It happened again.
Gwen and her husband, Paul, were snuggling on the couch. The kids were in bed and they finally had a few moments to be alone together. It felt so warm and comfortable for Gwen to be in Paul's arms. He stroked her back and they began to kiss-- affectionately at first and then with increasing passion.
As the intensity of their intimacy grew, a part of Gwen began to withdraw. Yes, she was physically right there with Paul as they kissed and stroked one another, but on the inside she was freezing up and the moment was no longer pleasant or comfortable for her.
Paul could sense her pulling away from him and asked if she was okay. She sighed and replied that she was “just tired.” They turned on the tv instead of heading to the bedroom.
Later, when Paul was asleep, Gwen broke down in tears. More than anything, she wants to be able to be completely open and intimate with her husband. She loves him so much and is worried that one day he'll get tired of being so patient with her “hot” and “cold” behavior.
If you're a survivor of abuse-- especially childhood sexual abuse-- you may understand exactly what Gwen is struggling with.
Sexual abuse can leave deep scars that can affect a person's ability to have a healthy relationship later on. A recent study linked childhood emotional abuse with difficulties creating close and satisfying love relationships in adulthood.
While it's obvious that hurting a child can be detrimental to his or her well-being and mental health, it's becoming even more apparent that the long-term, negative effects of any kind of abuse on self esteem and trust can impact an adult's career, mental and physical health and relationships too.
The good news is that, if you are an abuse survivor, you CAN create a happy and healthy intimate relationship with your partner.
These 3 tips will help...
#1: Practice being (and staying) present.
It's so important for anyone who has experienced abuse of any kind to learn how to be and stay present. When a trigger happens, a couple of things tend to occur: 1) You “leave” or dissociate from your body. 2) You return to the past in your mind.
Dissociation is a defense reaction that may have served you well when you were being abused. To disconnect from the moment probably gave you a feeling of protection from the trauma and pain. Unfortunately, to “leave” when a situation is tense, uncomfortable or somehow reminiscent of the abuse becomes habitual. You might do this now, even when there's not actually a threat.
Jumping back to what happened in the past is also a habitual reaction. The feel of your partner's breath on your neck may be sensual until it sparks an unwanted reminder of being abused. A particular tone in your spouse's voice may recall being put down or yelled at. Then, the memories come in and overshadow what would otherwise be a casual conversation or a pleasant experience.
The challenge here is to notice it when you've either “left” or you're re-living a memory of the abuse. Take a moment to consciously bring yourself back to the present and to your body and then to whatever intimacy you might be sharing with your partner.
The breath is always helpful. Concentrate on your own breathing as you inhale and exhale. You can also literally look around the room you are in and focus on how your feet feel as they touch the floor. Ground yourself in this moment and remind yourself where you are and what's true right now.
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#2: Honor your limits.
This is not a time to pretend that everything is okay and to push forward. When you're feeling triggered and struggling to stay present, be very gentle with yourself.
Honor your limits and take the time to give yourself what you need.
Even if you and your partner are in the middle of making love, if an image of the abuse comes barging into your mind, pause. The tendency for many is to pretend that the memory, emotional discomfort or dissociation isn't happening.
You might not want to interrupt or get in the way of your partner's pleasure, but when you've pulled away, chances are he or she will notice.
There are countless ways to be intimate that don't involve sexual intercourse. Non-sexual touch can be an opportunity to connect deeply and meaningful too. If you are triggered while making love, ask your partner to hold you, say “I love you” or to give you a moment to come back to the present.
Keep the communication with your partner honest. Let him or her know if you are feeling triggered or like you are “leaving” and also what you are open to right now.
For example, you could say, “I'm triggered and need to stop for a minute and just breathe. Could you please just hold me?” Words like these help your partner understand that you aren't rejecting him or her and that you are working on being intimate.
#3: Continue to heal.
It doesn't matter how long ago the abuse happened or how much work you've done to heal your past, there is probably more healing to be done. Because the wounds of abuse can run very deep, the healing tends to be ongoing and in cycles or layers.
Please know that you don't have to re-live the trauma that happened during your childhood and it's not helpful to become fixated on or stuck in the past. What IS beneficial is for you to regularly do healing things for yourself.
This might mean that you meet with a counselor or coach who specializes in childhood abuse. It could be that you get those layers of residual emotion and thought out by writing in a journal. Healing might be as simple as taking an occasional evening to do something that feels soothing to your “inner child.”
The more you allow time and space for your healing, the more open and available you can be to deeper and enjoyable intimacy with your partner.
Find out how to talk with your partner more openly about difficult topics and keep your connection strong with Susie and Otto Collins' free communiation secrets report.