Breaking Boundaries: How to Cope with a Partner's Past
And then there other underlying dynamics that bind us to each other- things like a shared history of trauma or mental illness. When you come from a healthy family system, it's hard to relate when your partner hasn't spoken to her father in 10 years or never met his biological mom. Often times, what I see as a therapist is that the very things that draw us to someone can wear out the relationship over time if not addressed. But what really is interesting is that we tend to repeat our family patterns as adults. Subconsciously, we try to 'fix' our childhood wounds.
One of the most crucial areas I have seen these patterns repeat is with our romantic relationships. Specifically with trauma. That is the reason that children from a domestic violence background marry men who abuse them or why men who were enmeshed emotionally with their mothers have unhealthy anger towards women. Trauma is like a wound that never got stitches. The scar is there and we tend to look for others with the same mark.
But what do you do when your partner was sexually abused as a child? Surprisingly (and incredibly sad), it's incredibly common. One San Francisco study reported that 38% of women had been sexually molested as children (according to Heather Smith from healthyplace.com). And that is only what is remembered and shared. Often we repress memories of sexual abuse (which has MANY forms, from rape to touching/fondling to being exposed to inappropriate/sexualized language ), because it's a method of self-protection. How can you be expected to have a healthy sex life when sex itself was forced upon you? This can be very confusing for the victim and their partner, who often puts the blame on their shoulders for problems in bed.
The most important thing to remember when your partner's boundaries have been violated from an early or later age is that it's not about you. Someone who has survived trauma is just that- a survivor. You cannot go through something awful and not have wounds. Usually they are not visible, but they can be. Would you feel responsible if your partner had lost a leg in war, affecting their body image? Of course not! Remember that with sexual abuse. We cannot talk about sex without tying it to many things, from body image to boundaries.
In being a supportive partner, what is really needed is safety and empowerment. I recommend survivors of sexual abuse to attend therapy for their own healing. If their dynamics as an individual are greatly impacting their partnership or sex life, then I also recommend couples therapy so a trained professional can help navigate those choppy waters. Partners need to remember to not guilt/shame their lovers. That is only re-enacting the trauma and creates further emotional distance.
Like I mentioned earlier, there is likely a deeper reason that people find each other. Perhaps your own family situation placed you as the caregiver, so you chose a partner who needed rescuing. Or maybe you were the eldest child, used to being in control, and were drawn to a person who depended on you for security. Whatever the reason is, remember that we are all scared in some way from childhood wounds, just in different ways. Have compassion and understanding for your partner's journey. You can never know how rocky it's been because it isn't your life, it's theirs.