Vera (no last name, at her request) has learned to walk softly through the emotional minefield left behind by the man who sexually abused her husband three to four times a week for 11 years.
“He can flip back and forth so much and so quickly,” says Vera, who lives south of Seattle with her husband, Mark. “The toughest thing is to constantly remind myself that there’s something bigger here than us.”
Vera represents an often-forgotten population, the thousands of adult partners of people who experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Janice Palm, a therapist and executive director of Shepherd’s Counseling Services on Capitol Hill, recites the oft-quoted stats – one in three girls will be molested by the time they’re 18; one in five boys.
Unwanted sexual experience affects different people differently. As Palm notes, not all such experiences cause lifelong trauma. As in Mark’s case, the impacts were significant. As he and other survivors of abuse mature and move into adult relationships, they take with them all the baggage of their abuse.
Mark’s baggage led to a nervous breakdown. His first girlfriend encouraged him to divulge the abuse to his parents. They were relieved, Vera says — to learn that his girlfriend wasn’t pregnant.
Therapy followed. After Mark and Vera met at a Massachusetts radio station, she asked him out. They clicked, and have been together ever since.
In the 14 years of their relationship, Vera has learned to anticipate Mark’s needs, to appreciate his difficulty making friends, to understand his go-it-alone approach to addressing the scars of his abuse.
Counselors says abuse survivors often exhibit symptoms such as confusion about gender preferences, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, career problems, inability to achieve physical or emotional intimacy, shame about sexuality.
“Intimacy has been an issue throughout, in terms of who initiates it, and the timing of it,” Vera says. “Is one of us coming on too strong, or not enough? A lot of our arguments revolve around trying to figure out where the other is coming from. I’m more open. He can be more guarded.”
Palm says childhood sexual abuse creates a “ripple effect” for partners. They feel confusion, a strong desire to help and be the “good” person, frustration over rejection of those efforts, and what Palm calls “compassion fatigue.”
Doug Holwerda, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, worked with a partners support group for three years.
“When anyone is struggling for a sense of self and self-worth, with identity issues, with depression, with problems of intimacy and trust, it can’t help but affect their partner,” Holwerda says.
Shannon (no last name, at her request) , who lives in Damascus, Md., has struggled in her two-year live-in relationship with her boyfriend. She survived seven years of abuse by her older sister. The impacts of that abuse carried unconsciously into her sex life. After sex, she would often curl into a fetal position and begin crying uncontrollably.
“One time I addressed him during sex as my sister,” Shannon says. “My boyfriend didn’t understand what had happened to me. He thought it was him, that he had said something wrong.”
He eventually suggested they refrain from sex, to protect her from the painful past – and to protect himself from her land mines.
“I struggle with his acceptance and love of me,” she says, “because that’s what I was told when I was being abused – that I was loved. The next day, I had to earn my sister’s love by performing sexual acts.”
For abuse victims, adult relationships often begin as they do for people without abuse in their backgrounds. Attraction, intimacy, trust. As the relationship evolves, however, the abuse survivor often starts to withdraw – physically and emotionally.
“Things tend to spin out,” Holwerda says. “The tension builds, the mistrust builds.”
Sexual abuse, Palm says, is at heart a violation of trust.
“Being in an intimate emotional relationship requires vulnerability,” she says. “For the abuse survivor, it’s scary to be vulnerable: What I experienced is hurtful, scary, so part of the brain says, ‘Don’t go there; you’re going to hurt’.”
Vera says her husband’s anger at the adults who failed to protect him from his abuser led to bouts of road rage, outbursts of throwing objects around, slamming doors. She eventually insisted that he return to counseling if they ever were to adopt children.
Intimacy has been a challenge for Jim J. (no last name, at his request), a south Puget Sound resident, and his partner of 20 years. Abused by his aunt when he was five, and later drawn into a sexual relationship with a substitute high school teacher, Jim says he had trouble forming long-term relationships. He didn’t trust women, feared being hurt again.
He describes his current relationship as more “brother-sister.” He says they haven’t been sexual for years. “It’s hard to be intimate with someone physically if you’ve been intimate with them emotionally and you’ve drawn back from it,” Jim says.
For partners of abuse survivors, it’s “crazy-making,” says Karen MacQuivey, a licensed independent clinical social worker and adjunct professor at Antioch University-Seattle.
“The paradox for the survivor is that the relationship with the partner is both the source of pain and the source of healing,” she says.
She says partners of abuse survivors ride a parallel roller coaster. Survivors have impaired trust. So do partners. Survivors have anger at the abuser. So do partners. Survivors need safety and security. Partners try to provide it, but can end up feeling resentful and angry for what they give up to meet the survivor’s needs.
Sexual abuse dooms many relationships, Holwerda says. Either they blow up in short order, or couples seek counseling but can’t commit the time it takes to unwind the scar tissue.
“The vast majority of these cases aren’t successful,” he says. “The protective layers make it difficult for a person to find true intimacy.”
Seven years into her unmarried relationship with Mark, Very says both had their doubts about long-term success. “But we didn’t see ourselves without each other,” she says. So, they got married.
With time, she learned better how to handle her husband’s mood swings. Counseling has turned him more introspective, quieter, sadder. “I give him a lot of room to process,” she says. “I don’t ask about his sessions.”
Despite the odds, Vera thinks she and Mark will make their marriage last. “We got married when we least liked each other, and we’ve been happier since,” she says. “He has made a huge effort to go back to therapy, and that says a lot.”
Future plans dominate talk these days. Hope survives. And in the summer of early fall of 2008, they will add a child from China to their family.
If you are the partner of someone sexually abused as a child, what can you do to help them, and help your adult relationship? Here’s some basic advice, from counselors Janice Palm, Doug Holwerda, Karen McQuivey, and Megan Crouse.
– Seek couples counseling. “At any point, someone can address what’s going on,” says Crouse, a social worker at the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. “if you want to be in a long-term relationship, and you have abuse in your background, I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t benefit greatly from couple-oriented work.”
– Support the survivor in their feelings, but don’t let them wallow in feelings of negativity, low self-image and victimization. Tell them ‘You’re better than that,” then get about your own business.
– Partners should learn to set boundaries to protect their own needs. the natural inclination to selflessness and accommodation of the survivor often boomerangs into anger and resentment on the part of the partner. Boundaries force the couple to confront – and not perpetuate – issues arising from past abuse.
– Partners need to strengthen themselves before they can help the survivor. Individual counseling or participation in a support group can help them understand the impacts of sexual abuse, and learn how best to support the survivor.
– Model positive behaviors for the survivor. Withhold judgment, and speak in “I” terms (i.,e. “I’m feeling like my affection isn’t appreciated.”)
– Learn how to negotiate your needs and wants in a calm, objective fashion. Try to listen to the survivor and understand how the abuse has caused a certain behavior or emotion.
– Embrace flexibility, and commit to learning the skills to effective problem-solving. Time – often years – can achieve the desired healing.
• King County Sexual Assault Resource Center: 1-888-99-VOICE (86423)
• Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, Harborview Medical Center: 206-744-1600
• Shepherd’s Counseling Services: 206-323-7131
“The Sexual Healing Journey,” Wendy Maltz
“Healing the Incest Wound,” Christine Courtois
“Victims No Longer,” Mike Lew
“The Courage to Heal,” Ellen Bass
“The Tricky Part,” Martin Moran
“Allies in Healing,” Laura Davis