“Will I ever succeed in truly loving someone and giving my trust to someone?”

“Will I ever build a stable, true and honest relationship?”

“Will someone ever be able to take on all the heavy baggage I am bringing into the relationship?”

Women who have experienced sexual abuse during their lifetime might ask themselves these difficult questions. What could be the influence of sexual abuse on a romantic relationship?

There are many responses and reactions in the relationships of women who have experienced sexual abuse. There are those in whom the sexual abuse is repressed in a way that they are not consciously aware of, but when they start meeting people romantically they find themselves recoiling and rejecting the idea of being close to the other sex. Sometimes feelings of anxiety arise and these women will ask themselves, “What’s going on with me? What’s wrong with me?” Sometimes these feelings and issues will arise when they are already in a relationship, when deciding whether to marry their partner, and these emotions can also come up later on.

Most people who hear the two words ‘sexual assault’ imagine a woman walking down the street and someone pouncing from a nearby alley and raping her. Of course there are God forbid situations like this, however 85% of sexual assault cases are perpetrated by someone with whom the victim has a relationship, personal or otherwise. We therefore can understand that sexual abuse causes damage to relationships. It damages the ability to trust other people or one’s self, and the ability to be in a relationship without getting hurt or hurting someone else. In many cases the abuse is carried out by a close relative: a parent, brother, uncle, cousin, or someone who is more distant, like a family friend, a brother’s friend etc. In these cases a deep fracture is formed in being able to form a healthy and undamaged intimate relationship. 

Will an intimate relationship always be a trigger and bring up traumatic memories and symptoms? The answer is not necessarily, however, as there are areas and subjects that exist only within a relationship, it is important to be aware that there can be triggers for the trauma.

 Memory can be divided into 2 types, regular and traumatic. One is long-term memory that is coded in the part of our brain called the hippocampus and the other is subconscious, in a different part called the  amygdala. Traumatic memory is disorganized in our subconscious brain. Our subconscious memory is not available to us in an organized way, and therefore can ‘burst through’ in a piercing manner and be felt by the individual as if they are experiencing the traumatic events. The purpose of therapy  is to process the trauma by coding it in the hippocampus in a way that is accessible and organized. Trauma treatment works by memory processing, but parts of the traumatic experience can still exist and be unprocessed, so that even after treatment, can rise to the surface. Specifically, this can take place during an intimate relationship.

This is relevant for those who have experienced sexual abuse themselves and have had the privilege of going through treatment to process the trauma. There are also women who experienced sexual abuse, but repress the experience, and still others who know about the abuse, and for a variety of reasons have not been in treatment, which usually points towards an environment that is not supportive. These cases are much more difficult as the painful memories are loaded with emotions such as anger, pain, helplessness, shame and guilt, that are contained in an “internal pressurized capsule”. A trigger of any kind can cause an explosion that would affect the survivor, the partner and their relationship. 

What triggers can appear specifically in a romantic relationship?

  1. Triggers that have to do with normal crises in a relationship

Every relationship has hardships that have to do with financial, health, or other issues. When one of the partners in a relationship is carrying a trauma of any kind, the new difficulties grow on top of the already existing trauma and this creates an unstable base for the difficulties of the relationship. A normal crisis in a relationship could be experienced as trauma by that person.

  1. Triggers that come from the emotional closeness of a romantic relationship 

Because trauma caused a deep break in trust of the world and of close relationships, an issue that could develop specifically in a romantic relationship is the formation of an attacker-victim relationship. This could be minor, or more significant when the survivor cannot maintain a relationship, except for this type. In cases where the survivor is experiencing a severe case of disassociation, it is difficult to maintain any stable and long-term relationship. 

  1. Triggers that come up from sexuality and intimacy within the relationship

Sexual abuse can cause distortion in the way one views sexuality and intimacy in a relationship. Sexuality can be related to power and pain and used as a means for favors. Therefore, for example, young girls who have experienced sexual abuse many times are very outwardly sexual and this can also lead these young girls as far as prostitution. On the other hand, other responses include abstinence, rejection or inability of women to get into intimate and sexual situations, which include not going to the mikveh and not being intimate with their spouse.

The experience of sexuality within a relationship can be a major trigger and bring forth emotional pain as well as symptoms of reliving the trauma. An additional symptom related to this is the appearance of extreme arousal. Survivors dealing with this can experience a lack of satisfaction and pleasure from their sexual encounters, which can damage and create distance within the relationship. It is important to note that the other partner is a secondary victim of the abuse, with emotions such as vulnerability, confusion, guilt, pain and hopelessness.

In summary, sexual abuse can have a huge influence on romantic relationships and it is important to be aware. The good news is that there are ways to deal with these influences with individual or couples therapy and it is recommended to do so through emotional or sexual therapy. The purpose of the treatment is to provide support for the survivor and the partner who is dealing with secondary trauma. The purpose is not to leave any elephants in the room, in the relationship, but to give space, with sensitivity and empathy to the complex situation that the survivor and the partner have to deal with together.