The Other Victims of Abuse

Early on in my practice, I began offering groups for partners of survivors of sexual abuse.  It didn’t matter if it was same sex or opposite sex couples and it didn’t seem to matter if the partners were men or women.  The issues and patterns were familiar to everyone.  They started with a lot of sex until the relationship deepened or the couple moved in together, then everything changed. Sex meant cajoling, feeling like offenders themselves, and  confusing mixed messages (come close, go away).  Always lots of hurt.

For the partner, the feeling of talking to someone who isn’t there, feeling close and then feeling pushed away, often in the same moment, can be baffling.  And feeling like you’re being asked to pay for something you had nothing to do with can generate tremendous anger, resentment, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy or helplessness.  Not to mention the feelings that arise if the survivor is still involved with his/her abuser (there you are at Thanksgiving dinner together…).

Sadly, partners of survivors of sexual abuse often don’t talk to anyone about their feelings–they’re too ashamed of the issues they’re grappling with. This is the worst thing they can do because either a potentially good relationship will be doomed or they’ll hang onto an unworkable relationship far too long.  So if you’re in this situation, I urge you to consider individual counseling or a group. Whatever therapy route appeals to you, your main goal should be to learn to set boundaries for yourself.  You can suggest going out to dinner and not talking about child abuse or about therapy – without feeling guilty or that you’re pretending there’s no proverbial elephant in the room. You can make plans with other people and take time for yourself–without feeling like you’re abandoning your partner.  And you can learn to be a supportive partner without feeling like you must lose yourself and put your own needs on indefinite hold.

For certain, abuse leaves deep scars (some that may never fully heal). But an abuse history doesn’t mean someone is incapable of deep love and deep commitment.  It does mean that as a partner you’ll need to have the patience of saint and be willing to do seemingly Herculean tasks.  But for the right person, that effort may well be worth it.

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