Women who have been sexually abused or raped often have difficulties in their closest and most intimate relationships. The statistics for sexual assaults in the US is shocking! One in five women will be raped at some point in their lifetime. And one in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. And in fact, many cases of rape and sexual abuse are perpetrated by someone they know and sometimes even their intimate partners. It can be confusing for partners to know how to help. Men and women often have many questions and wonder how they can help their girlfriend or wife? Partners can play a crucial role in the healing processes. Here are 5 tips for how partners can help support their girlfriend or wives who have experienced sexual trauma.
1. Sex can be tricky
Sexual relationships can be tricky for women who have been sexually assaulted. They may struggle with intrusive thoughts of the abuse, have flashbacks when being intimate and feel disconnected from their bodies. They may also have reduced desire, arousal and struggle with orgasm. They might also experience chronic pelvic pain or dissociate “disconnect” from themselves and their bodies during sex. Some partners may feel hurt or rejected when their girlfriend struggles with intimacy and may even think, “She’s using this as an excuse because she doesn’t want to have sex with me.” It is important for partners to know that their girlfriends are trying their best and often struggle everyday with the effects of the abuse on their lives. They do want happy, healthy sexual relationships. Women will experience a variety of different symptoms as a result of the abuse. For instance some may struggle with sexual desire and may even be repulsed by sex where others are hypersexual. Partners should communicate, take their time, go slow and always get consent before engaging in sex.
2. Be patient
Being patient and loving towards your partner can help her to build trust with you. Sometimes she might “test you” or “push you away” to see if you really love her and if she can trust you. Don’t give up on her! Know that this is just a survival response and be consistent with her. Do things to tell your girlfriend that you love her. Many women who have been sexually abused don’t feel good about themselves. Sometimes they are even too ashamed to tell you the whole story of abuse. So you might not even know a fraction of what has happened to her and what she has had to endure. So tell her you love her often. Show her your love by doing nice things for her. She will learn over time that you can be trusted.
3. Educate yourself
Do yourself a favor and read, read, read about what it is like to be a survivor of sexual abuse. This will help you in the long run. There is a lot of good articles online and books that you can read. This will help you to better understand her, to know that you are not alone in your feelings and to take her behaviors less personally. You might even learn that women who have experienced sexual trauma often struggle to trust their partners and have a need to be in control. This can be confusing for partners. The more you know the more that you can realize that your partner is just reacting to her trauma, that it takes time and that it is a normal response and you are not to blame.
4. Have fun
Couples need to enjoy themselves. It cannot be all work and no play. Find the time to laugh, do activities together, get out of the house, travel, explore, create and try new things. Sometimes traumatized partners may be slow to explore or try new things, fearful to go to new places or anxious to be around a lot of people. Be creative and communicate ideas to your partner. Enjoy the spontaneous moments when you and your girlfriend can just laugh and have fun! Don’t lose sight of the good times when things get tough.
5. Be kind to yourself
It is not uncommon for people who have been sexually abused to “act out” trauma in their relationship. This trauma re-enactment can be confusing to a partner when one minute their girlfriend is happy and everything is going good and the next minute they have pulled away, distanced themselves or have become enraged or fearful. A partner may think, “I don’t get it” or “What happened to her has nothing to do with me and our life together.” It is helpful for partners to know that it is not their fault. Often a trigger occurred causing the girlfriend to be reactive from a place of hurt and from the past. And to make it even more complex, in some relationships both partners have a history of sexual abuse. This means that both partners need to take extra care in working on their own trauma as well as self compassion to themselves and their partners.
Trauma recovery is important. It is important for women to receive skillful help in the recovery from sexual trauma. Partners can encourage their girlfriends to seek therapy. EMDR therapy is a front line approach and the gold standard in PTSD treatment and in helping people to process the disturbing events of abuse that have happened to them. Healthy and safe relationships are critical in the healing process. Often partners benefit by participating in couples therapy. EFT therapy (Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples), is highly effective for people who have experienced sexual abuse. Partners may also benefit by receiving their own individual therapy for support.
In conclusion, women who have experienced sexual trauma bring many wonderful strengths to a relationship including; passion, compassion and a deep awareness and understanding about life. In a safe relationship these women can heal from the past and experience good sex, a place to connect, learn to love themselves, express their feelings, love their partner, and have fun.
Lemecia & VWS Team