After Abuse: The Challenging Work of Forging Healthy Relationships
Many people have done the tough work of recovery from sexual abuse, whether with help in therapy or on one’s own. It challenges us to the core, but it also frees us, and gives life and possibility where we once felt that we might never get through it.
For some, getting into a relationship, or continuing with one we’ve been in, after abuse recovery is a fairly smooth process. For others, the challenge holds a range of feelings, such as the longing to be loved, mixed with uncertainty, anxiety, fear, even panic. It often comes with a deep sense of undeserving, or the belief, “I am unlovable.” Some people will go through a long period of celibacy, even after sexual abuse counseling. Others might try dating, but find themselves repeating patterns that occurred in abusive relationships, with their new partners. Sometimes abuse survivors find it very difficult to be intimate, either sexually or emotionally, or both. Or they might tend to feel more like a sex object, and not be recognized for who they are as a person.
“Healthy Relationships are not only a source of fulfillment, they are where the final healing takes place.”
But we can love and be loved, trust, and be trusted, again. I have a number of clients who have sexual abuse history, and do the work of recovery, only to discover that they feel handicapped when it comes time to be in a healthy relationship. Yet healthy relationships are not only a source of fulfillment, they are where the final healing of sexual abuse issues takes place. I have seen many women and men overcome their fears, and build healthy and loving relationships.
While everyone is different, there are a few common themes that surface for those with a history of abuse. For instance, it’s unlikely that one who suffered abuse was taught much about boundaries. Yet good boundaries are inherent in any healthy relationship. This comes up in a variety of ways. For example, many couples have learned to be very careful not to say hurtful things to their partner during a fight; they’ve learned not to be flirtatious with others if they are in an exclusive relationship. These may seem like small concerns, but they actively maintain safety and respect, both for each other and for the integrity of the relationship. `
People without abuse history typically recognize when another person (man or woman) is “coming onto” them inappropriately, and they have no trouble telling the “intruder,” so to speak, to back off. With abuse history, especially if the abuse was chronic, we don’t even recognize inappropriate behavior, because such behavior was “normalized” during one’s childhood. (“I thought that was normal!” The abuse survivor then is less likely to take steps to protect oneself, and is left with an array of feelings, including frustration, disappointment, confusion (“How come this keeps happening for me?”), anger, and resignation (“All men/women are like this, they just want me for sex.”) How different it becomes when the survivor learns to recognize inappropriate behavior for what it is, use appropriate boundaries, move on, and then be able to open to what we do want, a person who is respectful, loving, honest, and so on.
“As children, when our parents directly contradict our inner voice, our intuitive knowing, we’ll trust them and discount our own truth. As adults, we have to learn to trust our intuition all over again.”
Another unfortunate, but repairable, side-effect of sexual abuse is that we have often lost trust in our intuition. If our intuition told us that something that happened wasn’t right, but all the adults in our family said, “I don’t see any problem here,” or “You’re lying! Shame on you!” we get confused. As children we need to trust our parents for our basic survival. When our parents say and do things that directly contradict our inner voice, our intuitive knowing, we’ll trust mom or dad, and discount ourselves. For children, it’s safer this way. But as adults, it takes retraining to trust our intuition again. This is a gradual process, but it can be done. Once we trust our inner knowing more fully, we become confident, more empowered, and more able to receive what is beneficial to us.
Love, trust, intimacy, and ease are not only possible; they are our birthright. We mustn’t allow someone else’s violation of us to impede our right to love and be loved. Thankfully, we don’t have to.