How To Be A Partner To Someone Who's Been Abused

We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto this week’s topic: how to be a good sexual partner to someone who has been sexually abused.

Q: My girlfriend read your articles about sexual abuse, and found them to be helpful in understanding why sex can be so difficult for her. We’ve struggled with our sex life because a lot of things feel triggering to her. I know she has her own journey to go through around this (she’s looking for a therapist now, actually), but how can I support her? I care about her so much, and I want to do whatever I can.

A: Thank you so much for the question! Your girlfriend is lucky to have a partner who is so sensitive and supportive. Here are six ways to be a good partner to a person who has been sexually abused.

An Important Note: I'll be using female pronouns here in order to respond directly to your question, but my answers would apply to a male partner who's been sexually abused as well.

Ask What They Need

Every person’s experience with sexual abuse is different, and no two recovery processes look the same. There are no clear set of “rules” that will work for every person, so it’s important for you to ask your girlfriend what she needs from you as her partner. You don’t want to make any assumptions about her experiences or needs. Even what I’ve written in this article and in previous ones might feel totally off to her.

Instead, let her be the authority on her experience. Tell her you’re open to hearing any parts of her story that she feels comfortable telling you. Ask about her triggers and boundaries. You don’t want to put her on the spot or pepper her with questions, but let her know you care and want to be there for her in any way that feels good for her.

Ask For Consent, Every Time

When your girlfriend was abused, she was forced into doing something without her consent. Her consent literally did not matter to the person abusing her. After an experience like that, it can feel to a survivor that her consent never matters.

Let your girlfriend know that you do care about what she wants and doesn’t want. Make sure you ask her consent each and every time the two of you are intimate. This might feel like overkill at times, but it's a great way to build up feelings of trust and safety. Talk to her about any difficulties she may have with saying “yes” or “no” to you, and try to come up with a plan for making sure she can be honest about her desires.

For example, I once worked with a client who realized it was easier for her to give consent if her partner sent her a suggestive text message asking if she was interested in being intimate. Having the distance of being over text message instead of face-to-face, and a bit more time to consider the decision, made her feel more comfortable with answering honestly.

Keep in mind that asking for and giving consent can actually be really beautiful. It doesn’t need to feel cold or clinical. Saying “yes” can feel very empowering for her! On your part, try to think of consent as inviting her to connect with you, each step of the way. Together, come up with phrases that sound special to both of you. And of course, don’t do anything without getting a clear go-ahead from her.

Be Sensitive About Pressure

You sound like a sensitive person who wouldn’t want to put pressure on your girlfriend to do anything she doesn’t want to do. That being said, the topic of pressure can feel exceedingly delicate for many sexual abuse survivors. Some women feel like they need to keep their partners sexually satisfied or risk losing them, so they push themselves out of their comfort zones. Other people will start feeling pressure if a certain amount of time has gone by without having sex. Even the fact that you’re so supportive may make your partner feel pressured to “recover” faster.

Ask her if she’s aware of any situations or words that tend to make her feel pressured, and see if the two of you can brainstorm ways to relieve that pressure. One client I worked with felt pressured when her male partner initiated sex nonverbally because she didn’t know exactly what he wanted, and would start getting anxious. If he used his words to tell her what he wanted to do, she felt much more comfortable. Even something as simple as regularly reminding her, “what you want is important to me” can be helpful.

Participate In Their Recovery (If They Want You To)

When I work with sexual abuse survivors in my practice, we frequently decide to bring their partners into the therapy too. It helps the partner understand more about what their partner is experiencing, and how they can work together to create a sex life that feels satisfying. There are also lots of great exercises you can do together to help your girlfriend feel more comfortable and safe. This decision should be up to her, but you can let her know, “if it ever feels like it would be helpful for me to join in on your therapy sessions, I’m more than happy to participate.”

Don’t Treat Them Like They're Broken

One of the most difficult dynamics that comes up for people trying to process their sexual abuse is a feeling of being “broken” or “damaged goods.” Your girlfriend might feel upset that sex is so difficult for her, or she might wish she could just be “normal”. Some sexual abuse survivors even worry that no one will ever want to be with them.

As her partner, you can help her understand that nothing about her is broken. She’s experienced something that no one should ever have to experience, but she’s still a whole, beautiful, worthy human being. She’s going to have her struggles with sex, but we all have our boundaries, and we all should be communicating about what does and doesn’t make us feel safe.

Be Patient

Recovering from sexual abuse can take time. Something incredibly traumatic happened to her, and it takes the body a while to learn how to trust and feel safe again. Recovery is also not a linear process. Sometimes it can feel like it’s one step forward, two steps back. Other times a woman can have done months or even years of therapy, only to feel herself falling back into the same old trigger patterns. If you’re in this for the long haul, let her know! And if you’re ever feeling dejected or hopeless about her healing journey, try to remind yourself that it just takes time.

Want to learn more strategies for managing the effects of sexual abuse? Check out my online course, A Survivor’s Guide To Reclaiming Your Sex Life After Abuse.

Images: Jasmine Bailey /Flickr