There are similarities and differences in the way women and men experience and live in the world. These similarities and differences, some physical, some cultural, influence how people experience sexual victimisation, what the impacts are and how men and women might respond and interact in relationships. In naming some points of struggle and conflict that female partners have identified in relationships with men who have been sexually abused, we acknowledge that male partners of men who have been sexually abused can experience similar challenges. We understand that every man, every woman and every relationship is unique. We have chosen to briefly discuss here some of the struggles women have articulated, including dealing with intimate partner violence, as it exists in relationships where partners have been sexually abused in childhood, just as it exists in relationships where partners have not been sexually abused.
My partner was sexually abused
What does this mean and where to from here?
The Information for Partners (Disclosure) page details the mixture of reactions many women can experience on hearing that their partner has been sexually abused and the Info for Partners (Relationships Challenges) discusses some of the particular difficulties partners are confronted by. It is usually some time after the initial disclosure that partners start to consider:
- What does this mean for me and for our relationship?
- What should I do?
- What should I expect?
- What should I accept or not accept from him and our relationship?
Learning that your partner has experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault might seem to explain difficulties in your relationship, or some of your partner's behaviour that you have never quite understood. Whilst being confronted by the impact of sexual abuse can be a catalyst for change, there is no precise road map in relation to where to from here.
What women have noticed
Listed below are some of the patterns and difficult decisions women partners have identified in seeking to help their partner and develop mutually supportive relationships.
Women can be much more proactive about seeking information and professional support than men. You may want to act quickly, while your partner might have a totally different time frame or way of doing things, especially after years of isolation or avoidance of talking about 'it'. His apparent reluctance to access service can be a source of frustration. It is useful to remind yourself that many men find it easier to start to approach past trauma and personal difficulties alone (not forgetting men are brought up to be self reliant problem solvers). However, much you want things to improve, a 'quick fix' is unlikely. Looking up information on the web or calling to speak to a sexual assault hotline or counselling service for basic information and referral advice, can be helpful and reassuring. It can help to have relevant information and referrals options at hand, for when he is ready. Sometimes there is a short window period when men will be looking to access support.
Different from many women, some men only speak up about abuse or assault when things are falling apart in their lives, when they realise that they are losing the people, work or activities that they value and care about most. At times like these, it is useful for female partners to take time to consider carefully how best to respond. In doing so, it is important to prioritise your own well-being and to maintain sight of what you are looking for from life and relationships. As a partner, a woman can show care and concern without becoming responsible for working things out for a man (you do not need to 'rescue' him).
Knowledge that a partner has been sexually abused can encourage women to stick in there and work on improving the relationship together. However, in some relationships, difficulties or differences can become so great and tension so high that sometimes it can be better to separate and take a break, if only for a short while.
Witnessing the pain and distress that sexual abuse can cause can be quite overwhelming. In seeking to be with a partner, it is important to ensure that you are properly supported and to recognise that not all problems that men and women struggle with in the present will be related to sexual abuse. In fact, in seeking to sort stuff out, it is useful to recognise options to change and do things differently now and into the future.
Relationships work best where partners are clear about what they expect, where people are taking responsibility for themselves and problems are getting worked out in safe respectable manner. Obtaining professional help at times of high conflict and distress is recommended.
If there is significant conflict, controlling behaviour, abuse or violence
Conflict, disagreements and difficult arguments are part of almost all relationships. This can include expressing strong feelings and having heated arguments. In relationships built on a solid foundation of trust, equality, mutual respect and safety, these can be worked through in a way that leaves both parties feeling heard, respected and validated. It may involve compromises on each person's part, but there is a general sense that things are worked through safely and fairly.
However, where one partner is pushing to always get their way, or can't tolerate compromise, or uses threats of violence or emotional manipulation, this can indicate an unhealthy pattern of power and control.
In naming the problem of intimate partner abuse, we are not suggesting that men who have been sexually abused are any more likely than men in general to act in abusive ways or that men do not also experience abuse in relationships. However, given that a significant number of women in the general population do experience abuse from their male partners, the unfortunate reality is that this problem exists in some relationships where the man is dealing with experiences of child sexual abuse. Where it can be particularly difficult for partners and men, is when current abusive behaviour becomes understood as a consequence of the man's history. As a result, partners can feel pressure to continue to 'be there' for him, or worry about betraying him or letting him down.
While an increased understanding of difficulties – for example in the way a partner communicates or reacts to certain situations – can be helpful, this does not mean that anyone should put up with behaviour that they find unacceptable or distressing.
For women and men who are in a relationship with a man who has experienced sexual abuse, we want to be clear that there is no obligation to tolerate abusive, demeaning or controlling behaviour in the name of 'supporting' him. You are entitled to look after your own safety and well-being. Your safety (and that of your children, if you have children) comes first. Sometimes, the trigger for men stopping and addressing controlling or abusive patterns of behaviour and building healthy relationships, is when a partner of friend indicates that current behaviour is unacceptable or that they do not feel safe.
Being comfortable with sexual intimacy
As discussed in the Partners: Sexual Intimacy page, sexual relationships can produce some particular challenges for men who have experienced sexual abuse and their partners. However, there is a difference between negotiating and developing a mutually enjoyable, exciting sexual relationship and feeling pressure to engage in sexual activities that involves doing things that you aren't comfortable with. There may be some aspects of a sexual relationship that you find uncomfortable or unacceptable, such as your partner's use of sexual aids, dressing up or role playing, his requests for some activities or positions or perhaps he has sexual contacts outside your relationship that concern you. Being clear about your expectation, interests and desires and letting him know how you feel is important for building a healthy sexual relationship.
Pornography use can be a particularly difficult issue. While the use of pornography seems to have become more widespread and in some ways accepted, a lot of commercial heterosexual ('straight') and gay-oriented pornography can depict very degrading and objectifying acts, for women and men. Knowing that your partner is watching such material, or asking you to watch it with him or to replicate the sexual activities is not something that you should be expected to tolerate if it does not fit with the kind of relationship you want.
Note: If there is constant conflict, isolating or controlling behaviour, verbal abuse or violence it is important to obtain support. Respectful, mutually supportive relationships are built on the foundation of safety and trust.
In naming the problem of intimate partner violence, we are aware that many men who have been sexually abused are at the forefront of work to make our communities free from abuse and violence, Also, that some men who have been sexually abused in childhood are the subject of intimate partner violence and find it difficult to leave these relationships.
Support and contacts
We encourage anyone who is worried about their own behaviour or confronted by coercive or abusive behaviour from a partner or anyone else to reach out and talk with an experienced counsellor or someone supportive.
Listed here are website and telephone numbers that might be useful to check in with.
- 1800 RESPECT: Call 1800 RESPECT or go to http://www.1800respect.org.au
- Mensline: Call 1300 78 99 78 or http://www.mensline.org.au
- The Line: http://www.theline.org.au/
- DVConnect Womensline 1800 811 811 or http://www.dvconnect.org
- DVConnect Mensline 1800 600 636 or http://www.dvconnect.org/mensline/