Although it didn’t occur to me until after we produced Boys and Men Healing, I realized that both my sisters were involved in relationships with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. One sister’s husband was abused by his uncle as a boy, and when her son was just a baby, he left the family and got involved in drugs. My other sister has been involved in a relationship with a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse for over 12 years. Please welcome, Susan, who speaks candidly about her struggles and triumphs as a partner of a survivor.
Can you share about your experience with your partner in terms of his healing process?
Well, if you had asked me this question a few years ago I might have answered differently. As we have journeyed together, I have learned that his healing process at times is not where I think or would like it to be.
After learning about what had happened to him during his childhood years my heart broke for that little boy. The coping skills we all learn as children growing up in homes with any kind of abuse, help us to survive. Those very same coping skills do not necessarily serve us in our adult intimate relationships. Throughout my relationship, I have continued in my own healing process coming from a addictive/domestic violence home environment. In this process of healing, I have learned that we each have our moments of revelation and moments that we might pull inward — all a part of the process. I have learned to let go in love, step back and work on myself, which allows him the opportunity to work on his own issues.
So where is he in his healing? Probably exactly where he needs to be. He has working for years in 12-Step recovery, survivor groups, along with spiritual practices such as meditation. We’ve also been in couple’s counseling.
What are the 3 most challenging issues in your relationship with a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse?
I would have to say, it’s been a challenge to release and let go in times when he disassociates. Disassociating is a part of who he is at this point in his life. It can happen because something triggered him, or disassociation can seemingly come from out of nowhere.
Coming from my own childhood trauma, rejection and abandonment are my triggers. During his difficult times, PTSD, (he calls them “dark times”) arise, he shuts down and withdraws.
For me that can feel traumatic where I feel abandoned and rejected.
However, it was during those times where I actually found myself. In the difficulty of feeling abandoned/rejected –the very place I struggled the most…where I feel lost and scared– I found it was an opportunity for me to go within. It was during those times, I started seeking, finding understanding in books and individual and group counseling where I learned from listening to others.
I came to understand I was always very good at seeing the pain in others, helping them get through theirs, yet I was always outside of my own pain. I wasn’t aware I even had abandonment and rejection issues until I was thrust into experiencing them in the relationship. I spent most of life attached to a love relationship , I was hardly ever alone, but this relationship for some reason hit the core of my fear. When he would disassociate, I couldn’t help him — the only thing that helped him was to leave him alone, which in turn left me alone to face myself.
Women in general need to talk things through, so it was very hard for me to understand that he absolutely was incapable of talking about his dark times with me. During those times is when I reached for books, good supportive friends, a support that helped a great deal. This is where my recovery started, including my recovery from my childhood issues. This was where I learned who I am.
I wish I could say that we don’t struggle with this at all anymore, but that isn’t true. However, now I can help create the necessary space we both need. I’m more able to give him the space he need without making it about my rejection and abandonment issues.
I have gotten better at communication, learning to ask for what I need and want, and knowing that he might not be able to meet the expectations perfectly.
I have learned to take responsibility for my choices, and have gotten better with not blaming and shaming. Listening without having to react has been helpful too.
This relationship has been a bit of a roller coaster, often times I ask myself, am I being an enabler, where do I draw the line? I can get into my own controlling demands about what he needs to do or not do. I can fluctuate between being frustrated and angry at times, and overly empathetic and compassionate at other times in order to keep the peace, but at times I lose myself in this. Yet, being aware of my reactions helps me to return to a healthy balance. During these times is when I reach out to my support systems.
Pornography has been a difficult issue to overcome. For him it was a part of his life, something he used to cope. It makes sense when I put into perspective what he went though. For me it was confusing, I mean here we loved each other, and our sex life was really good. I didn’t understand why he needed pornography. It was something he hid, so that made it even worse for me, and I felt betrayed, cheated on, jealous, and distrusted. I took it as if I was lacking something, and wasn’t enough. Although it affected me, in fact it had nothing to do with me. I reached out to a therapist (a sex therapist), who helped me tremendously. He helped me to voice my feelings, and understand them. But he also helped me to see a larger perspective, rather than black or white/ right or wrong perspective. I was stuck in fear and distrust, and he was in fear and shame. I don’t advocate that pornography is ok. However my understanding of it now is from a different place – my perspective changing has help considerably in lifting some of his “shame” , as well as my fears and insecurities surrounding the issue.
I find that black and white thinking does not work. Having an open mind, listening, forgiveness, love, and compassion does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior, there is a difference. I can be all of these things and set boundaries at the same time.
I think that one of the challenges, is keeping ‘me’ in tact without losing myself. The subject of his abuse started to take over our lives. If we weren’t struggling with some of our intimate issues, I was supporting him in his walk through his pain and struggles related to his abuse issues. This is when I started to disappear (I’m “tearing up” as I write this), because my life became his. As anyone can tell you, that’s not healthy. So in my healing, it was imperative that I develop a path of my own, together but being separate individuals. And continuing to grow as a woman outside my relationship with him has been such a wonderful gift.
He is a fabulous speaker, and he speaks to the community about sexual abuse, but I lost my identity within his bigger journey. It was very important for me, then, to reach out to others for support and is still important for me to still build on those supports. I also realized the people I chose to reach out to need to solid support systems with specific expertise in the areas I was struggling with. Those supports helped to build me, so it really wasn’t about him. The issues that we struggle with are not easy to understand. People are people are people and they judge. It was through trial and error that I found the supports I needed. Ultimately, it comes down to me working on me. When I am firmly grounded in who I am, all will be well around me.
I have grown in and through this relationship. If I could say to anyone in relationship with someone who has been sexually abused, reach for support, take those moments of difficulty as an opportunity to learn about you.
My reminder to myself:
Remember hurt people, hurt people. Be kind, speak that truth in love, learn to set boundaries for yourself. When I grow certain of who I am all else will fall into place.
I have recently taken up photography, where I found a new part of myself.