How To Talk To A New Partner About An Experience With Sexual Assault
In an emotional conversation with Colton Underwood on Monday night's episode of The Bachelor, contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes told him she was sexually assaulted when she was a college student. She said that that in October 2014, she and two of her friends drank from a bottle of wine they'd brought to a party — not knowing someone there had slipped drugs into the bottle. She then said that all three of them had been raped that night.
While she noted that the experience is never an easy one to talk about, Caelynn said she feels it's a necessary conversation to have with partners, not only because it's an important and formative part of her past, but also because of how it impacts her experience with intimacy in a relationship.
“As soon as I met Colton, there was this immediate connection and safeness that he created," Caelynn told PEOPLE. "I truly have never felt so safe and so comfortable in a relationship. I knew that if it progressed and if my feelings continued to progress, it’s something that he would need to know about. It’s an important part of a relationship."
She also opened up about struggling with feelings of guilt and shame as a result of her sexual assault — feelings which are unfortunately very common among survivors.
"Many who have experienced a sexual assault often experience feelings of shame and guilt," Melanie Shapiro, LICSW, who specializes in traumatic experiences, tells Bustle. "Although it is NOT their fault, oftentimes they are fearful of being blamed. It can also be difficult because sometimes the trauma is so emotionally distressing the experience may be buried (or repressed) as protection and safety. It is easier to distance oneself from the trauma than dealing with the pain — or thinking or talking about it."
How To Start A Conversation About An Experience With Sexual Assault
Reliving an experience as traumatic as a sexual assault can be painful, difficult, and scary, and it's OK if you're not ready to share yet. It can be an especially hard conversation to have with a partner, even if you trust them and feel comfortable and safe in the relationship. However, if it's something that impacts your feelings or behavior in a relationship, it might be a necessary conversation to have.
"In general couples often have challenges talking about intimacy and sexual activity," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "Layer onto that a highly negative traumatic experience and you can guarantee the conversation is going to be very difficult."
If you're not sure how to start the conversation, Dr. Klapow suggests first telling your partner that you have something difficult you need to share with them — and then simply telling them about your experience in a straightforward, direct way.
"Don’t downplay it [and] don’t minimize it," Dr. Klapow says. "Let them know the act and then let them know how you dealt with it, what you have done since then, and how you today are trying to manage the negative feelings. Once you have done that — give them a chance to talk and ask questions."
What A Healthy Reaction From Your Partner Should Look Like
When opening up about a sexual assault, not knowing how someone is going to react can make the prospect of the conversation even more scary and nerve-wracking. But if someone is truly a healthy, supportive partner to you, their reaction will be one filled with empathy and love, not judgment or shame.
"A healthy, non-toxic partner will respond with empathy, caring, love, support, and sadness for your pain," Dr. Klapow says. "They may ask questions often as a nervous/anxious response to what they have just heard. But they should never try to explain it, defend the situation, re-interpret what you are telling them, and minimize it — or anything else."
While it's understandable for your partner to have questions or concerns, it's not OK for them to pry or push you to give details that you don't want to share. In the event that your partner responds poorly to the conversation, it's important to reflect and evaluate whether they're a healthy partner for you because a negative response to something like that is a huge red flag.
"Anything short of compassion and caring and anything that begins to turn the past events into a discussion or debate about what happened or why it happened is a red flag that you are with someone who is not capable of the empathy needed to share this traumatic event with," Dr. Klapow says.
What To Do If You're Not Comfortable Discussing Past Sexual Trauma
While some may be able to open up and share about their experience with sexual assault, not everyone who's survived a sexual assault or sexual abuse is in a place where they feel ready to talk about the experience with others. In fact, some survivors may never feel comfortable discussing it — and that's OK, too.
"If you’re not comfortable sharing about your sexual assault with your partner, it is OK," Shapiro says. "Everyone has their own way of processing, some people prefer talking, others may engage in writing or a creative outlet; everyone is different in their processing and healing and that’s OK. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of being connected to your partner."
If you're not comfortable telling your partner the details of your experience with sexual assault, but don't want to keep them totally in the dark, Shapiro says you can simply tell them that you've had a difficult, traumatic experience in your past — and ask that they be patient and respect your decision to talk (or not talk) about it.
"You can [say] you have had some traumatic or painful experiences in your past that may come up and you would just like to share that info with them," Shapiro says. "And it may come up in the future so you would like to give them warning. And explain you may need some time and you appreciate their patience."
Alternatively, a survivor of sexual assault may have already spent a lot of time processing their feelings and learning to manage their trauma. In that case, Dr. Klapow says it may not be necessary to disclose your experience with sexual assault to your partner, particularly if you feel it's not something that impacts your relationship.
"If you feel like you have the memories, the impact well managed and it is not having an impact on your current relationship, then there may not be a need to bring it up," Dr. Klapow says. "However, more times than not, a past sexual assault can affect issues around trust, sexual intimacy, conversational style, conflict, etc."
Ultimately, it's up to you — and only you — to decide both what you do or do not share with your partner, as well as how and when you share it. No matter what you choose to disclose, the most important thing is that your decisions make you feel empowered and safe. And, although having this kind of conversation in a relationship is undoubtedly difficult, it can also result in you feeling even more supported, cared for, and understood by your partner afterward — which can be healing in a big way.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.