6 Ways to Help a Partner Who's Experienced Sexual Assault
Dating someone new can be nerve-wracking enough. But when that person is still hurting from past sexual assault or harassment, it can be even more difficult to take things to the next level of intimacy.
Past sexual trauma isn’t just an obstacle for brand-new couples, either: Even longtime relationships can be disrupted when survivors are reminded of a painful experience or a stressful time in their life. They could be triggered by the way they’re touched, or the way they’re talked to, for example—or even by hearing another #MeToo story in the news.
When this happens, it’s normal for a significant other to feel confused and helpless. But partners can play an important role in a survivor’s recovery, and couples can become even closer as a result. If your partner has a #MeToo story that’s affecting your future together, here’s how you can help her (or him) heal.
Don’t assume intimacy will be a challenge
If you’re reading this, your partner’s past sexual trauma may have already caused some roadblocks in your relationship. But if not, don’t jump to the conclusion that it definitely will.
“Many people, when they find out that someone has experienced a sexual assault or trauma, assume that their sexual life is ruined—that they are tainted,” says Kristen Carpenter, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of women’s behavioral health at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. “But that is not the case for everyone: People are remarkably resilient, and sometimes they can get through these horrible experiences and come out able to have healthy relationships.”
If you’re aware of an assault in your partner’s past, you may be anxious to learn the details. But it’s important to let him or her drive the conversation, and not assume you know how he or she feels or will react in certain situations.
When they tell you about it, just listen
You likely have a lot of questions about your partner’s past experience, and you may have strong feelings of anger toward the person who hurt him or her. But if your significant other opens up to you and shares his or her story, try not to get hung up on small details, advises Carpenter.
“It’s natural to want to know exactly what happened, how it happened, who did this to them … and it’s difficult not to turn on that inquisitive mind with something like this,” says Carpenter. “But very often, the details can be a difficult part to talk about, and they’re the least important to the individual’s current experience: how it affected them and how they feel about themselves now.”
Rather than digging for more information, let your partner know you’re there to listen—to whatever details he or she is comfortable revealing. And if he or she has trouble sharing anything at all, a relationship counselor may be able to help.
Help your partner get help
Victims of sexual assault or harassment sometimes don’t know where to turn, or are too embarrassed—or traumatized—to seek help themselves. A caring partner can encourage them, or even assist them, in finding the resources they need.
“Some people, especially if they’re living in a partnered relationship and sharing a home, might be reluctant to look for help,” says Carpenter. “They could even be scared to look up information on the computer, for fear that someone else might see it and find out.”
You can help by letting your partner know that he or she has nothing to be scared of or embarrassed about, or by finding mental-health resources (like RAINN) and suggesting them yourself. “If your partner has PTSD, that’s something that doesn’t go away on its own,” says Carpenter. “The good news is, we have effective, evidence-based therapies available, and people can recover if you can help them find someone who is well equipped to treat them.”
Go to therapy together
Offer to attend counseling sessions as a couple. Not only will you be able to provide comfort and moral support when he or she needs it, but chances are you’ll develop a better understanding of his or her situation, as well.
Even then, know that recovery may not happen right away. “A lot of couples come in and they want to fix things quickly, and it doesn’t work like that,” says Michelle Riba, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “Listening and understanding—and not being impatient—are the first steps to recognizing that therapy, with time, can be very healing.”
Don’t take anything personally
It’s not easy for people to understand why their partner can’t separate them from their abuser. “They think, ‘I’m not like that; I would never do that; why can’t she see that?’” says Carpenter. “It’s difficult not to take it personally when someone is having trouble with sexual experiences and sexual contact.”
But it’s not personal. “It’s very much about the patient’s individual experience and how it’s still affecting them today,” says Carpenter, “which is all the more reason to try to be patient and let the patient lead the way.” Attending couples therapy together can also help avoid hurt feelings on both sides, and help you both understand each other’s needs and concerns.
If your partner has PTSD, this may cause disruptions in other parts of life, as well. “It’s not just about sex,” says Dr. Rica. “Things like going to the gym, or having children, or going to the primary-care doctor can all be difficult for someone who’s still affected by a trauma. Partners can watch out for these issues, and may be able to recognize when something isn’t quite right.”
Let your partner take the lead in the bedroom
Before you engage in sexual activity with your partner, consider discussing ahead of time what he or she wants—and does not want—out of the experience. Then, says Dr. Rica, let him or her take the lead in terms of how far things go. “Every person is different, and not every trauma survivor wants the same kind of sex,” she says, “but the important thing is checking in with each other and making sure both parties are comfortable every step of the way.”
That means getting consent from your partner before you try anything new or different, and watching for signs of withdrawal or distress. And if your partner does feel triggered or needs to stop, ask what you can do to help. Some people may need space and time to be alone, while others may want comforting. “Letting your partner know that you’re there for them, in any way they need you, can go a long way,” says Dr. Rica.
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