Partners & Support Persons of Survivors and the Healing Journey
The trauma of childhood sexual assault and child abuse, including the feelings of guilt, shame, fear, or anger that ensue are often brought into relationships, intimate and otherwise by survivors. For many survivors, childhood trauma is not something that is discussed until decades later. These experiences may leave the partners at a loss for how to help their survivor partner through their healing journey when they do disclose their story to them.
Childhood sexual abuse trauma and other forms of child abuse have devastating impacts on various areas of our life. The behaviours and scenarios mentioned in this article are not meant to be an exhaustive list. Commonly areas such as trust, intimacy, control, safety, sexual boundaries, and sexual functioning may be affected. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, a relationship may have periods of calm and happiness, where the survivor seems to be coping well and healing, however, these periods may quickly shift in opposite directions where the survivor may feel like they are just hanging on, and they may feel like trust and safety are lessening (Opening the Circle, 2021).
If you are a partner of a survivor, you may have already noticed that survivors demonstrate avoidance and sometimes outright denial towards sharing their authentic thoughts and feelings with you. You may have already experienced survivors feeling triggered or even at times emotionally detached during various experiences including intimacy or other settings like family gatherings, especially when the offender or those that protected the offender may be present. For those with partners who suffered emotional abuse or neglect by their parents, these triggers may also be present, and the flight response may become activated in your survivor partner. Furthermore, survivors may also experience periods of anger. Through The Gatehouse programs, anger is explored as a secondary emotion, often concealing shame, guilt, fear, and other emotions that are not being talked about openly in the relationship.
Moreover, survivors may demonstrate a range of emotions including being frozen or shut down, powerless, numb, or timid. They may avoid sexual situations and get trapped in a psychological aversion to intimacy which prevents them from working on the issues proactively. At the opposite end of the continuum, the survivor may instead seek out sex compulsively, and exhibit promiscuous behavior. Both are normal responses to the abuse that they have experienced (Opening the Circle, 2021).
There is hope and healing is possible. Through proactive and supportive discussions, partners and survivors can relearn healthier ways to communicate and relate to one another. This process of sharing ourselves with others takes courage and the will to face our fears of being seen, being truly seen as human beings. Often survivors are faced with the fear that if their partner knows about their past, they will leave them or not accept them.
Courage is a necessary element for one to stay on the newly formed path to one’s healing. Once the survivor and partner begin to explore the story and its impact on the relationship, the dynamics in the relationship shift. The old way of relating to one another is no longer possible. Courage is born our will to explore and appreciate our strengths and vulnerabilities. Courage initiates and supports our move away from a state of withholding. Withholding is simply a form of fear, which ties up our energies or converts unusable transformational energy into unusable constraining, confining energy. In essence, we become stuck. Courage allows us to move away from the withholding experience because I am free to express our fears and vulnerabilities. This is when we are at our strongest when we can voice our fears and vulnerabilities. – Arthur Lockhart, Founder, The Gatehouse
This willingness to explore what is surfacing for each of us is something that is done by both partner and survivor. It is about recognizing each one’s capacity and willingness to talk about what we are experiencing in the relationship, learning new ways of relating to one another, and committing to continued behaviour change in responding to situations involving triggers, conflict, uncertainty, or fear. Most often, fear is a common emotion that both partners and survivors are experiencing as they start the process of open dialogue with one another.
Here are some questions to consider when exploring fear. Reflect on a time when you were afraid to take the initiative on something, or stopped, froze, and refused to continue with an activity. Write about the following: What was the activity? What happened to your body? What happened to your voice? What happened to your thought process?
Opening the Circle. (2021). For partners of survivors of sexual abuse. Retrieved from http://www.openingthecircle.ca/defining-abuse/for-partners-of-survivors-of-sexual-abuse