Intimacy After Abuse: My Childhood Abuse Hurt My Husband, Too.
When you're a survivor of sexual abuse, navigating sex and intimacy can be awfully tricky territory. There are unexpected pitfalls and triggers seemingly everywhere. Something you think will be okay turns out to really not be. Something that felt safe for years suddenly feels unsafe. The footing never feels very sure.
Intimacy complicates everything. Even for healthy couples where neither partner has abuse in their past, intimacy is complicated. Throw in a past of sexual trauma and abusive relationships and the result is a monumental mess.
One aspect of intimacy after abuse that I'd like to give a voice to in this post is the idea that abuse doesn't just hurt the victim, it hurts everyone the victim will ever be close to. My abuse didn't just hurt me, it hurt my husband, too. The wounds I came away from the abuse with permanently changed me, and when my husband met me and fell in love with me, he knew he'd fallen for a fractured woman. When he asked me to marry him, he knew he was choosing to spend the rest of his life with a fractured woman, and though I'm convinced he had no idea what he was getting himself into, he maintains that he knew it would be wonderful and he also knew it would hurt.
It has been wonderful. And it has hurt, too. I'm sure my husband could write his own series of posts about this very thing (maybe a guest-post is in order?) but I'm writing this one, and I thought it might be helpful for me to make a list of some of the intimacy-related ways my past of abuse has effected my partner, and then talk briefly about how we've combatted them. My hope is that this will hold some connection or hope for other survivors of abuse or the people who love them, or at the very least, will just offer a little more understanding.
1.) My husband finds himself accidentally re-creating my abuse. Gosh. Could it be any worse? Nope, not really. On occasion, during intimacy, something will happen that reminds me of some aspect of the sexual abuse I experienced. Or to put it more bluntly, my husband will do something that reminds me of something my abuser once did to me (please note, my husband is very kind and respectful to me, there are just some things within sex that unavoidably remind me of my abuse.) My husband won't have done it on purpose, obviously, but it can spark a lot of heartache and when we're doing a good job of communicating about sex, it instigates a necessary but awful conversation that leaves my husband feeling like a dirtbag. Ultimately, talking about it is always better than not talking about it, because it means we can potentially avoid the triggering situation in the future, but convincing my husband he's not like my abuser even though he did something that reminds me of my abuser never gets any easier - AWKWARD. Still, the more communication the better.
2.) My occasional utter disdain for sex leaves my husband feeling rejected and undesired. Sometimes our sex life is healthy and robust and other times, not so much. Like anything, it seems to have seasons, and during times of greater emotional difficulty for me, I tend to avoid sex. I talked here about how much I loathe sexual tension, and that plays into this, too. My husband is a human being with normal needs - namely, he wants to be valued, loved, and heard. He also wants to be desired, and I know that being married to an abuse survivor can put a real damper on him feeling that way. Sexuality is still a fairly muddled area of healing for me; we're still actively working through so much of this stuff, but one thing that has helped us in this particular area is, you guessed it, communication. I make a point of communicating to my husband that when I don't want sex it's not because I don't think he's sexy or desirable, it's because sometimes I just really don't want sex. I don't want to deal with everything it still brings along with it, and that has nothing to do with my husband. There is something comforting in acknowledging that the difficulty here is not the fault of either of us. I love my husband, I'm attracted to him and I do desire him, even if I don't necessarily want to have sex with him. I'm learning what it means to help my husband feel accepted and desired, even during times I'm not comfortable having sex.
3.) My husband's needs take the backseat. There's no way to sugar coat this one. Also, I was having a hard time articulating it, so I asked my husband to explain what it means to him. Here's what he said, "Because of what you went through, my priority can never be my own needs and desires. It has to be about you and whether or not you're okay. Something that, in my mind, is beautiful and connective might be really terrible and triggering for you. It might never be okay, and that has to be alright with me. I have to find peace with that. It's hard. Sometimes it's really difficult for me to understand how this thing [intimacy] that is supposed to be profound and beautiful between two people can be something horrible for you." It's been helpful to work on finding things within intimacy that don't bring up any bad memories for me or discovering new ways to sexually connect that are solely ours. We talk about it as often as possible.
Cultivating a healthy sex life after my past of abuse has not proven to be simple or easy. It's a work in progress. It takes a lot of patience. It takes being mindful of each other. It takes choosing not to constantly find things to feel bad about but instead to take the heap of past we've both brought to the table and find something workable within it. Nobody really talks about this stuff, not candidly anyway, so it's been hard to find resources for healing. That's part of why I'm writing this series on intimacy after abuse - because I know we are so far from being the only couple navigating these waters, and we're really not meant to do anything alone in this life. Staying connected and communicative, even about difficult topics like this one, paves a path toward more healing and wholeness for all of us, and that can only be a good thing.
I look forward to continuing this series on intimacy after abuse. There's so much more to say about it. If you have suggestions for discussion, experiences you'd like to share with me, or thoughts on the matter in general, I would truly love to hear from you. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org