Research on a gender binary shows that 1 in 3 cis women and 1 in 4 cis men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. Moreover, 50-66% of transgender or gender non-conforming people have experienced sexual assault. Thus, it is highly likely that you or a partner has experienced sexual trauma. You can read more stats on the RAINN and OVC websites.
Research supports that sexual trauma, especially when experienced at a young age, results in structural changes in the brain. These structural changes may impact a person by increasing their reactivity in disagreements, an exaggerated startle response, self-blame, discomfort in one’s body, and lack of interest in sex or conversely, hyperarousal. It’s important that you understand that your partner cannot control these reactions, but they can work on managing them.
Moreover, your partner may not have all of the answers of what their triggers are and how their past trauma is impacting them, so your patience is imperative. Keep in mind that progress for your partner is not always linear and sometimes they make take one step forward and two steps backward. Living through a traumatic event shakes someone to their core, and so does going through treatment and reliving it. So, be patient with your partner if they are involved in therapy.
Here are some things to be mindful of when in a relationship with someone who has experienced sexual trauma:
- Take accountability for your role during conflict with your partner.
- Be a safe person to talk to by allowing your partner the time and space to share what happened with you. For instance, when/if your partner opens up to you, say, “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
- Do have patience with and compassion for your partner.
- Say, “Thank you for telling me” when your partner sets a boundary around sex and/or emotional intimacy or communicates a need.
- Ask your partner what they need from you.
- Always ask for consent for sex or touching. It may be difficult for your partner to speak up so ask them and give them the opportunity to say “no.”
- Help to identify your partner’s triggers and work to minimize their exposure to them. For example, if loud noises or voices are a trigger, avoid leaving the television on or slamming doors.
- Be sensitive and empathetic to their emotions. Offer comfort and warmth, especially during flashbacks or times of intense anxiety.
- Don’t place undue blame on your partner for problems in the relationship.
- Do not shift the focus of the conversation to your anger towards their abuser (i.e., before saying that you are so angry you’re going to beat up/kill/verbally aggress their abuser, ask yourself, “How would that actually help my partner right now?” Hint: It probably would be more helpful to listen to your partner and let them express their feelings and emotions).
- Avoid blaming them for their symptoms or minimizing the severity of their trauma. Here are some things you should NEVER say:
- “Snap out of it” or “Get over it”
- “It’s in the past” or “It was so long ago”
- “It’s not that bad”
- “You’re crazy”
- It’s never helpful to tell your partner how to feel or give them unsolicited advice. If they don’t want to report the incident, do not tell them to. Only 25 out of 1000 rapes end in the rapist going to prison.
For further guidance on this topic, you can schedule an appointment with me.