Info for partners (Relationship challenges)
At Living Well, we recognize that there is not a lot of information and support out there for partners of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, particularly in relation to the impact on couple relationship. Whilst relationships can be a place where difficulties, including difficulties with trust, intimacy and sex can appear, they are also somewhere, where these difficulties can be worked through and resolved. This page, details some of the challenges partners of men who have been sexually victimised report facing and some ways of responding.
All relationships require work
Before discussing some of the ways sexual abuse can impact on men and partner relationships, it is important to acknowledge that all couple relationships require time, effort and commitment from both parties to be successful. All relationships can be a place of intense joy and pleasure and at times can produce considerable heart ache and distress. 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. A healthy relationship is therefore not about there not being difficulties, it is about having the skills, time and energy to work things out and grow together.
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. Everyone is different. Men will often try to find his own way to deal with the experience of sexual abuse and 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 witnessing and provide a starting place for positive change.
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. At times he may seem to be in “another world’ and appear to be disconnected or vague. 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. Memories of sexual assault for some men can “pop in” uninvited at any time of the day or night even while asleep in the form of nightmares and this can be very exhausting. (See Dealing with flashbacks and Dealing with nightmares).
- Being jumpy, easily startled and preoccupied by safety issues. He may seem overly concerned with checking doors, windows, visiting crowded places, uncomfortable on public transport and 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. Or alternatively he may trust you, but nobody else.
- Mood swings. It is common for people who have experienced sexual abuse and or assault to find that they can swing from feeling ok to angry to sad or to other strong feelings quite quickly and without much warning. These strong feelings might not make much sense on the outside as there can appear to be no external cause for them. 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.
- Behaviours that don’t make sense. Sometimes people who have experienced sexual abuse and assault develop behaviours that seem to be self-defeating such as problematic use of drugs and or alcohol, 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 their bodies’ appearance 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 and 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 reasonably 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 and become unmanageable, becoming unwelcome for your partner, for the relationship or you. With enough support, it is possible to develop alternative, more sustainable and more life-giving ways of coping.
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. Some of those things took the edge off things for awhile and that’s probably why I kept doing them”
Negotiating difficulties and improving the relationship.
It is really important to avoid seeing EVERYTHING that happens in a relationship through the prism of sexual assault. Relationships don’t come with a rule book. Couple relationships often involve two people muddling their way through, negotiating and sorting things out, 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:
- Closeness / Distance. You might experience a see-sawing in your relationship, with your partner at times seeking out re-assurance and assistance and sometimes distancing himself, wanting to work it out on his own. Some men try to manage feeling moody, withdrawn, uncertain and uncommunicative, by taking himself off and keeping himself to himself with the idea that this will help stop things from getting worse or help keep his partner safe.
What can you do? Understanding 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 and keep them up to date as to how the relationship is going for you and them, without increasing pressure to have stuff resolved right now. 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 the 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
- Unhelpful behaviours. Some of the ways he has learned to cope, or to keep the thoughts and memories of the abuse at a distance may be “playing themselves out” in your relationship with him, for example, self-soothing by use of alcohol, overwork, excessive interest in sex or pornography.
What Can You Do? 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. Also, to make sure that you are properly supported and informed about ways of looking after yourself and dealing with the impact of sexual abuse. Sometimes, it is only when things aren’t playing out the way that you hoped for that you identify what you most value and appreciate about relationships and what you want from a partner. 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).
I always thought that if he loved me enough he would stop doing those things – now I can see that it was his way of switching off and although I still don’t like it and want him to change, at least I can see it for what it is”
- Shame. A partner’s, and possibly even your own sense of shame around what happened, its effects and the fear of other people’s reactions may make it extremely difficult to talk to each other.
What Can You Do? We know that shame – just like mushrooms – grows best in the dark. Remember, your partner has probably had a lifetime of messages about what it means to be a man, and that includes being tough and bullet-proof and he may be struggling with his own masculinity and this will reinforce his feelings of shame. Men’s sense of shame is often made worse by society’s negativity towards male on male sexual relations (to the extent that the focus is more on the fact that it was male on male sexual contact than that the contact was abusive). It is useful therefore to access quality information, to not deny or ignore a man’s sense of shame or your own struggles, but to talk it through and firmly place the sense of shame back with the person who committed the sexual abuse or assault (See Kevin’s Letter). Sometimes, rather than working overtime on this sense of shame and trying to evaluate whether you or your partner needs to feel ashamed for either the abuse or some actions you have taken since then, It can be useful to check in with yourself "How is holding on to this sense of shame working for me, for my life and for my relationship? And if it is not providing some demonstrable benefit to make a decision to try putting it down for a while.
Heaps of the things he has always done which seemed a bit strange suddenly started to make sense. I also realised that it wasn’t down to me to change it all – in fact, it isn’t all bad. He’s always wanted to be around me and the kids a lot in everything we do and that’s actually really nice – some of my friends wish their husbands could get a bit more involved.”
- Understand the way trauma can “act itself out” in a relationship. Many of the ways that people react to traumatic events such as avoidance, not trusting some people or situations, fear for the safety of loved ones and being their own harshest judge, can act themselves out in a partnering relationship. As a result of childhood trauma, some men can become extremely protective of partners and children, to the point where his behaviour can feel ‘over protective’, even controlling.
What Can You Do? Knowing that these behaviours have an internal logic and might be a response to trauma can both gain perspective and provide a picture of what might help in making things better. 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 overtime, 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.
Note: 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.