that decision as well. Like in any romantic relationship, your partner just want to know she is loved, and the best thing you can do in that situation is be present. Simply spending time together is a great way to show support if talking about it is too painful.

Don’t interrogate your partner about the abuse.

If you have questions about the abuse, ask them with kindness. Don’t force the issue if your loved one doesn’t feel comfortable answering a particular question. Asking for too many details sometimes makes survivors feel like you don’t believe them or are trying to find a way to blame them.

Know that touching a survivor in certain ways might trigger flashbacks.

Touching a survivor in a way that reminds her of the way her abuser touched her can trigger a flashback. The brain is not able to separate the memory from the present moment, so flashbacks make survivors feel like they are experiencing the abuse all over again. Even though you are a loving partner that wants to show that love physically, and would never intend to cause your partner harm, it is impossible for some survivors to make that distinction and get the images of abuse out of their minds.

Kissing, sex or any kind of intimate touching might be out of the question for a while, or the survivor might simply need to guide you on what is and isn’t okay, what particular actions trigger flashbacks, etc. This is temporary, and survivors can eventually learn coping methods to stay present and overcome the flashbacks.

Be patient.

Know that it will get better, but also know that there’s no certain timeline. Questioning survivors on when they’re going to get better is not at all helpful. They don’t know the answer to that question. Healing takes place one small step at a time and varies greatly for each person.

Take care of your own needs, too.

You’re doing your best to support someone experiencing trauma, but you need to take care of yourself, too. You can become irritable, stressed, depressed or easily angered after putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own for an extended period of time. The range of emotions your partner is experiencing along with the new emotions you’re experiencing can cause a whole lot of tension in the relationship for both of you.

It’s a good idea for both partners to set aside time for de-stressing activities on a regular basis like a daily walk, yoga or meditation, taking relaxing bath, etc. Take care of your physical health by eating healthy and exercising, and take care of your emotional needs as well. You might seek out a support group for partners/families of survivors, attend couples counseling with your partner, or start individual counseling if you’re noticing a decline in your mental well-being.

Communicate, and be honest.

Communication is important in any relationship. Tell your partner how you’re feeling, but do so kindly. Be open and honest about your expectations in the relationship, but also be realistic, remembering, again, that healing has no timeline. Communicate regularly about how you are both feeling throughout the entire healing process so you are aware of progress as well as any new issues that come up along the way.

Plan fun activities with your partner.

Dealing with trauma is a heavy subject, and your partner needs to be able to start to laugh and enjoy life again. Do the things that make your partner forget the pain, even if only temporarily. Volunteering at a shelter to care for animals, comedy movie nights, visiting with friends, fun date nights, etc. can all help provide a comforting escape for the mind.

Remember that your partner loves you.

You can start to feel unloved when your partner no longer shows physical affection and reacts to everyday situations in a different way. Please know that they appreciate the support you are providing. It’s helping them heal, and if they say they love you, believe them.

Please share these tips with anyone you think may find them helpful. Our support forum is also now available. Please join to connect and share with other survivors and their loved ones. If there is any advice you have found helpful that wasn’t shared here, please feel free to share in the forum.