As a Partner… What do I Need to Know ?
You are engaged in an intimate relationship with a partner who was a victim of sexual violence, this information pertains to you, whether you are in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship. You and your partner are not alone. One woman in three and one man in six will be sexually assaulted over the course of their lives. The more survivors talk openly about the sexual violence they experienced and the way it impacted their lives, the more their partners can understand the effects of such an experience in their relationship.
Sexual violence affected the whole emotional development of your partner and consequently, it can have an impact on your relationship in regard to certain aspects :
Trust. Sexual assault is often experienced as a betrayal, especially if the perpetrator was someone she knew, loved and with whom she was close. After such a violation, it is possible that your partner has difficulty trusting you in certain aspects of your relationship.
Power. Your partner can, on occasion, feel powerless and unable to be assertive. In contrast, she may at other times try to control everything as a way of feeling safer and have the impression of exercising power.
Body. At the time of the assault, the victim may have tried to protect herself from the pain and humiliation by becoming numb or by cutting herself off from her body to escape mentally and emotionally.
She may :
- hate the vulnerability of her body;
- feel ashamed for having felt pleasure in response to the sexual touches;
- struggle with insomnia because she was assaulted in bed or while she was asleep;
- neglect herself;
- have chronic pain;
- have a tendency to be sick;
- feel so much distress about her body to the extent of ill-treating it;
- take alcohol or drugs to escape reality or to feel better;
- eat compulsively so that her body is less attractive, thinking it will protect her against other sexual assaults;
- Underheat compulsively, thinking that by controlling what she eats or does not eat will give her back some of the control she lost with the assault.
Intimacy. Intimacy is the capacity to be in close contact with someone and to reveal our true self. For intimacy to be harmonious, the relationship must be based on respect, sincerity, reciprocity, love, openness and comprehension. These are the winning conditions to intimacy. For different reasons, many survivors find it difficult to build and maintain healthy intimate relationships.
They can consciously or not :
- have difficulty giving or receiving affection;
- have difficulty believing that people with whom they create intimacy will not take that advantage to assault them also;
- find that intimacy is invasive and suffocating;
- be terrified of being carefree with intimacy;
- cling to their loved ones or sexualize all their relationships;
- sabotage their relationships when they become too intimate, considering them too threatening;
- avoid building relationships because they are scared o having to reveal their secret;
- find it difficult to keep their individuality in a relationship.
“Remember that recovering from sexual assault is a heroic feat. She deserves your respect, confidence and admiration !”
The survivor may have learned to behave as if everything is fine, while hiding her true thoughts and feelings, even to herself. However, intimacy involves sharing our story with another person. Despite what she has learned, she can develop the necessary abilities to receive the love and share the intimacy she deserves in her life.
Sexuality. We must not confuse sexuality and intimacy. Of course, sexuality can be a part of intimacy, but these two words are not synonymous.
Sexual violence can affect the normal development of sexuality. A survivor can live with important difficulties in this specific area. Sexual assault is an imposed act of violence that can be experienced with humiliation and even with physical pain.
The revelation of your partner can interfere with your relationship, for example :
- If, during her childhood, the perpetrator expressed tenderness and appreciation during the assault or if it was the only way she had any physical or emotional contact as a child, she now can confuse sexuality and tenderness or value her personal worth through sex.
- Not having been able to say “no” to the perpetrator, she may have felt, later on, obliged to have sex with anyone that found her desirable.
- Some women told us that their body reacted with pleasure at the moment of the assault, most frequently in cases of incest. For most, that toxic shame is embedded in this fact: they were terrified but still their body was sexually aroused! For some, those were their first contacts of a sexual nature, and they were committed by experienced adults. The head would say no, but the body did not listen – the pleasure experienced was a natural physiological reaction to the stimulation it received. These women did not have any control over their bodies.
- These feelings of guilt and shame entwined with pleasure during the assault can lead them to numb themselves or to space out during intercourse.
- She can have distressing flashbacks (vivid, clear and precise memories of the assault) that prevent her from appreciating her sexuality at this time.
- The fear and secrecy surrounding the assault can contribute to her perception that sex is a terrifying experience, something to avoid or to end rapidly.
- The assault might have caused her to perceive her body as a source of pain. It can now be difficult to see it as a source of pleasure.
- She may refuse any sexual contact, or on the contrary, use sex as a means of exercising power or to win someone’s affection and not as a way to express love.
- She may not want any sexual intercourse or want it only when she can control the circumstances.
- She may want to do only certain activities, just touch the other person and not be touched herself.
- She may want sexual intercourse only if she initiates it, only if you massage each other before, or only if there is time to talk before or after.
- She may give the impression that she wants sex only when there is a new moon, it snows or when the kids are off to summer camp.
If any of these situations are part of her experience, keep in mind that with time and work, she will embrace her sexuality and the possibility of enjoying healthy sexual pleasures again.
As a supportive partner :
- You need to be a friend she can trust, be present when she wants to talk or when she wants company. You should also respect her need for solitude.
- Being the partner of a woman who was sexually assaulted can make the couple’s relationship more difficult. But if you can pull through this ordeal, you will come out of it stronger and better.
- You may start to wonder if your partner will recover or if the relationship will stabilize. When you have doubts, it is important to acknowledge them and talk about them.
- There are no guarantees about the length of time healing will take. But if you work actively together, you can be assured that things will change. The problems you are confronting now are not exactly the same as the ones you were confronted with six months ago or a year ago. You are not in a static situation. There will be transformation. If you consider this a long-term partnership, a few years of struggle are worth it.
- It is important for each of you to preserve your personal identity. In a healthy relationship, each partner needs to make sure that their needs are meet.
- For the survival of the relationship, it can be helpful to talk about other subjects, share entertaining activities, enjoy time together, have time away from each other and not stay focused on the assault.
- In difficult times, you may have a tendency to concentrate on your problems and lose sight of what is fine and strong between you. Remember where you started from and the advances you have made.
- This period of change that your partner is going through can sometimes give you the impression of being in front of a different person than the one you knew. Tell her how you feel about it, and also be receptive to how she feels through this troubling time. Do not forget that the key is communication.
In conclusion, do not see her as a victim, a sick person, a weak person or damaged goods but as a survivor going through difficult times. See all the courage, the determination, the force and the strength that she emanates.