Ask a Psychologist: My Partner Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse


How do I make sure I'm supportive?

by Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

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.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

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. 

Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D., is a psychologist who values all things practical. She studied Child Development at Tufts University and worked in case management and clinical research before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Brofman practices in New York City and has special interests in women’s and reproductive mental health. She can be contacted at drsharabrofman at gmail dot com. Photo by Smitten Chickens.

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  • 39bride

    Oof! My heart goes out to the letter writer. I found out in college that a dear friend had been severely abused by her father in multiple ways (to the point of permanent physical injury depriving the world of an amazing gift she had to offer), but it must be even harder coping with the extra layers of being a romantic partner to a survivor while navigating the challenges of holiday family dynamics. I never laid eyes on her father after I found out, but just calling her home and having him answer the phone made me nauseous. I managed to say the right words, but I’m sure my tone betrayed my disgust with him. My sense of justice raged against the fact that he was a respected member of the community who was believed to be a gentle and selfless man and that he was still involved in his daughter’s life when he deserved to spend the rest of his life in jail. I always said that if he and I ended up in the same room with a weapon, I was pretty sure one of us wouldn’t come out alive. As it was, I nearly broke my foot when I found out he had continued to victimize her over a holiday break.

    Sorry that I don’t have any real advice to give, but I’ll add my voice to Shara’s: It’s okay to feel what you feel. And this is certainly one of those times where rage, disgust and the desire to “act out” or “balance the scales” certainly make you a GOOD person (not that it’s necessarily a good idea to act on those feelings, haha!). Hang in there. Maybe asking your partner if there’s a dear friend he feels comfortable with you confiding in could help–you could use that friend as a vent or sounding board to release some of your more intense feelings and thus feel more in control when you’re around his family.

    Hugs to both of you during this difficult time!

    • LW

      You sound like a very caring friend.

      Unfortunately our anger can’t take the pain away or stop what has happened.

      Thank you for the hugs!

  • Anon For This

    I get the feeling this post won’t generate too many comments, because of how private and difficult the subject is.

    I just wanted to thank the LW for writing in, and the APW team for tackling it. My husband also recently confided in me that a sibling sexually abused him when they were younger, and while it’s apparently not a secret from his family it’s been hard trying to figure out how to process it. He told me first while extremely drunk, and then when I tentatively asked about it the next day he affirmed that he’s over it and fine, but never, ever wants to speak of it ever again.

    So thank you for talking about this, because there’s honestly not a lot of other places we can. I feel like it would be a huge violation of my husband’s privacy if I talked through my own feelings (anger, fear, shock, deep sadness) with my usual sounding boards.

    • Anon today

      My husband is also a survivor and it meant a lot to see this here, today. Big thanks to the LW + APW for this feature. These issues are so painful and SO PRIVATE, so we don’t realize how many men are affected by childhood sexual abuse.

      • LW

        Hello Anonymous ladies, this is the Letter Writer and I want to thank you for sharing your stories too. I’m so sorry your husbands were also abused. It IS very painful and private and difficult to talk about, and I am grateful to this community for being a place to share and receive helpful advice.

    • SF

      Ditto on the husband with previous abuse. He doesn’t remember it well, but it was his father and it caused his parent’s divorce when he was 6. He struggles with PTSD symptoms and depression and I just appreciate reading about others who deal with this and how they handle things. Thank you for writing.

  • Kayjayoh

    “In order to be supportive to your partner during the holidays, and also effectively manage your own feelings, talk with him now.”

    Very good advice. And, as with other stressful situations it is good to remember “comfort in, dump out.” While it may be upsetting for a friend or partner to learn of the abuse that their loved one has experienced, and while is those feelings are valid, it is important to remember that your feelings of sadness/anger/etc are about something that happened *to them* and don’t put the job of comforting you for that sadness onto them. (They can offer it, but don’t demand it.)

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

    Finding your own outside person to whom to talk (while respecting your partner’s privacy) in the thing to do. As mentioned in the advice above, I strongly second getting your own therapist to talk to about this, even if only once or twice.

    • No name

      Yes. It sounds like the writer is taking the right steps to respect her partner’s boundaries while also taking care of her mental health, but this point cannot be emphasized enough.

      When I told my partner that I had been raped in college, I appreciated that it was difficult for him, but I could not bear the burden of his questions and feelings at the time. Having to explain the choices you’ve made to deal with interpersonal violence can end up feeling intrusive, hostile and violative, even when those questions come from well-meaning loved ones. In my relationship, it has really driven home the idea that while we can both offer comfort and support, ultimately we are each responsible for our own emotional well-being.

      So to the writer or anyone else in a similar situation, I’ll echo the advice above – respect your partner’s boundaries by looking to professionals outside the relationship to help you heal.

    • Lawyerette510

      “Comfort in, dump out” I’ve never heard that before but pretty much sums up the key to navigating anything with a partner’s family dynamics, but especially in cases of trauma.

    • LW

      That is an extremely helpful framework to consider. Thank you for sharing, Kayjayoh. Unfortunately I did dump some of my feelings on my partner at first. I was surprised, upset, and distressed at his story, especially about the prospect of having to visit his family soon and act nice to them, when really I’m angry.

      I have since been able to talk with a therapist and have outside people to “dump” on now.

  • MK

    Dear LW, I can’t even begin to understand what you’re going through, but I certainly understand the feelings of anger and disbelief from my own relationship (my spouse’s childhood was not great, and I am often consumed by the desire to speak out and make a scene). I think the only thing I can say is you have a whole community rooting for you as you go through the holidays – knowing you love your fiance and are struggling with feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger, and protectiveness. I wish you luck.
    One thing I will say, gently, is that no matter how much your fiance says they have come to terms with it, if you are engaged and just found out about this, it was likely a VERY emotionally fraught thing for them to tell you. Which is to say, your feeling and emotions and reactions are perfectly justified, but as you sort through your emotions, try to remember that there may be some very real fear and worry from your fiance about how you’ll feel about THEM. From everything I’ve read, you’re determined to be supportive and loving through this, and that is exemplary. I just know if it was me, I’d be in a whirlwind of emotion and might have trouble remembering that this time is not just about what happened years ago, but what happened a few days ago when your fiance shared this secret.
    Hugs are winging their way towards you!

    • LW

      Hi MK, my partner withheld this information from me for a long time because he was afraid of my reaction. He knew I would get emotional and upset, and he was correct! It has definitely been an emotional whirlwind, not least of which involves possibly seeing his family soon.

      I am trying to deal with my hardest feelings with the help of a therapist and supportive friends.

      Thank you for the hugs. They mean a lot!

  • Dee

    Ah. my partner was abused at some point, and while I don’t need to now what happened, I’d like to know ‘who’, and he’s mum on that. I trust him not to have any of our future kids (or his stepdaughter) around them, but I guess I feel unsettled not knowing who it was.

  • ItsyBit

    This is so, so hard. But I echo what was said in the response- Letter writer, your desire to be supportive through your totally valid feelings is really, really amazing. Sending you warm, supportive thoughts this holiday season as you navigate through this new information.

    And just as an aside, I really love this whole series. One more reason why it’s sort of become an online “safe space” in my mind.

  • Elisabeth S.

    Kudos to you. You’re already being a supportive partner by thinking about how you can best support him in his choices, and thinking about where to go with your own feelings. When I worked for a sexual assault prevention center we’d often refer folks to Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child [Laura Davis]. It’s a bit dated, but a great resource.

    • LW

      Thank you, Elisabeth. I started reading that book recently because it was recommended by a few sources. Some of it is helpful, other parts are so different from my partner’s experiences (the author doesn’t really acknowledge that some people will choose to keep silent, for example) that it is a little hard to relate. However I take the useful parts and skim through the rest.

      • Elisabeth S.

        I know what you mean — there are definitely some holes in it! Have you already checked out RAINN? They have a good round up of resources for partners (https://www.rainn.org/get-help/help-a-loved-one) and they can also hook you up with your local center who may have more (800-656-HOPE).

        • LW

          Yes, I did call them at a difficult moment when I needed to talk with someone. They were great! Thank you, again.

  • MTM

    I understand that the LW asked for help negotiating the holidays and understanding his/her partner’s choice, but I think this would be a non-negotiable for me. I think that saying “no, we’re not doing this” is also an option that should be considered. Because LW just found out about this, LW also deserves time to process this and negotiate his/her own boundaries with these family members. It is a lot to ask of a partner to give all that information and then ask him/her to pretend like they don’t know about it, to continue to keep the silence. This isn’t the way I would choose to spend my holidays.

  • Rachel

    Like others have said, thank you to the letter writer for your courage in speaking up about this very difficult topic. I hope you can take comfort in knowing that your words have given strength to others, especially those who also care about a survivor of sexual abuse. One thing that I find helpful is to remember is that you do not need to FEEL anyone else’s feelings for them. That would be overwhelming and too much to bear on top of sorting through your own emotions. I hope that you can find the support you need and know that we APW readers are in your corner. *Hugs*

    • LW

      Thank you for the hugs :)
      I am pretty sure that I’m not feeling his feelings. It’s my own feelings of rage, anger, hurt and sadness that this could happen to someone I love.
      And you’re right, they are enough!

  • Kayjayoh

    I guess the other thing I would add is that, however the partner chooses to deal with their abuser and the history of abuse, it is important to respect their agency in the matter.

    • LW

      Yes, that is important. He did what he needed to do and that was right for him.

      My challenge is that my partner has dealt with the abuse by not acknowledging it in any way with his family, and he would like me to do the same. I feel extremely uncomfortable about pretending to “put on a happy face” and would rather not to be around them now. I am also concerned about the safety of current and future children (not because I have evidence or reason to believe the abuser is continuing his abuse; I don’t know. Just knowing his past makes me concerned about the present).

      I can respect his choice. But it is very hard to accept it when I am also scared and concerned about how that choice could affect people now and in the future. Like if we ever have children, for example.

      • Kayjayoh

        Oh certainly. That is a delicate balance.

      • Lauren from NH

        I didn’t want to offend and was considering bring this up during happy hour for general discussion, but I think the threat of recurrence would be one of the hardest things for me to process. You spoke of it a little down thread which got me thinking. There have been studies done showing most abusers are repeat abusers because the abuse in a twisted sense, is not personal, but has to do with how they relate to the world. And as your average socially conscious lady, it is very scary to me that people like Bill Cosby exist and because of the shit our society puts victims through, many of his victims chose to process what he did to them with silence and so he carried on hurting people for decades. I don’t mean to compare the magnitude of Bill Cosby’s crimes to your partner’s abuser, I don’t mean to sensationalize something that is so private and personal, these would just be some of the tortured thoughts I would be having. I guess what I am saying is that it would be very hard for me to support my partner sweeping his own abuse under the rug, but it would be excruciating to think he might not be the only one. I agree with Kayjayoh, the victim/survivor’s choice must be respected, but on the same note I am not sure how I would live with it.

        • LW

          It’s ok, Lauren, this does not offend me. It is a true and valid concern.

          Not to get into too many details, but the people who abused my partner were adolescents at the time. I don’t know if adolescents are more or less likely than adults to abuse again.

          My partner wants to believe that everything is ok. That is what has helped him move on. He feels confident that the abusers do not hurt the children they are around currently. He has no proof for this, and no way to explain this to me other than he just “knows”.

          Is that enough for me? I don’t know. This has been an incredibly difficult issue to grapple with. It has caused me to question whether I want to have children with my partner (effectively bringing another child into his family, even with limited contact), and, in my darkest and most honest moments, whether we should remain together at all.

          • RA

            “and, in my darkest and most honest moments, whether we should remain together at all.”

            You are so brave for saying that, for being so honest with yourself. That honesty is what is going to help you make the right decision for *you* with the help of your sounding boards because you need to figure out what all the parts of you want. *hugs in this difficult time*

  • Anon now

    I so appreciate this article.
    My partner and I walk through this often. I was molested by a sibling for years, and the memories resurfaced in a big way when we got engaged. The wedding-planning process was much less about logistics than it was about preparing for her to stand next to me during the ceremony. Although we considered eloping, we decided together that the wedding was more valuable in the long run with the hopes that one day I can work this out with that sibling.
    When we spend time with family, I always have a plan for the amount of time we’re spending and who I am not willing to be alone with. My partner has been totally supportive and appreciates understanding what I need to get through it. We can honestly enjoy ourselves with them as long as I remember I’m never trapped there like I was as a kid and I always have the ability to say no.
    Individual therapy, group therapy, support groups, YES YES YES. We both process through these things in different ways and have learned not to expect the other to have the same feelings. Having other places to process those emotions has helped us not to “dump” on each other when we’re overwhelmed.
    One last thought–this whole situation has really helped me to depend on my partner and exposed vulnerabilities I was unwilling to show before. Working through it has benefited our relationship in untold ways. I wouldn’t want to walk through the last year again, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    • LW

      Thank you for sharing your story, Anon. The idea of making a plan in advance sounds helpful, and one I will encourage us to do. We are both going to individual and couples counseling, which does help us process our different feelings and reactions.

      I really appreciate your point about exposing vulnerabilities. It is such a tough time, and I hope it will make us stronger in the end.

    • TB

      Thank you, Anon now – and everyone on APW- for sharing such personal experiences and creating such caring community.

      Our situations are different, but do you have any suggestions for how you and your partner came to terms with deciding that your sister would be there? I was molested by an uncle many years ago, and shared that experience with my fiance recently. While my fiance does whatever i need to feel 100% safe if i get triggered, he was very upset to learn it had happened, reacting very protectively toward me. He doesn’t feel he could meet my uncle without it becoming a fight. None of my other family members know. I have chosen to deal with it through therapy and the support of a few close friends (and now the fiance), rather than blast the news to every second or third cousin. (in my family there is no such thing as a “secret”).

      My fiance is adamantly opposed to my uncle attending our out-of-town weekend wedding. We both feel its important to have our friends and families there but, my extended family is small and his absence would be obvious. How I can invite my beloved aunt and cousins but not the uncle. There will be over 80 people attending and I anticipate that my interactions with the uncle will be so few that I’ll have almost no memory that he was there. Not inviting him will open up the whole can-o-worms. Its easier for me to avoid him, than to feel that awful cloud hovering over one of the most important moments of my life.

      My fiance doesnt think the uncle should get to walk around “free” with no repercussions, and while there is truth to that, there is also the truth that to broadcast the news would be more damaging to me. I’m not sure how to take care of myself while being understanding and caring about my fiance’s feelings, and also having the festive friends-and-family celebration we both want. Maybe we need therapy together–I’m just not sure how to navigate this.

      • LW

        TB, I am in the same position as your fiance. I am very angry and would feel uncomfortable with the abuser attending our wedding. It’s a very special day, after all, one in which we both want to feel safe, protected and loved.

        My partner, however, has dealt with it in his own way and would want his whole family to be invited.

        I do not have any good advice except maybe what has been posted on other APW advice columns regarding difficult people: establishing a “security guard” of sorts whose job it is to monitor the person in question, and deal with them appropriately to prevent any trouble or acting out. (I can’t find the link to the exact articles here, but maybe someone else can find them…)

        Therapy may help you both. Though, a warning: therapists will have their own perspectives. In couples counseling, our therapist told my partner that he should report the abuser immediately. This was NOT what my partner wanted or needed to hear right then. But yes, in general, therapy can help.

        Wishing you strength right now <3

        • TB

          Thanks LW – wishing you strength as well through these upcoming holidays. Thank you so much for bravely asking your questions and providing insight with what you’ve learned in your process of moving forward and through. Your letter gave me really helpful insight into what my fiance might be feeling–we are in this together and his feelings and comfort is just as important, even if our experiences are different.

          And I hear you on how some therapists arent the right fit! Ugh – i’m sorry you and your partner had that experience. I have found great therapists for me that have helped me thrive; I’m not sure its the right solution for us as a couple… still thinking that through.

          Thank you for the good suggestion of having a “security guard.” I think I may set up a “defense team” of my in-the-know friends–who can enlist their respective partners help without needing to divulge much detail.

          Sending you good thoughts for continuing to find your way through this with your partner.

        • MTM

          Based on your other replies, this may be unwanted/unsolicited advice, but you’re allowed to have a wedding free of people who knowingly sexually abuse children. You will (most likely) have children at your wedding. You mentioned in your letter that your partner doesn’t feel like this person would harm other children, but do you agree? I’m not trying to stir something up here, but if a therapist told him to report this person, maybe there’s something more here. Even though your partner may not have been ready to hear it, maybe you are?

          Your wedding should be a happy day for you both. Your partner’s desire to have his whole family there does not trump your feelings about it, nor the safety/security of your guests. You don’t have to be complicit in the silence. You can support your partner while also holding to what that person/people did was wrong.

          • LW

            Hi MTM, that IS unsolicited advice :) But I feel the need to respond because it’s an important point.

            This is a very difficult issue to deal with. I don’t know if the abuser has harmed or would harm other children; I just don’t know the person very well in general. All I can go on is my instinct, and what my partner has told me.

            I care very much about the children in my life, and would never want anything like this to happen again. This is a question my partner and I will have to work out together, with the help of professionals and trusted friends.

            One of the hardest parts of this whole experience for me is that my partner is confident that everything is ok. He wants me to accept it and move on, the way he has, and I am just not ready to yet. Maybe never will be.

            Thank you for your input.

          • Sara

            My sister was a victim of sexual abuse and I just have very strong feelings about this. I have to agree with you, MTM. Whether he “knows” it or not, statistics show that the chances of the abusers re-offending is extremely high.

            I am not trying to sound judgmental or preachy, but pretending things are okay / sweeping things under the rug / secrecy is part of the cycle of abuse. It is incredibly common for victims to not want to report their abusers, for a multitude of reasons (i.e. they love or care about the abuser, fear, shame, fear of causing family turmoil, etc). Victims who continue to spend time with their abusers are often re-traumatized over and over again, although they may not actually be physically violated again.

            I know how hard this is for you and how helpless it can feel. It is a very difficult position to be in. My heart goes out to you and I think your partner is lucky to have your love, support, and incredible understanding.

      • Anon now

        For me, I didn’t want my choices for our wedding to be determined by my abuse history. Everyone has to decide what’s right for them. I decided that I wanted to honor my sister for the positive contributions she has made to my life in the past and what I hope will come in the future. No one is all good or all bad. She has given me good things I can honor. Her ABSENCE would have made the day about the abuse. Her presence kept the focus on what was important–my marriage to my husband, and not her at all.
        Our wedding day was not the day to bring about any kind of “justice” or to right relational wrongs. Families are all complicated–weddings don’t solve that. I decided that I could be more comfortable with her presence than her absence. Barring her from attending or taking her out of the wedding party would have raised more questions and made family uncomfortable and concerned. That meant that I had to do some work in therapy getting ready to be around her, but that’s the direction I decided to go. In the long run, I don’t think I’ll regret it.
        You and your fiance will have to decide for yourselves, but I would just say be sure you’re making the decision that best serves the two of you, not what empowers people who have no right to define your day.

      • MTM

        As someone who dealt with something very similar, no one ever questioned me about the person’s absence. While no one knows what happened, it was a non-negotiable in talking to my parents in making the guest list. I said that X was not invited and I was not going to discuss it further, while I was okay that X’s mom was present (an aunt), I would not allow X to be there. None of my other relatives ever mentioned it. If people were talking about it, it never made it back to me.

        It’s super important to be able to draw boundaries where you need them. especially on your wedding day. Your partner deserves to feel comfortable, too.

  • Hey anonny nonny

    I am shaking at my desk just thinking about you and your partner walking into a family gathering with this history coloring every interaction. I wish you and your partner strength and joy this holiday season. My husband was not sexually abused, but he was abused and abandoned by his mother in a way that created deep wounds that may never really heal, so I can relate a little bit to what you are going through. I learnt about the abuse, much of it emotional but also physical, over time and so there wasn’t one bombshell moment. I recognize that it is his choice to continue to have a relationship with her, but I and my therapist both agree that he has adequate grounds to cut off the relationship. It is hard for me to step back and not push him to cut her out of his life, but I see that the pain of doing that may not be worth the gain to him.
    We have had many talks about how to go forward and the advice to discuss before hand is spot on. However, I would note that how and how often you want to discuss it and how he wants to discuss may not be the same. My husband has told me that he can’t think about it too much because he couldn’t handle it. So, I respect that, with the added caveat that he might benefit from seeing a therapist, and I only bring up logistical issues. I see the damage he hides so well and think he could be happier if he addressed it, but I think he may never do that. He manages and has a fulfilling life and it is his choice so long as it doesn’t affect our relationship and family. So, I focus on addressing how she affects me and the kids. Thankfully we are on the same page about leaving our children alone with her – in that it will never happen. After a particularly bad last visit we discussed and agreed that I do not need to be on family outings because I have so much anger toward her for what she did to my husband, and how she continues to behave, that I just can’t be around her for hours on end and remain civil anymore.
    You are new to this, so I would say a planned out for family gatherings would be helpful. Sometimes just knowing that you can leave might make it more bearable. Good luck and i hope you find peace and joy this holiday season!

    • Whitney S.

      So. Weird. I feel like you just wrote my story(- kids). It so hard for me to be SO MAD about all the shenanigans, and Fella just shuts down and pushes it all down. Like, this person creates all this chaos and the point person hasn’t fully processed/have a plan of action with dealing with her. I’ve just said your relationship with her is whatever you’d like it to be, but her and I are done.

      Thanks for sharing. It’s good to know I’m not the only one…

    • LW

      Thank you, HAN. Yes, we also have differences about wanting to discuss his abuse. He has “dealt with it” and doesn’t want to talk about it too much. I am still somewhat in shock and processing it in my own head and heart. We do both see therapists, and that is extremely helpful.

      We will make a plan in advance for the family gathering; that is a great suggestion. I like your point about knowing we can leave. It’s also good to hear that this is an ongoing process for you — it gives me hope that we can work things out, even though it will be difficult at times.

      I hope you have a good holiday season as well :)

  • anon.

    Thank you for writing this letter. Although my husband’s trauma is very different from your situation, this letter made me consider, once again, the need for seeking outside advice and support even though my husband thinks everything is fine. It’s hard to know what to do when he doesn’t see the connection between his past and his current issues. He thinks he has dealt with things. I don’t, and the whole situation causes me a lot of stress. Hmmmm. Maybe I should try to find a trauma therapist to talk to without him.

    • LW

      I would recommend seeing a therapist, if you can. You have your own feelings and need to manage the stress in some way. An outside counselor can help with that.

      My partner also thinks the situation is okay and he has dealt with it, etc. However my feelings are real, I feel extremely anxious about visiting his family, and there are ways I need to take care of myself in the situation. Talking to a therapist and even calling a crisis hotline have been extremely helpful for me since learning about his abuse.

      Good luck to you, anon.

  • LW

    This is the Letter Writer. I want to thank APW for posting my letter, and Dr. Brofman for her thoughtful response, as well as the advice of other mental health professionals. Everything you said makes sense.

    Would like to let everyone know that I started talking to a counselor about this, and my partner and I also went to a couples counselor to talk about it as well. I have also spoken to a close and trusted friend recently who (unfortunately) has experienced something similar. These outside resources are helping me deal with my difficult emotions in a way that doesn’t place the burden on my partner.

    Thank you for saying that my feelings are real and they matter. I know they do, but it means a lot to hear it from other people as well.

    Your suggestion to make a plan for the actual holiday event is very practical and will help reduce some of my anxiety. I also like the point about creating our own traditions. I don’t actually care about “the holidays” very much, but it makes sense for us to make something that is meaningful for us both at this time.

    Thank you again and again, to this strong and supportive community.

  • grace b

    Just wanted to chime in that the symptoms of PTSD are very real and I didn’t realize that is what my partner was experiencing for years until I finally connected the dots and did some internet sleuthing. Also, deciding with whom you will divulge the information is extremely sensitive. I agree though that having an additional (to a therapist) person know can help ease the burden. Also, sometimes secrecy is just the way a person decides to deal with something. It’s challenging.

  • anon

    Thanks for writing and publishing this guys- the timing couldn’t be better.

    I haven’t ever told anyone (excluding therapists) that I was molested by a sibling until I was 9. I’m recently married and grappling with the fact I need to (and should have years ago) share this with my new wife. I’m afraid of three things: 1) That she’ll be…all the feelings. She deserves to have any feelings she needs for as long as it takes, but I’m anxious about watching/experiencing them with her. 2) That it’ll change our relationships with my family. They don’t know, I don’t want them to know. We have close relationships with a couple of my siblings and my parents, despite them having issues with our same sex relationship. I don’t have any relationship with the sibling in question and we only see them once every 4-5 years. I did actually tell my mother when I was very young. I suspect she didn’t really believe me or was so horrified she chose to block it out. 3) I’m worried she won’t believe me. Or actually, that it’s not true. What if this is all some weird, traumatic fantasy I talked myself into believing as a child? I know how easily memory can be constructed and warped. It feels real, I have very detailed memory of multiple experiences but you know, there’s that nagging doubt.

    • anonymous

      Hi there. Just wanted to offer support to you. Both my partner and my best friend were sexually abused by siblings when they were children. In one case, the family knew and chose to deal with it “in house” by sending the abuser away for many years. He now participates in family events again, which I think is really hard on her. In the other case, the abuse has remained a secret. I can tell you from the perspective of a partner: It was really hard to create any relationship with my partner’s sibling. Hard, yes, but I managed it. Unlike you, my partner chooses to keep a very close relationship with her. It’s my partner’s family and my partner’s trauma, and so my partner sets the rules. It took a year or more before I could accept that this person was going to be in our lives, and that I couldn’t hold this against her forever. Now that we have a daughter, we’re navigating these waters all over again–Who is it safe to leave our daughter alone with, and what do we watch out for? It’s scary and sad, but I would be heartbroken if my partner had to go through this alone because it was still a secret. I would definitely encourage you to tell your partner, and continue therapy (either alone or with your wife). Doubting yourself is natural. Talking through everything with both your wife and a professional really will help you deal with that. Let the person that loves you most in the world tackle this thing with you. Trust me. She doesn’t want you to bear this alone.

    • LW

      Hi anon. I’m sorry this happened to you, and that your mother didn’t believe you.

      It’s ok to be afraid; this is a big deal. If you want to tell your wife, here are some suggestions I have (based on what I found helpful/wish happened with my partner):

      – Plan how you will tell her. Where and when, what will you say?
      – Anticipate some of her questions — she will probably have a lot. Some may be angry (“why didn’t you tell me before?”), some may be inquisitive (“what happened, how many times, who?”). Set boundaries ahead of time on what you feel comfortable sharing. You don’t have to answer all her questions, and you don’t have to answer them all at once.
      – It would be helpful to have some resources available. The RAINN hotline and “Allies in Healing” book that Elisabeth mentioned above could be good for her. The hotline will be good for talking and finding more resources like support groups, the book might be able to answer some of her questions.
      – Think ahead of time if there is a trusted friend you think would be ok for her to talk to about it. It would be good for her to have 1-2 friends she can share this with.
      – You might want to share the “comfort in, dump out” framework kayjayoh shared above. Or at least keep it in mind when planning and sharing this information with her.

      One last point: I knew something was wrong before my partner told me. He had hinted at it before and there were other issues that came up, that make more sense now. It was very hard to hear, and it’s been a difficult time since, but it’s almost a relief to understand him better and make these connections. I don’t know you, but it’s possible that your partner has an idea or suspicion that something bad happened. This might actually help her to understand you a little better.

  • mark

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  • nancy Alfred

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  • Katherina

    My husband has abandon me and the kids for the the past 8months now, and refuse to come back because he was hold on by a woman whom he just met, for that, my self and the kids has been suffering and it has been heel of a struggle, but I decide to do all means to make sure that my family come together as it use to, then I went online there I saw so many good talk about this spell caster whose email is onimalovespell@gmail.com so I had to contact him and in just 4days as he has promised, my husband came home and his behavior was back to the man I got married to.I cant thank the spell caster enough what what he did for me, I am so grateful. I even spoke to the spell caster over the phone, to confirm his existence. His email again is: onimalovespell@gmail.com

  • StillAngry

    Thank you for writing about this topic. My partner was raped as a young man. I have also experience sexual abuse at a young age. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot and come to terms with over the years. I never once thought it would come up during wedding planning. His mother, who is aware of the his rape (although he did not tell her about it until years afterwards) insisted on inviting his abuser’s family to the wedding. We put our foot down and refused to invite them and she honestly does not understand why we don’t want them there. It’s like she’s swept the entire thing under a giant rug and pretends it never happened. My partner is hurt, and I’m appalled at his mother’s behavior. The issue is settled and is behind us now, but I don’t know that their relationship will ever recover and honestly I don’t blame him for not forgiving her. But I also understand the impulse to ignore what happened. I only opened up about my abuse over ten years after the fact, only to find out that many other women in my family had been abused as well but never spoke of it. Then again, I’m still so angry at her for hurting her son like this. Thank you for sharing your story and good luck. As terrible as it is to see this has happened to other people, it’s nice to know we’re not alone, trying to navigate weddings and family and abuse.

  • Kiki

    I was sexually assaulted as a child aged 12, repeatedly by my teacher. This resulted in having absolutely no boundaries for Strangers, all I did was repeat; ‘No..no..please..stop, no.’ but usually I just froze and from age 12-23 I had several guys come up to me and just out of the blue started undressing or groping me. The people around me never did anything or felt like my silent tears were a consent and didn’t want to get involved.
    After a while I got together with my best friend, i’d hoped he would support/help me with these kindof situations. Some of his friends were people that’d grab a boob while they walked by or we’d go into a store and the storemanager would ‘show me another room with less expensive items, that I’d really love’ and would grope my breasts.
    I remember screaming my boyfriends name (I was cornered, there was expensive porcelain all around me) and he responded; ‘Yéah….wháaat?’ I remember screaming it another few times and that’s when the guy let go of me and I ran back. I was shaking and told him what the guy had done, but he responded with; ‘Ah, really? Hm..well then we’ll leave in a second, just need to check this out, just stay with me, it’s allright.’
    And outside I was lectured on why I never wore a ring and needed to wear one. We’d been on a holiday, In Greece and he tried to convince me that ‘not wearing a ring in Greece, basically means; ‘Here I am, come and get it.’

    Somehow he convinced me for 4,5 years that he was being supportive and since I hadn’t told my parents (and some classmates I told, usually called me a whore and moved on) I wasn’t sure what support was like on this subject.
    But after a while he’d really push it. He’d want me to dressup as a student while having intercourse and call me mister teacher, while he said things involving the words ‘dirty, old, sweaty’ and ‘innocent, young, pretty’ which made me extremely uncomfortable. I stopped halfway and didn’t want to continue, my boyfriend threw a tantrum and had to finish the job alone, something he was angry about for a week.

    He’d tell me that if his friends touched me, it was just a joke, and I should laugh and forget about it. I kept telling him; ‘Then why don’t they touch the other friends you have, it’s always me.’ But he said they probably felt comfortable enough with me and that it was a compliment.
    I slowly started to have more visible PTSD-signs and would cringe and cry for an hour after he told me a very detailed colonoscopy-gone-wrong story with a rude doctor (basically rape.)
    He’d then hug me for hours, while I was having vivid flashbacks and felt like vomiting. But then he tried to ‘cheer me up’ by making a rape-joke. He’d push a finger against my underpants and act like I was now getting a colonoscopy myself, which had me in tears for the next hours as well. He felt I overreacted and it was just a joke.

    I can go on and on with these things. At some point he started telling me how kids in India are raped daily and how, what happened to me, wasn’t even close to it, so I should just forget about it and move on.
    His best friend got drunk and layed on top of me, while punching my breasts and screaming how I was ‘flatchested, so there was nothing to punch anyway’. Boyfriend said it was a joke and I needed to forgive him in order for us to move on as a couple.
    That’s when his dad touched my butt and gave me a slap on the butt, while whispering that I was ‘so pretty’ and how he wanted to do something with my armpithair (I didn’t even have armpithair, that’s what he was dissapointed about.)
    Boyfriend was horrified how I blamed his dad for something and claimed I réally couldn’t handle jokes. Towards the end of the relationship, my flashbacks would get worse and I’d vomit once someone (even my own mom or dad) would touch me. I was scared and I’d have horrible nightmares. My boyfriend would ignore those feelings and just hug me or clench me tightly in his arms and just ‘not let go.’
    If I’d start vomiting, he’d comment on how I had to clean it up myself or how the smell was gross. He’d get angry if i vomited food he’d just spend an hour in the kitchen on. He’d purposely show me ‘actionmovies’ that had rape in them, so I could get ‘used to seeing it without freaking out.’
    He’d then get drunk and act like the pedophile teacher, while mumbling (don’t ask me why) ‘Hey there Kiki, do you want a flesh-hook in your cunt?’ He actually had a fleshhook in the kitchen, so I was terrified, but he claimed it was a joke and demanded sex right after it.

    Sorry for the long story and sorry for the triggering subjects, I had to write it down somewhere. Right after these moments, he chose to break up with me, because of the PTSD and how ‘cold and distant’ I’d gotten. I was heartbroken, but the day after, I woke up in my bed and cried for an hour, out of relief and happiness. I am free now. I can start healing.