CSA # 3 : For Partners Part A

This third post on this blog series about Childhood Sexual Abuse will cover material for partners of people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

This information I’m giving is one fraction of what is out there. I am in no way an authority on this, this is just the tip of some possibilities. This content is so complex. These are just SOME of the things that could possibly come up. My intention with these writings is to spark a dialogue and ask “what does this mean for you?” and encourage you to ask those questions of people in your life too. Anytime information is cut down to be more digestible, it is natural that I would lose some of the depth and for that I apologize. I am definitely not an expert in Childhood Sexual Abuse, I am saying “here is one piece, where will you go with this? Let’s get ourselves talking about it.” If you ever have feedback for me, I encourage you to bring it right to me. I would love to hear, write with it in mind, and I thank you for that.

This post will address questions and concerns that may be helpful for partners of those who have a history with childhood sexual abuse. This can also apply to other relationships such as friendships, family, support, and more, but a lot of this will feel close to home for people who are closely and intimately involved. This is a really big topic , so I’ll split up this post into two sub-sections (the next post will also be for partners).

The First Step
One of the first things that can be missed is for both people involved to ask themselves honestly and realistically if they want to be in a committed partnership at that time. If the relationship is long-term this may not be as relevant, but if the relationship is new, it can be helpful for both people to make sure they want to be there. Sometimes an intimate relationship may be too much to handle at that time, and it doesn’t have to be a personally wounding thing to have to pull back. Intimacy is not a one sided process, it cannot be done alone. A relationship with another means risk is involved. The other half of any relationship is a person you cannot control.

To Consider:
– can a working relationship be developed and is there an interest in a working relationship ?
– if trust is broken, it will hurt, but it will no longer devastate the survivor in the way it did when they / you were a child
– recovery is possible and building a more complete self to fall back on is part of the relationship with self and other

Ask yourself and them these questions:
– Do I respect this person ? Do they respect me ?
– How is our communication ?
– How do we work through conflicts ? Do we compromise ?
– Is there give and take ?
– Can I be honest and show my real feelings ? Can they ?
– Do we both take responsibility for the success and problems of the relationship ?
– Could I talk to them about the effects of this history and how it effects the relationship ?
– Am I able to reach my own goals in the relationship ?
– Are they supportive of the changes I’m trying to make ?
– Are they willing to help and support me ?

These can be helpful questions to reflect on to help you decide where you are and where you want to be at the current moment and if the person in front of you is a healthy choice.

When Things Change
When anything changes in relationship, the sense of balance shifts. Sometimes changes can be appreciated, but often a change upsets the “norm” and there may be a reaction to try to get things to go back to the way they were. As the survivor works on themselves, they will change. Loved ones are challenged to change along with them if they are to create a healthy and meaningful relationship that is new. This can be stressful, but if both are committed to growing, there will likely be more positive changes to welcome and tolerate as things reach a “new normal”. Below are some parts of the intimacy process to consider.

Risk Taking
Taking risks may feel new, it could have been too frightening for some survivors to take risks in relationships. True intimacy involves taking risks and not knowing the outcome (this doesn’t mean a big leap, but assessing and considering the outcomes, and choosing to take a risk anyway).

Largely important in any relationship, but even more so here. Trusting oneself and trusting another go hand in hand. In a healthy relationship, trust is varied according to what’s happening in reality between the two people. Trust is accrued over time and is earned.

This is a common part of any relationship beginning. Survivors sometimes carry this to extremes by intense amounts of testing (some more extreme testimonials discuss taunting, cheating with partners’ friends, no-showing to the first three dates). Some testing is usual, but if you feel the testing is pushing beyond this, see about fair tests such as : “I’m going to wait and see if you follow through on this one thing you promised” or “Can you stay open with me if I tell you what I’m going through?”  Reminders about “a test that is possible to pass” can sometimes be a helpful reality check.

Sometimes survivors will keep distance (physical & emotional). Sometimes creating distance is helpful in order to nurture other areas of life, and sometimes one will distance due to some sort of internal message that they have to. Ask them what the signs are of them distancing (such as their eyes lose focus, their voice drops, you get a feeling that they’re not around anymore). If there is adequate trust established, help point those moments out to them if you feel it happening.

Commitment and love can be a scary thing. Often it can be linked to abuse in the depth of psychological space. The child in them may equate care or love or family (whatever the nature of the abuse) as meaning they will be unsafe. Love can be a misused word and often there is a well of grief that is tapped once someone unpacks the meaning of “love” they were taught. It is completely natural that some abusers will feel love / bonding / care for their abusers. We must give permission for this complexity.

Help them take independent time if they seem overly dependent on closeness. Increments of alone time and assuring them you’ll be available when they get back can start to nurture other sources of nourishment for them such as pets, nature, creativity, other sources of community. If there is intense merging going on (a high level of fear of being alone or being so desperate for closeness that you lose your life in another), there needs to be some time spent on creating an individual self.

Setting Limits
This can be difficult for anyone. When someone didn’t learn about healthy boundaries as a child, they may do all the giving as an adult. Or they may feel they don’t have the right to say no. Having healthy balance and reminding them to practice setting limits can help. Both people contribute to making a relationship work, it’s not a one sided effort. Practicing with small limits can be much easier while building up to strong limit setting.

Normalizing Conflict
Sometimes conflict can be incredibly activating. Growing up in an environment where conflict led to violence or they were pushed down entirely, sometimes people feel at a loss when it comes to conflict. Withdrawing, freezing, or manipulating the situation to turn out a certain way are common responses that aren’t always helpful. Being direct and taking responsibility is a tall order when that hasn’t been role modeled or practiced for years. To keep a conflict from spiraling out of control, agreements can be made about what to do when conflict arises (such as no name-calling and sticking to the present issue and not trashing the relationship as a whole, if these agreements are broken, pausing the discussion or “stopping business as usual” can help it from escalating further).

This has been a heavy download of information!  The next post will be the continuation of this topic and I’ll cover the rest of intimacy & partnership including giving & receiving, times of crisis, the criteria for abusive relationships, and separation.  As always, I would love your feedback / questions / comments if you ever have it. Thank you for reading !

If you want to know what’s coming or what I started with, these are the topics I have / will cover in entirety with this series:

  • The effects in current time. Click here to read this post on the effects
  • Gender and sexual orientation stereotypes. Click here to read the post on gender and sexual stereotypes
  • For partners again
  • Sex
  • For kids & for families
  • How CSA can affect pregnancy, birthing, postpartum, and everything in between
  • The institutional piece (often missing from the CSA conversation)

About Alicia Patterson

Alicia Patterson is a Psychotherapist / Dance Movement Therapist, Birth Doula, Energy Worker, Dance and Yoga Facilitator in the Boulder / Denver area.
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