As a psychologist, I work a lot with adult survivors of child sexual abuse — a difficult but vital topic to discuss. Sexual abuse occurs in every community, including the religious community. Survivors of sexual abuse may experience significant difficulties in the intimate parts of their marriages. They may have anxiety, aversion to touch, flashbacks to the abuse, and experience sexual dysfunction. They may view sex as an obligation, something that is hurtful, that is done to control and use them.
Madrichot Kallah and madrichei Chatanim [premarital counselors for brides and grooms] are in a special position of preparing people for marriage. I’d like to give some advice for those in the field, to be able to help individuals who have suffered abuse.
Practically, you might notice that certain singles express extra nervousness about physical intimacy that goes beyond what is normal. Perhaps it makes them anxious or even afraid to think about being sexual. A bride who is a survivor of sexual abuse may have especial difficulty imagining performing bedikot or standing in front of someone at the mikveh.
If you sense discomfort during your classes when these topics are raised, it is an opportunity to ask if they ever experienced any form of sexual abuse. You can raise the issue of sexual abuse in the class in a general way, allowing the chatan or kallah to know that abuse is never the fault of the victim, and that it is important for victims of sexual abuse to seek treatment in order to have a healthy intimate life with their future spouses. If you feel comfortable doing so, or sense that it is necessary, you should address it directly,explaining that you are not prying or engaging in rechilut (gossip), but want to make sure that they are truly prepared to engage in a life of healthy and supportive intimacy. Assure them there’s no need to be embarrassed and that you’re asking because unfortunately it happens quite a lot. It is good practice to include along with your handouts a list of resources that include therapists who deal with sexual abuse who can help survivors attain the sexually healthy life they deserve.
Without therapy, the survivor may not be able to consummate the marriage, let alone be part of a healthy intimate relationship. These are the couples who will turn to a Rav or sex therapist in crisis a few monthsafter their wedding. There may be anger and hurt feelings, especially if neither one understands what is the matter.
In therapy, they can learn about healthy sexuality. I tell my clients, for example, that emotionally they are virgins, because what they experienced was abuse. In a loving relationship, sex can be wonderful; it is supportive, is mutual, and feels good to both. With a trained psychologist, someone who has experienced abuse has the opportunity to process their trauma so that it doesn’t haunt them and affect their present lives. They can learn tools of how to calm themselves when afraid, how to be present in their relationship instead of jumping to the past. They can overcome their aversions to touch, and learn to be open to warm, positive, loving touch.
This process is not easy for the survivor, but it is especially important for building a healthy marriage. When done in conjunction with the partner, therapy can help with communication which will strengthen the feeling that they’re a team going through this together. They will be encouraged to spend time together, and express their caring and love in non-sexual ways as well, while slowly building up their physical connection. Optimism, positive feedback, patience and support all help them feel closer to each other. Ultimately, this challenge can actually draw the couple into a deeper relationship.
By catching the problem before the survivor is married, and encouraging them to go to therapy, you are enabling them to heal and live a full, healthy life.
Talya Roth is a psychologist with a private practice in Jerusalem. She specializes in working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. She is a regular lecturer to therapists on the subject at Tahel and Nefesh conferences. She works in English or Hebrew and can be reached at 050-793-9719 or email@example.com.