Unfortunately, there is not tons of information for spouses, partners, or significant others of men who experienced childhood or adult sexual abuse. One of our greatest challenges arises from learning to trust relationships in a world where we often feel isolated and alone. However, relationships definitely offer opportunities to learn to build emotional trust, social and sexual intimacy as we work through and resolve the issues. Let me share from my own experience and sexual trauma survivors I have coached on some the challenges and possible ways to face or respond. This can be applied to a myriad of relationship and roles of the survivor: son, brother, father, friend, husband, relative.
No matter what all relationships require patience. However, relationships with men survivors of sexual abuse may require extra time, commitment and time from all parties involved. The challenge stands even greater when both individuals have experienced sexual abuse. Yet, relationships are areas where one can experience, delight, joy, fulfillment in life. Relationship is not about having no problems, struggles or difficulties, but creating healthy responses, investing work, time and energy to create your best portrait as you grow together.
Impact of the sexual Abuse
Everyone handles the aftermath of the sexual abuse differently, but there do seem to be some common threads. Realize that as male survivors we often will attempt to handle the issues on his own. Although various studies demonstrate that this route often prolongs reclaiming and recovering our life we often follow it. It’s not that we don’t want your help. The dilemma arises from being pulled in various different directions mentally and socially. From a societal perspective, masculine men are not victims, can solve their own problems, are not vulnerable, shouldn’t be emotional and cannot be sexually abused. You probably already see the impact this has on the relationship, collaborative working together opposed by self-sufficient isolation. That’s just the beginning.
Sudden exits or avoidance
Mad dashes to leave a place are common especially if something online, news, or movie triggers memories or even feelings that we cannot quite place the origins. Perhaps your friend is perfectly safe, but he or she resembles the perpetrator who abused us. Which presents another problem because we may not talk about it, avoid it and you have no idea.
One common reaction for sexual abused individual involves the rollercoaster set of emotions that sometimes causes others to wonder if we’re manic depressive or bipolar. One minute we’re feeling okay, the next angry, frustrated, sad or anxious. The feelings are strong. Often there is no external warning but usually they are connected to thoughts, and intrusive memories and feelings stemming from the original abuse.
Nightmares, night terrors, bad dreams
Often as survivors we can be quite disconnected or in a world of our own. We may experience waking flashbacks, nightmares, terrors to the point of reliving our past in the present. Intrusive thoughts can pop up at any time.
Fidgety, easily startled, hyper vigilant
I remember some of first days in working through the issues. Every room I walked into I would hone and size up each individual, figuring out how many seconds it would take put them down into a martial art hold or technique. I scanned and checked doors, windows, entrances and didn’t like being in crowded places. Some survivors are extremely nervous in public places. We might feel very uncomfortable around children or overly protective.
One common experience for many survivors in relationships in the challenge of being close. Relationships can be like a teeter-totter, if we can actually stay engaged. One day there is closeness and another day distance. Common ways it may present as withdrawn, uncommunicative, keeping to himself. Often this may occur early in the relationship until a high level of trust is built.
How can you help?
Realize there will be times he will want to be close as well as times where he needs space. Don’t take it personal. Try to keep him up to date on how the relationship is going. I’ll share from personal experience that sometimes we can create elaborate worlds in our minds, realities that don’t exist on how the relationship is going. You will be impacted by our behavior, but once again don’t take it personal. One caveat: although we are dealing with working thru issues, there is never a valid reason to hurt or mistreat you. Keep the communication flowing. One our defensive coping skills learned may have been to keep things to ourselves.
Realize that some survivors self-medicate the pain via various ways: alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, overwork, working out, etc. That is not a get-out-jail card. You are not expected to approve or accept these behaviors, but also realize it’s not your job to fix them. The best plan is encouraging him to seek help in dealing and coping with them. I remember coaching a survivor in relationship who used sexual promiscuity to medicate and numb the pain of dealing with the abuse. His partner set boundaries, but allowed him space and time as we worked through finding healthier ways to address.