How to Be a Good Partner to Someone Who's Experienced Sexual Trauma
"Let your partner tell you about types of touch that are triggering.”
“Lindsey, have you ever been sexually assaulted?”
That question felt like it punched me in the gut. The worst part was that it came from a client I was in a health coaching session with. We had just gotten into some deep work and were trying to pinpoint where her food issues stemmed from. After weeks of working to get to the root cause, she told me that she had been sexually assaulted as a child and used food to gain weight in order to mask her body from men. She shared something very traumatizing with me and I think she was looking for some reciprocity.
This was the first time I actually admitted out loud that, yes, I had been assaulted. After she left that session, the emotions came pouring in as I recalled being date-raped at age 17. Seeing as I didn’t remember anything from the evening, I clearly had blocked this out of my memory for as long as I could. My recollection of that evening didn’t surface until five years later. My client’s blunt question and my desire to be honest and forthcoming forced me to face the reality of what happened to me.
In the followings weeks after admitting what happened to me, I found my anxiety increasing, and I even started experiencing flashbacks. My self-esteem was shot and I felt uneasy in my body, like it was tainted. This all happened while I was about six months into dating someone new—the man who eventually became my husband.
I started noticing changes in my behavior. If my boyfriend touched my back from behind, I would jump. If he had a beer and tried to kiss me, I would get angry. My sex drive was at an all-time low, mainly because I felt disgusted with myself and my body. Since my behavior seemed to change overnight, I decided to share with him what happened and how I had been feeling recently. Luckily, he gave me space to talk about my feelings and never once validated the destructive idea that it was my fault.
After I came to terms with what happened to me, I decided that I should get some professional help to ensure that I take the necessary time to heal from something that I had blocked out of my memory so long.
Before starting to date again after a sexual assault, it’s wise to talk to a mental health professional about what you may be feeling, says Stephanie McIver, a psychologist and the director of counseling services at the University of New Mexico. “Work with someone who can help you identify safety and trust issues with someone new,” she adds. “Establish safety and trust before disclosing information about a prior sexual assault experience so that you can also share what your current thoughts are about it—and what you know you'll need from that new partner in order to continue to feel safe.”
For those who want to be a good partner to someone who’s gone through this type of trauma, know that his or her post-traumatic stress symptoms can arise at any time, so it’s important to understand how to react with respect and sensitivity. McIver shared several tips with me, which I’m here to offer to anyone who wants to be a supportive partner to someone who’s experienced sexual assault.
Communication is key.
This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication, so listening to someone is just as important as sharing your thoughts and feelings. It’s also important to ensure that the person who's been assaulted approaches you and addresses it on his or her own terms. Try not to pry for details, even if you think they’ll help you understand. Someone who's been assaulted can find it challenging to trust other people. Strong communication can ensure that you give them space when they made need it, and can equip them with what they need in order to feel comfortable.
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Create guidelines for sex.
This might not be a fun conversation but there's really no way around it. Regardless of whether you’re married, single, or in a relationship, sex absolutely must be consensual. This seems like an obvious statement, but you’d be surprised. Before the first time my husband leaned in to kiss me, he actually asked if it was okay. I appreciated this because I immediately felt respected and safe. I said “yes.” McIver says that if you don’t hear an affirmative "yes," "please," "sure," or "let's...," then there may be ambivalence or refusal. “Your job is not to convince your partner or coerce them into wanting sexual contact.”
As a victim of sexual assault, sometimes I still have certain triggers. When my husband and I were dating, he would drink casually with friends. I don’t drink, and part of that is because I was date-raped. I had one drink the night I was assaulted and woke up not remembering anything. Later on, I found out I had been drugged. Drinking itself never bothered me, but drinking and being intimate did. So my guideline was that I never wanted to have sex if he had been drinking beforehand. The mere smell of alcohol on his breath was enough to trigger me at times, so it was best if we remained sober.
McIver says, “With survivors of sexual assault, [things like] this can be experienced as re-traumatizing and impair the trust and sense of safety that may have existed before. Let your partner tell you, and ask, about sexual activities or types of touch that are triggering.” Create guidelines with your partner and shift them as you both see fit along the way.
Find intimacy in ways other than sex, too.
Physical touch is a huge part of intimacy, but it’s not everything. In The 5 Love Languages, author Gary Chapman shares how people show their emotion in five different ways including physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, and gifts. Sex is just one way to be intimate with your partner. The way your partner chooses to communicate their affection is an important aspect of their personality to explore, especially if they’ve been sexually assaulted.
My husband is big on is physical touch and words of affirmation. When I was first healing and understanding my repressed trauma, I wasn’t comfortable with any form of physical touch, so he took effort to explore ways of showing affection that were kind of foreign to him, such as doing things around the house (my "love language" includes acts of service). This completely allowed me the time and process to heal while we still showed each other we cared.
Scrounge up some empathy.
It can often be difficult for someone who's experienced sexual assault to feel comfortable enough sharing their story with you. The best thing you can do is offer compassion and empathy sans judgment or resistance. Recognize how difficult it must be for someone to share that information. Don’t question their story, or ask inappropriate questions about “what they did for this to happen” or what they were wearing. “Such statements indicate ignorance of our rape culture and how victims need not do anything for rapists to attack, and ignorance about how our system is antagonistic to survivors, making reporting undesirable and legal recourse unlikely,” McIver says.
Know if and when to call it quits.
And respect your partner if he or she requests time away. Let’s face it, break-ups are hard enough as it is. There's really no easy way to end something that was meaningful, but everyone has different reasons for why they want to leave or end a relationship. If your partner wants out, you may not understand why but it’s their prerogative and their healing process, she says.
Most importantly, victims of assault need to foster self-compassion. Healing from trauma can be an ongoing journey, so make sure you support your partner’s healing process, whatever that looks like for him or her.
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