Q: Dear APW,
My partner just informed me that he was sexually abused as a child by some of his relatives. I will not go into details here, but what matters for the sake of this letter is that he forgives his abusers and continues to have a relationship with them. He doesn’t seem concerned about them abusing others in the future. And he chooses to keep this a secret from the rest of the family.
I just learned this, like, yesterday. We were planning to visit his family, including the abusers, over the holidays. In fact one of the holiday dinners will take place at an abuser’s home. I am already feeling uncomfortable at the idea of having to interact with this person, knowing what I know now. In fact I feel full of rage at the whole situation (abuse, silence, etc.). I am afraid I will act out in some way if I attend this function. But really I feel so hurt and sad for my partner, who says he has “dealt with it” through years of individual and group therapy.
Please help me figure out how to be a supportive partner, even when I don’t understand some of his choices. Also please help me determine how to negotiate the holidays while also managing my feelings.
Freaking Out Survivor Partner
A: Dear Freaking Out Survivor Partner,
Recovery from sexual abuse, especially childhood and family sexual abuse, is very complicated, both for survivors and their partners. I’m glad you wrote to us about this incredibly important, difficult, and, unfortunately, not uncommon issue. It shows strength and insight that you’re thinking about your concerns in such a three-dimensional way. Because APW is a public forum with limited space, and because this isn’t a clinical setting, my response to this complicated question will be limited here. I would strongly recommend consulting in person with a mental health professional to get help with this issue. Here are some suggestions that I hope will be helpful in the meantime.
Many survivors of sexual abuse suffer from symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or from the disorder itself. PTSD is an anxiety disorder. Symptoms may include a combination of physiological experiences (feeling jittery and on the lookout for danger, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, startling easily), cognitive experiences (flashbacks/reliving the events, problems with memory, negative thoughts about oneself, others, and the environment), and behavioral experiences (avoiding triggering situations). Long-term implications of PTSD can include difficulty trusting others (which significantly impacts both new and ongoing relationships), and, sometimes, a distorted view of the perpetrator. Survivors of sexual abuse also often experience shame, guilt, depression, anger, and difficulty regulating their emotions, as well as changes in the experience of one’s identity and sense of self, one’s body, and one’s physical well-being. Understandably, you also are now feeling traumatized.
To help answer your question, I consulted with my colleague, New York City psychologist and trauma expert Dr. Sarah Gundle. “While your partner has had many years to process his experience of this trauma, you’ve only recently learned about it. So, you’re only just now processing what happened,” notes Dr. Gundle. Additionally, research shows that people who experience sexual abuse as children, particularly with known abusers, recover differently than people who experience sexual abuse as adults. In part, this is because children understand relationships and the world differently, and then re-conceptualize what happened once they are adults.
“Partners of survivors also can have mirroring symptoms of PTSD,” adds Dr. Gundle. “It’s possible that what you’re experiencing may be similar to what your partner has experienced.” So, pursuing your own therapy is a critical way to work through all of this, to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, and to learn how to effectively cope and communicate with your partner. This could be in individual or group therapy, and/or a support group for partners of survivors. Childhood sexual abuse isn’t just deeply damaging to the person to whom it happened; it can also be deeply damaging to his or her partner. Knowing that your sexual partner has been sexually violated can feel personally violating. You may end up going through a process of grief, which will not be easy, but it will be more manageable and tolerable in a safe, structured environment like therapy.
One of the hardest things to cope with right now seems to be your instinct that something is not right—that the aspect of secrecy in your partner’s family feels unfair and unsafe. It’s not uncommon for those who care most about survivors to have the urge to protect them, and your instinct that something is wrong may be accurate in the long run. A sense of secrecy in a family can be associated with unprocessed issues, which can affect relationships and family dynamics. But, your partner is saying that he has worked through a lot of these issues in treatment, and his decision about how to move forward should be given space and respect. Right now, the question is how to survive the holidays.
As I often emphasize in this column, your feelings and reactions are absolutely valid and important. Whatever you are feeling is okay. “In a relationship,” says Dr. Gundle, “you don’t always have to be on the same page. It’s okay if you’re not okay with this, and that you have your feelings, while respecting his. This is a long-term, serious, and complicated issue. There’s no simple answer. Here, the issue is maybe not as much about his recovery, but about respecting your different experiences and processes in recovery.” You’re going through your own process, and you haven’t even started your own recovery yet. And it may just feel like too much to attend this event. With some conversation with your partner ahead of time, that is absolutely understandable and okay. You do not have to go if you can’t go. You can work through this decision with your partner before and after the event.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you’re struggling with feelings toward your partner and his family, as well as with his way of processing and managing what happened. This can make things extra hard. It’s also okay if you’re grappling with feelings about the abuse (sadness, anger, guilt, protectiveness), as well as feelings about how he’s dealt with it (confusion, anger, sadness, disbelief, possibly even betrayal), that may at times seem to be in conflict. It’s important to give space to a multitude of feelings, all of which are normal and give us important information about our relationships and how to move forward.
I also consulted with my colleague Dr. Lisa Litt, also a trauma expert and New York City psychologist, about your question. “It may be hard to believe that someone could come to terms with this,” explains Dr. Litt, “but people recover in different ways. Some people choose not to spend time with their family, and some people are able to somehow come around, because the idea of being apart from family is worse than managing the relationships. If your partner says that he’s spent enough time in treatment, and that the family event will not be triggering, then your instinct to be supportive sounds good.”
It means a lot that you want to be supportive, but it’s also hard to be supportive about something that’s a secret. If your partner wants to continue to keep this a secret, you’ll need additional support, which means having people with whom you can really safely talk. This means a therapist and/or a support group, but it also could additionally be a trusted friend or family member. Secrets can be very burdensome, and your partner needs to understand that you also need to be taken care of. It will be important to have an ongoing dialogue with him about this aspect of things, too.
In order to be supportive to your partner during the holidays, and also effectively manage your own feelings, talk with him now. In my posts about navigating wedding planning with autism and a sibling with addiction, I wrote about setting parameters in advance of an event. If you choose to attend this event, creating a formal plan with your partner can help you to manage what you’ll choose to do if you or your partner feels triggered. It’s important to have an understanding of what you’re both willing to tolerate, and what you can do to manage your emotions in the moment. Could you go outside and take a walk, or go into another room for a few minutes if you’re upset? Is there a point at which you might decide to leave in order to best take care of yourself? Thinking about options in advance should help to decrease your anxiety leading up to the holidays.
You also mention being concerned that you will “act out” at a family event. If saying or doing something impulsive has been a problem for you in the past, you might consider ways to prevent this from happening. Dr. Litt, who is also an expert in addiction, suggests avoiding alcohol or other substances if you’re concerned about impulse control. “You also might gauge your own likelihood of acting out,” suggests Dr. Litt. It may be that you’re anxious about this, but that “acting out” isn’t usually a problem for you.
Importantly, make sure that taking care of your relationship doesn’t move to the back burner in the midst of this complicated issue. “How can you make this holiday special, in addition to managing these feelings?” Asks Dr. Litt. “Think about something you can do that’s unique for you as a couple.” This might mean carving out some time before, during, or after a family function to be alone together to talk, or doing something special together during the holiday season. Dealing with family during the holidays is difficult for many people. Painful aspects of family history and difficult personalities, combined with unrealistic expectations about the holidays, can make the season challenging to get through. But APW has some articles that may serve as resources, and possibly help a bit. Know that a lot of us are going through similarly difficult experiences this year, and that we’re alongside you, making room to celebrate, and creating light out of darkness.
For more resources for survivors of sexual abuse and their partners, visit The National Center for PTSD, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and The Sidran Foundation.
The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional.