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Dealing with the Impact of Sexual Abuse in a Relationship

It’s hard to talk about, but necessary: sexual violence and its repercussions are everywhere in our culture, including in queer & trans spaces, and including male victims of sexual violence. Over 40% of American women have experienced sexual violence, as well as (at least) 20% of men, whether that’s as children or as adults. People from marginalized groups, like American Indians or disabled people, have even higher rates of harm. Simply put, it’s extremely likely that at some point you’ll be in a relationship with someone who’s experienced sexual violence — or that you have yourself.

What does this reality look like in a relationship? It’s different for every person, but it’s key that you (and your partners) have the tools to address its impact. Here are my best recommendations for addressing the impact of sexual violence in a safe and healing way within your relationship.

Listen, don’t assume

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One of the most unproductive things we can do in the context of something as vulnerable as sexual is to make assumptions or try to enforce expectations. First, it’s important not to assume anything about a new date or partner’s experiences of sexual violence — including the assumption that they haven’t had any. Regardless of how someone “seems,” they may well have had experiences you know nothing about. Hopefully, your dates are approaching you with the same respect.

If someone you’re dating does trust you enough to disclose anything about harmful past experiences, it’s crucial to listen to what they choose to tell you rather than filling in any of your own assumptions or own experiences. Even if you and your partner are both survivors, your experiences and your feelings about them may be wildly different. How someone responds to their past experiences, interprets them today, or what kind of accommodations they need to feel safe about them is extremely personal; don’t expect your partner to think or feel anything specific, or make guesses about how they want you to care for them. Ask what they need from you, (and if you’re a survivor, offer an explanation of what you need from them), and try to truly listen.

Learn about trauma-informed ways of relating

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Even though each person’s experiences and needs are different, there are some best practices for being sensitive and respectful of the traumatic experiences of people you care about. It’s helpful to learn about what it’s like to have PTSD (or CPTSD); while having experienced sexual violence doesn’t automatically mean you have a PTSD diagnosis, some mindfulness of that will likely be helpful.

Given that sexual violence is a trauma experienced in a space that’s supposed to be intimate and positive — human relationships and sex — it’s useful to think about what it would look like to make sure agency and safety are built into your relationship from the ground up. Do you and your partner both have the privilege of stopping a heated conversation whenever you need to and revisiting it at a later time? Could your partner ask to sleep alone in the other room for the night without it being an issue?

Talk about what consent looks like in your relationship

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We tend to talk about consent looks like in early dating or casual sex, but not as much in long-term relationships. It may be helpful in creating an ongoing felt sense of safety and security to have a more explicit discussion around consent than long-term couples usually do. 

This could mean literal consent check-ins each time you initiate sex, but it doesn’t have to. Many of us have ways of communicating enthusiasm or ambivalence within the context of intimate relationships — you can talk about these with your partner instead of either of you relying on the other to guess how they’re feeling. How do you like to initiate sex? How does your partner? Do those both feel good to the other person? How do you communicate it when you want sex to stop? Are there safe words or phrases you could agree on that would end sex, no questions asked?

It’s also important to acknowledge that there are times when even this kind of planning won’t work, and one or both of you may end up triggered and upset during or after sex. Part of the work of being a partner in moments like this is validating and caring for your partner’s feelings without internalizing it as being about you; your partner being triggered by consensual sex they have with you doesn’t mean you’re bad or did something harmful. You don’t need to beat yourself up or wallow in shame about being part of something that triggered them despite it being a situation they enthusiastically consented to — make sure you also don’t resent your partner for expressing feelings they can’t control and giving you opportunities to take care of them better.

If a partner does end up feeling harmed after a sexual encounter with you — or you feel like your boundaries were violated — it’s helpful to think about what repair would look like for you, and how it could work to rebuild a sense of safety and trust in your relationship.

Talk about what safety looks like in your relationship

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Feeling safe during sex specifically is one thing, but another thing survivors don’t always get to have is a holistic sense of safety, both physical and emotional. What makes you and your partner both feel safe when you’re upset, distressed, or triggered? Do you know your routes of safety?

It isn’t your responsibility (or your partner’s) to make sure that uncomfortable or difficult feelings never come up, and it’s likely that triggers will still happen, sometimes even in reaction to things that you do. But being proven to be consistently safe in one’s environment and one’s relationship is one of the most effective and powerful ways to heal.

Be prepared for change

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Our needs are always in flux — it’s totally possible that your or your partners’ needs around this issue (and overall, as people!) will change over time. You may find that the impacts feel much worse sometimes, seemingly for no reason; you also may find them lessen with time. Supporting your partner through therapy or other healing modalities might be part of your relationship, but it’s important to make sure you aren’t expecting your partner to “get over it” in time.

For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

Routes of Safety

What Does “Consent” Mean?

What Direct Communication Actually Is – And What It Isn’t

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