For Partners of CSA Survivors – Healing Together
Written By: Sienna Wallwork (she/her/hers), BSc. Family & Community Social Services & Social Service Worker Diploma
If you are dating someone who has experienced CSA, educating yourself about sexual violence and the aftermath is essential. Survivors often unintentionally carry their trauma, along with the accompanying feelings of shame, guilt, blame and self-loathing into their intimate relationships. This can create unique challenges in relationships and be hard on their partners, who may feel at a loss to know how to support them through their recovery.
CSA can have many effects on relationships, often impacting trust, control, safety, boundaries, and sexual functioning. Many survivors experience symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression, which can all take a toll on the relationship and the survivors’ partner. The healing process varies from survivor to survivor, but it is very common for things to get worse before they get better. It is common for partners of survivors to feel like a spectator, rather than a participant, in their partner’s recovery.
In relationships, the survivor may be triggered during intimacy by a wide range of stimuli including certain sounds (such as music), certain smells (cologne or perfume), a particular kind of touch or a certain tone of voice. While many survivors possess direct memories of what happened to them, they also possess body memories, which are more deeply embedded and cause the survivor to get triggered at seemingly random times. It is also common for survivors to lash out in anger during moments of intimacy, and this anger is often covering up grief and loss. The anger is not directed at the partner but rather the abuser.
Survivors often have a skewed understanding of love, and may feel like the only way to receive love is through performing sexual acts. Survivors may also feel that their only value is as a sex object, rather than a person who deserves love. This often results in feeling an intense responsibility to please their partner, often at the sacrifice of the survivors’ own well-being.
Survivors often experience a range of feelings and these can result in numbness or shutting down when triggered. This may cause the survivor to appear timid or almost entirely absent in the moment. This and showing an intense emotional reaction are both common results of the abuse they survived.
In order to support a partner who has experienced sexual abuse, it is important to be educated on sexual abuse and its’ impacts/aftermath. This is important as it creates a sense of safety and understanding in the relationship. There are many books and articles for partners of survivors, as well as support groups.
Two of the most important things to do to support your partner who survived CSA is to believe them and listen to them. Many survivors carry feelings of self-blame, as well as an intense fear of not being believed. Simply make it clear that you believe your partner, and listen to them as they share their struggles with you. It is okay to ask questions to gain a better understanding of their struggles and the support they need, but be prepared for your partner to need to take their time answering, or not feel comfortable answering some questions at all. It is also important to be careful as some questions may be triggering or upsetting. For example, questions that start with “Why did you…” or “Why didn’t you…” should be avoided, as these can contribute to survivors’ feelings of guilt and shame.
As a partner, it is also important to support your partners’ decisions in their healing process, and not try to control them. It is okay to make polite suggestions for their healing journey, but do not try to control them or shame them for not handling things the way they think they should. The healing process looks different and happens at a different pace for everyone, and this should be respected.
Recommended Reading For Partners of CSA Survivors
- Allies in Healing by Laura Davis
- The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- Loving Someone with PTSD: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Connecting with Your Partner after Trauma by Aphrodite T. Matsakis PhD
Community approach to sexual abuse & violence. Opening The Circle. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2023, from http://www.openingthecircle.ca/defining-abuse/for-partners-of-survivors-of-sexual-abuse
Government of Canada. (2012, July 26). When Your Partner Was Sexually Abused as a Child. Canada.ca. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/stop-family-violence/prevention-resource-centre/children/partner-sexually-abused-child-guide.html#Ast