Survivors & Partners: Healing the Relationships of Sexual Abuse Survivors
Paul A. Hansen, Ph.D.
“I must be losing my mind. Nothing makes sense.
I don’t know who I am or where I belong!”
In the Broadway musical “Into The Woods,” Steven Sondheim weaves three or four well-known fairy tales together and creates a delightful musical show. Listening closely to the lyrics and the lines of the play allows one to catch some of the poignancy and and focus Sondheim’s intent. The theme conveys that each of us must go “into the woods” to find ourselves. The characters are not always pleased with what they discover about themselves there. And while this is true in life for most people, it is particularly true for those who begin to explore, and subsequently discover, the devastating memories of childhood sexual abuse. This particular set of wood is very frightening. Sadly, the survivor cannot go into those woods without taking her closest friend, partner, lover, or husband her. So if one person in a relationship decides to engage in the exploration and healing, the other one is bound to be affected, even dragged kicking and screaming into the whole tornadic phenomenon. In truth, the Partner finds himself already involved without having known it.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (she is caught up in a Kansas tornado and lands in a totally different land), the couple caught up in this particular “tornado” will find themselves in a different “land,” or more to the point, a different kind of relationship experience. When the storm subsides, their relationship, like Dorothy’s life after her trip to Oz, will be transformed. And it should be a whole lot better.
How it all began for us
Our story of dealing with the wounds of childhood sexual abuse begins before we got married. My wife and I had been dating for about six weeks and our romance was blossoming. Suddenly she announced that she would spend her three month summer teacher ~ vacation 3,000 miles away. This came as quite a blow to me. With this loss on top of a recent divorce, I decided not to date for a while and to deal with my grief
At the end of the summer she returned and initiated contact. We resumed dating and after six weeks she again ended the relationship. And so the pattern continued, with several painful endings and beginnings. We were not to discover the root cause for this on and-off behavior (sexual abuse as a child) for another three years, long after we were married.
The irony of dealing with sexual abuse in relationships is that it often seems to take a strong healthy relationship to provide a supportive enough environment for the survivor to allow the abuse to surface. Relationships which are not strong don’t provide a safe climate, and the abuse remains in the unconscious. The effects may be there but it is likely there will be no awareness of abuse. So if you are beginning to acknowledge old wounds, compliment yourselves on the quality and strength of our primary relationship. It is a positive affirmation of y our relationship.
Before discovery: What’s happening to “Us”
Much confusion accompanies the onset of the discovery of childhood sexual abuse. Your relationship may have begun like many others. You met, found yourself attracted, became friends, and began dating, fell in love, became lovers, etc. Those times were filled with great excitement and romance. You had found the most wonderful partner, lover, friend. You seemed so well suited to each other.
Then things began to get serious. You occasionally discussed that “M” word, marriage. Or perhaps you talked of moving in together. You were in love! It was wonderful! Though occasionally there were those strange moments, which neither of you quite understood. The survivor had some unusual reactions during sex, such as going numb, withdrawing emotionally, or even having mental flashes that she was in bed with someone other than her Partner. She may have directed bursts of rage at the Partner for little or no apparent reason.
While these reactions were disturbing, the overriding tenor of the relationship was one of joy and love for both of you. So you discounted those times as a fluke, as something that would get better or disappear. By doing so, you denied their significance. You moved ahead with your relationship, perhaps moving in together or married.
Typically, couples enter a honeymoon phase in the beginning of relationship. Great joy, peace, companionship and harmony characterize this period. Eventually all couples pass through this phase and into another, deeper phase of their relationship. The honeymoon phase may last days, months or even years. During this time couples concentrate on the success of the relationship and tend to ignore “problems” or possible negative factors. But such factors eventually develop to a level where they cannot be ignored. This is true for most couples and is especially true when one partner is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Such a time is especially, confusing for the Partner.
When problems arise, it is easy for the Partner to blame himself problems. If you are the Partner, you will probably try harder to make the relationship work; or you may begin to blame your spouse for the problems that you encounter. Since survivors tend to feel more threatened as the relationship deepens, abuse masking behaviors may intensify and make the relationship more difficult. The survivor may experience significant personality changes. You both may begin to ask: “What is happening to us?” The next step is usually for each to ask: “What’s wrong with me?”
The partner’s view
We constantly live in our own internal emotional reality. It is just like breathing. (And while we may or may not be aware of ourselves, we are always utilizing our internal reality, our beliefs and expectations, to process the events and experiences of our external world.) Partners are in a special place, as a result of the unexpected and unexplainable turmoil occurring in their relationship. If you are a Partner, you may find yourself saying some things similar to these quotes from other Partners:
“What is happening? Sometimes in the middle of lovemaking she freezes and says: “Get off, you feel like my father!”
“Why is it that every time we start to feel really happy and good with each other, she does something to sabotage the whole mood or relationship? Yet she often seems to blame me. Maybe there IS something wrong with me.”
“Who is this person that I married? She seems like a totally different person now than she did when we first got together.”
“I am feeling so rejected! I don’t need this kind of pain.”
“I sometimes don’t know what is real and what is not real. I get accused of things I never did or even thought, and yet it seems so real to her.”
“One of us must be crazy! This relationship is crazy. Why am I staying in this?”
“I must be crazy for staying in this kind of hell. Can we never get back to a peaceful loving relationship? Is it always going to be this way, full of turmoil and anxiety?”
The Partner who is, at this stage, usually unaware of the childhood abuse, has difficulty making any sense of what is happening to him. He frequently feels lonely, isolated, and rejected. It seems as if there is no one else in his world going through what he is experiencing. If the commitment to the survivor or the relationship is not very strong, he may begin counter rejection. This may take the form of denying interest in sex, having periods of anger and rage, and cutting off communication. He will often feel that his needs for companionship, love, understanding and sex are not getting met in the relationship. If this perception is acute enough, he may start reaching out to other women to meet his needs, engage in affairs, or leave the relationship entirely. Once the survivor begins to observe her partner’s behavior her self-esteem undergoes further erosion, and the relationship suffers additional damage. Her own healing process may I, or even prevented; because the one thing that has enabled the release of the survivor’s behavior, could well squelch it. And that one thing is the relationship.
The survivor’s view
In the midst of turmoil like this, survivors ask: “What is happening to me? Am I going crazy?” “Is there something wrong with me? Why am I in this incredible push-pull with my partner?”
This IS an equally confusing time for you, the survivor. You are experiencing the most unusual and bizarre feelings you have ever known. Just when you were getting what you believed you wanted (a relationship with a person who loves you, and is emotionally supportive and caring), you push it all away. Now you sometimes want to end it, to get out. Sometimes the relationship feels “all wrong.” You may have bursts of rage that seem to come out of nowhere. Perhaps you didn’t even know you could get that angry. You may experience mood swings, alternating from feeling incredibly high and happy to feeling implausibly depressed. Your personal boundaries seem threatened. You begin to feel crowded, and develop a greater desire for more personal space. You may feel like you have to compete with your partner for living space. Its “my space versus your space.” You may feel there is no room for you (in the closet, the bed, the house, etc.).
It is not uncommon for survivors to engage in compulsive behaviors. If you have been a substance abuser, you are more likely to have episodes of drinking or use of drugs. If you have used food as your “drug of choice,” you are more likely to overeat, to have episodes of binge/vomiting (bulimia) or other bulimic behaviors (laxative purging etc.), or to withhold eating (anorexia). You may find yourself suddenly becoming fat, even obese, as if to make yourself sexually unattractive. Other compulsions may center on cleanliness. You may have sudden storms of house cleaning, feel constantly dirty and have to wash your hands all the time, take multiple showers, or brush your teeth every few hours.
The couple’s dilemma
As a couple you may honestly find yourselves questioning the wisdom of your choice to come together and the wisdom of your remaining together. “Are we just not meant to be together?” “Is our chemistry bad? Maybe we should just split or get divorced.” When two people love each other deeply, they may really be confused about what they should do.
All couples go through a honeymoon phase when life seems wonderful and promising. But the honeymoon eventually ends and people move on in their life. People are continually challenged with the disillusionment that usually sets in after the honeymoon, not just survivors and their partners. Marriage or long term commitments provide the context for individuals to go “into the woods” to discover themselves. Many of you reading this book made the choice to be with each other before you knew what those woods contained, before you knew your relationship would have to deal with this kind of trauma. Some of you had some awareness of the abuse at the time you entered the relationship so your choice was not quite so blind. Either way it can be disillusioning and discouraging. Working through abuse in a relationship is no picnic. Choosing to read this book indicates that you either have some awareness now of abuse or that you suspect it. I believe that it will give you more information and understanding about the journey towards true self-discovery.
Your life lies before you. Do you choose to stay together or to go your separate ways? Do you choose to remain the way you are or do you choose to grow, to explore the very depths of your being, and allow a transformation to occur that is greater than you had ever imagined? When you honestly confront the issues and engage in the healing work to be done, your relationship can get better, perhaps better then you have envisioned.