The experience of abuse can sadly have long-reaching repercussions in life. In episode 307, I received a question from a listener who was sexually abused by their father. This past trauma has made it increasingly difficult for them to be intimate with their husband. In this post, I offer my thoughts and advice on how you can make progress and begin to improve the intimacy in your relationship when you’ve experienced abuse.
Hey Dr Duff,
Do you have any advice (or a past episode) for someone like me …
I was raised in a strictly religious town where 3 members of the church, including my father, molested me in my childhood. I’ve been married nearly 8 years and intimacy is still hard and triggering. My husband is supportive but it still sucks for us. How can I / we improve our intimacy?
Thank you so much,
Thank you for this very vulnerable question. I appreciate you trusting me with it. I’m so sorry about what happened to you. That is something that nobody should have to endure. It’s completely unfair, it’s not your fault, and I’m glad you’re alive. I know it’s hard to be patient when you want to move through something like this, but I want to reassure you that you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are not taking too long to move forward. This is the kind of stuff that humans are just not built to deal with. So, it takes hard work and time and healing, which is very inconvenient. The line of progress for recovery from sexual abuse is basically never a straight line. There will be setbacks, regression, leaps forward, and even exceptions and moments of relief.
I’m glad to hear that your husband is supportive. It sounds like you have done a good job communicating and facing this together. That’s very helpful. These things are much harder to face when you are unable to express what the problem actually is, which leaves your partner to guess as to why your behavior is the way it is. This is something that affects both of you and it becomes very complicated because you have to deal with the emotions that are related to the trauma itself and the emotions of trying to navigate sexuality with your spouse. You might have to contend with frustration because you want to be intimate as well and you might have guilt because you don’t want to “put your spouse through this.” One thing I want to remind you of is that you are not broken. You are not damaged goods. You are not putting him through anything. If he is there it’s because he loves you and wants to be there. He wants to see this resolve for you and he wants to enjoy you in the same way that you want to enjoy him, but there is way more to your relationship than sex. That said, I do have a few thoughts for you.
Expand your definition of intimacy
For yourself and between the two of you, it may be helpful to expand your definition of intimacy. Many people, especially cisgender heterosexual people, feel like the one ultimate goal and only legitimate form of sex is penetrative sex. You are absolutely allowed to want and enjoy that, but that is a very narrow way of looking at things. There are many other types of sex that are just as legitimate. There is so much to explore and enjoy together from simple sensual massage to more kinky things like bondage or impact play. Obviously, you are going to have to respect your boundaries and limitations with anything you engage in. I’m not going to make assumptions about the primary issue here. Because this could be a situation where certain types of interactions are triggering to you and give you panic or flashbacks. In other cases, it could be that physiologically, penetrative sex is painful or impossible. These are all conversations to have with each other and reflection to do on your own. Even if you aren’t into the kinkier side of things, having a safeword system might be really beneficial. I am a huge fan of keeping it simple with traffic light colors. Green is all good to keep going, yellow means slow down or lessen the intensity because you are reaching a limit or starting to get uncomfortable, red means the activity or topic needs to stop immediately. This can be used for everything from a conversation to a physical interaction. Sometimes taking things slow and making a point to explore and experiment together can be helpful because it changes the frame and takes the pressure to perform out of the equation. I’m not sure what you guys have done or explored together, but sometimes focusing so much on one particular goal makes it become more difficult just by virtue of having so much pressure. Engaging in other forms of touch and intimacy can serve as a sort of gradual exposure to get your body used to feeling safe and coregulating with your partner when things do get elevated.
Speaking of coregulation, that is something that you can practice together. Something as simple as laying together and taking deep breaths. With my partners, I tend to place a hand on their chest and either keep it there firmly while breathing or gently rub. Having a sort of safe activity that helps you physiologically come down a little bit can give you more tools to feel safer in your exploration together. I’m imaging a situation where you are trying something together and you get triggered and elevated. You say yellow because you are reaching a point where you don’t feel safe. So you guys back off and slow down. You use your coregulation exercises together and let things settle a bit. From there, you can decide if you want to keep going or switch to a different activity.
Getting help from professionals
Your trauma is real and valid and significant. It’s the sort of thing that can be way too difficult to sort through on your own. I don’t know what sort of resources you have engaged with yet, but I would highly encourage you to get additional help. Personally, if you are not working with a psychotherapist that is trauma-focused, I would highly encourage you do begin. Avoidance is the fuel of anxiety and it is the force that drives trauma deeper and deeper. It can be too complex and scary to approach on your own, so I would suggest that you work with a psychologist or therapist who knows what they are doing, so they can gradually guide you through the process of healing. You may also consider a sex therapist. This is an issue that a sex therapist would typically be very familiar with. They can provide a judgment-free place to receive support and they can provide ideas for you that may help you in moving forward toward your sexual and intimacy goals.
If you and your husband don’t speak about the issue often, I would also encourage you to do that more. To be as open and honest with one another as possible. What we don’t want is for this to be some sort of secret shame that you carry. I don’t want you both to fall into a pattern where you are trying to take care of one another by keeping things to yourself in order to not upset the other person. There are also a number of books and self-help resources that you can find. These might even be helpful resources to take in together. If you ever come across something that you think would help him understand the situation better, always feel free to send it over to him. There are also support groups, both in person and online for people that have endured similar traumas. I would be careful with places like Reddit because the communities are so varied and sometimes the advice and discourse on there is actually not very helpful.
Your work here will be from different angles. Working on the trust, safety, and pursuit of intimacy with your husband and also your own personal healing from the trauma. I encourage you to approach rather than avoid wherever you can. You may find that there is a lot you have left to process. You can do this through writing and allowing yourself to grieve the easy life where you were never abused. Get it all out on paper as often as you need to. This is processing. Remember that just because the issue hasn’t resolved yet doesn’t mean that you are stuck forever. Please pay attention to what is working and what is not working. I have seen people in relationships where they play out the same pattern for a decade and are surprised that it still isn’t working. Adjust where you need to and try not to make too many assumptions about what the “right” action is.
Lastly, I will just reiterate that professional help can really help here. A lot of people avoid sex therapy for some reason, but this sort of thing is their bread and butter. Let them help. If you are uncomfortable seeing someone around you locally, there are many people online that would see you for these issues. It’s a process. You have your head in the right place and I’m sure you’ve already made progress. I think that you will come to a place that you are happy with in time.
You can listen to this on Episode 307 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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