If your loved one or partner was sexually abused or sexually assaulted, this page details some of the relationship challenges you may be facing, and some ways of responding. Relationships where one or both parties have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault are no different.
They benefit from partners talking, sharing interests and working together to address difficulties as they arise. The impact of sexual abuse on relationships There is no prescribed way that an experience of sexual abuse will impact on a man or on his relationships.
A man will often try to find his own way to deal with the experience of sexual abuse, and will work hard to limit its impact on his life and relationships. Although hearing that a man has been sexually abused is distressing, sometimes this information can help a partner make sense of some of the behaviours they have been observing.
Men and their partners have identified a number of ways that the experience of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault has impacted on them and their relationships. Avoidance of some people, places or situations. He may leave the room when some things come on television. He may change the subject when some things are talked about. There may be certain types of people that he stays away from, or there may be parts of his past that he avoids talking about.
These are common ways that people try to keep themselves safe and try to keep distressing memories at bay. Bad dreams, being preoccupied and spacing out. Sometimes, after a traumatic experience, people can experience flashbacks to an event or series of events, to the point where they are re-living the past in the present moment. Being jumpy, easily startled and preoccupied by safety issues. He may seem overly concerned with checking doors, windows, or not visiting crowded places.
He might be uncomfortable on public transport, or be extremely nervous when you or the children are not at home. Again, this makes perfect sense in terms of his desire to keep himself and his loved ones safe, as he knows first hand what it is like to be unsafe. Having difficulty trusting people, even you at times. When somebody has been hurt by a person they are supposed to be able to trust, it can be extremely difficult to take trust for granted in later relationships.
It is common for people who have experienced sexual abuse and or assault to find that they can swing from feeling okay, to angry, to sad, or to other strong feelings. This can happen quite quickly and without much warning. However, they are usually connected to a thought or memory that has come uninvited, and that brings with it some of the distressing feelings of the original event. Sometimes people who have experienced sexual abuse and assault develop behaviours that seem to be self-defeating.
This might include problematic use of alcohol or other drugs, gambling, workaholism, over-exercising, overspending, over eating or consuming very little food, or having complex rituals around the quantity and timings of meals. Others might be more directly involved in self-harming or obsessing about the appearance of their bodies in various ways. Many of these behaviours are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves.
In fact some, like exercising and hard work, are admirable; as a society we approve of men who are active in these ways. These activities and behaviours are self soothing, calming, offer a sense of control, and have an internal logic that can take the person away from difficult thoughts and feelings.
But they can become problematic when they are used to the extent that the person is not able to incorporate or to manage other aspects of daily life in balanced ways. The behaviours listed above might have developed as a direct result of being sexually abused, or in an effort to manage the trauma. They should not be seen as evidence of a damaged person. It can be useful to talk and understand how this behaviour developed, the reason behind it and how it has become a habit.
Some behaviours that may have worked for a while or in particular circumstances can overstay their welcome. They can become unmanageable, unwelcome for the man and for you. With enough support, it is possible to develop alternative, more sustainable and more life-giving ways of coping. Read more about how solutions can become problems on the page Dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. For a long time, until I could talk about it all and find some other ways of getting by, I just tried whatever was available.
Couple relationships often involve two people muddling their way through, negotiating and sorting things out, trying to ultimately build satisfying and supportive lives. Many of the ways you have used to get through difficult times together will continue to be helpful in overcoming problems related to sexual abuse or sexual assault. You probably already have most of the tools you need. Partners and men who have been sexually abused have identified a number of themes that can appear in their relationships.
Some of these are below. Some men try to manage feeling moody, withdrawn, uncertain and uncommunicative by taking himself off and keeping himself to himself. He might do this with the idea that this will help stop things from getting worse, or that it might help keep his partner safe. What can you do? Understand that in all relationships there are times for togetherness and there are times where a little space is welcome.
It is good to regularly check in with a partner to see how they are travelling. It is also good to remind yourself that, although you are impacted by his behaviour, it is not all about you. One of the best things you can do is to keep respectful communication flowing. Remember to take time out if it gets too intense, and then to return to the topic and talk about the important stuff when you have had a breather.
You do not have to accept or approve of behaviours that are not working for you or your relationship; nor is it your job to fix them. It is worth encouraging him to access support that helps him develop more life-affirming patterns and ways of dealing with stress and distress.
This then provides an opportunity to talk and confirm there is a shared vision that you can both work towards. See our page on Men and intimacy. These feelings can make it extremely difficult to talk to each other. We know that shame — just like a mushroom — grows best in the dark. Remember, your partner has probably had a lifetime of messages about what it means to be a man. He therefore may be struggling with his own masculinity, and this will reinforce his feelings of shame.
Heaps of the things he has always done which seemed a bit strange suddenly started to make sense. When some behaviours are spoken about, and become understood in their historical context, it can provide a platform for change.
By talking about what is happening in a safe, supportive environment, individuals and couples can find solutions. Just as behaviour is learnt and becomes habit over time, alternative ways of doing things can be developed, encouraged and supported.
Like in all couple relationships, relationships work best when each partner takes responsibility for themselves, for managing and looking after themselves, and working together to support and encourage each other in building a caring respectful futures. Please see our For partners section for more information that might be useful for partners of men who have been subjected to childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault.
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