It is a wonderful thing to know that finding a healthy relationship is possible after abuse. It can happen to you too. In this week’s blog, we celebrate this and seek to encourage you to maintain a vibrant and caring connection with your mate, whether you are the survivor in the relationship or their partner. If your loved one experienced abuse in the past, it is important to know and understand some of the challenges that a person might be facing in overcoming the trauma they’ve experienced. Abuse can be a profoundly isolating thing – it is hard to explain what it’s like to be a victim to someone who isn’t. No one can completely feel what another person feels, nor understand what it’s like to go through something you never gone through yourself. In fact, we would encourage you to stop pressuring yourself to fully understand and instead focus on being empathetic, patient, compassionate and loving regardless of your ability to identify with the survivor’s feelings.
So, what do you do when the past abuse causes a bump in the road of your relationship? Maybe you did or said something that seemed innocent enough however it unexpectedly brought a traumatic memory or emotion to the surface for the survivor. Perhaps physical touch or sexual intimacy is a challenge. Or maybe your loved one is simply feeling depressed or down for no reason other than their past experience with abuse weighs heavily on their heart and mind.
Whatever the case may be, both of you, survivor and non-survivor, can learn how to communicate your wants and needs in a healthy manner. Sometimes, it’s just finding a caring way to give your lover notice that you’re having a tough time because of your past, but unrelated to them. Perhaps come up with a mutually agreed-upon word or gesture to let them know when you are struggling. Or, if you are the non-survivor, let the survivor know that although you may not fully understand what they are going through, you are there to listen and love them through whatever they are experiencing.
Remember, just as every individual has unique preferences when it comes to how they receive love, individuals who have experienced abuse may need to receive love from their partner a little differently than non-victims. Whether they were sexually, physically, and/or emotionally abused, it’s most essential for you to be patient. Be understanding if they are finding it difficult to enjoy a physical relationship with you. Show compassion if they are slow to trust or if they feel attacked, even when you don’t understand why. The healing journey for an abuse victim is hard and long, with each individual navigating it at their own pace. Just because they are in a healthy relationship now does not mean what happened to them in the past won’t affect them or you in the present.
To be a supportive partner to an abuse victim, selflessness will need to be demonstrated from time to time. Work to develop a relationship in which you both feel completely safe and secure. Establishing trust, which is important in every relationship, will be especially important where one or both individuals was a victim of abuse. You can show empathy and make it a priority to learn about what they have gone through and how they are affected by it to the degree they are ready to share. Be generous in reassuring them and in validating their feelings.
Some survivors develop physical and psychological ramifications after abuse such as PTSD, Complex-PTSD, depression, anxiety and other conditions. Again, this is not the other spouse’s fault, nor is it their sole responsibility to help the survivor heal from these things. But it’s important to learn about the severity of what the victim could be going through so that you are more able to respond compassionately. Below, you will find some helpful resources to further your understanding.
While both individuals in the relationship share the responsibility to be loving, patient and kind towards each other, the non-survivor can play an important role to help to facilitate the survivor’s healing or to identify their partner’s triggers. The survivor needs to understand their own process and learn how to communicate with their partner in a non-combative way when they are struggling. With open and loving communication, partners should be able to help each other walk through these unique challenges.
Much of this can be done through therapy. Professional support may help the survivor work through their trauma as well as to acquire the ability to communicate effectively with their partner about the impact their past experiences have on the present. However, if you are unable to seek effective counseling for some reason, here is a non-exhaustive list of a few resources we can recommend to you. They are here to increase your knowledge and understanding of trauma, the unique things you might be facing as a couple, as well as to teach you how to become a part of your partner’s healing.
- Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Dr. Susan Johnson, as well as the Created for Connection, workbook for Christian Couples to Hold Me Tight.
- The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.
- Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies, by Brent Bradly and James Furrow
On the other hand, if you can afford to do so and if you both are in agreement that you are ready, a couple can choose to pursue the help of a trained therapist. According to Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, “Learning about the stages of healing can be distressing, motivating, upsetting, or uplifting. No matter how you feel, your reaction is not wrong. Acknowledging your emotional response to the stages of healing can allow you to harness your emotions’ energy and reach out to a trained therapist. When looking for a therapist, it is vital to keep in mind that, regardless of what type of psychotherapy you pursue, your therapist should empower you and welcome you as a collaborator in your therapy, not attempt to impose control over you. It is crucial that you feel safe in your therapeutic relationship.”
The following are just a few of the different types of therapy available for couples or individuals:
- Emotional Focus Therapy: This type of therapy can be highly beneficial for couples where one partner has been abused because it is designed to sort through trauma and identify potential triggers and vulnerabilities. In this way, the victim can gain some personal clarity and their partner can be equipped with better tools to become a healing force in the relationship. The goal is to create a safe and deeply intimate relationship. Sometimes, the survivor will need time in individual therapy before inviting their partner in to join them.
- Pharmacotherapy: This allows for the use of medication to manage disruptive trauma reactions.
- Exposure therapy: The most common form of behavior therapy, exposure therapy helps one gradually face their fears, such as the memories of a traumatic event, without the feared consequence occurring. Often, this exposure results in the individual learning that the fear or negative emotion is unwarranted, which in turn allows the fear to decrease.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This therapy is grounded in the idea that an individual must correct and change incorrect thoughts and increase knowledge and skills. For example, they might teach breathing techniques to help manage stress and anxiety.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR sessions follow a preset sequence of 8 steps, or phases. Treatment involves the person in therapy mentally focusing on the traumatic experience or negative thought while visually tracking a moving light or the therapist’s moving finger. Auditory tones may also be used in some cases. There is some debate over the necessity of eye movements within the field of psychology, but the treatment has been shown to be highly effective for the alleviation and elimination of symptoms of trauma and other distress. It is important to note that therapists who perform EMDR must be specially trained and certified by an association such as the EMDR Institute or the EMDR International Association.
- Hypnotherapy: There is no one guiding principal for hypnotherapy. In general, a hypnotherapist guides the individual in therapy into a hypnotic state, then engages the person in conversation or speaks to the person about certain key issue. Most hypnotherapists believe that the emotions and thoughts that an individual comes into contact with while under hypnosis are crucial to healing.
- Psychodynamic trauma therapy: Identifies which phase of the traumatic response the individual is stuck in. Once this is discerned, the therapist can determine which aspects of the traumatic event interfere with the processing and integration of the trauma.
As always, you want to carefully check the credentials and training of any therapist you consider using. Therapy can be hard work, but the payoff is worth it when you have a good quality counselor to help you through these challenging issues.
We at the M3ND Project believe that resources and education are essential overcoming the challenges both victims and those who come alongside them may face. Make sure to check out the rest of our website if you are looking for further support or resources. . This article from Teen Vogue, highlights a survivor’s perspective about things you should know when dating an abuse victim. Being intimate with someone who was victimized as a child can be particularly difficult, this article from DABS contains valuable information on what you can expect throughout their healing journey. Please know that we at the M3ND Project applaud you in your efforts. We believe everyone is worthy of love and capable of thriving in their relationships. We hope this blog and the resources we have provided help you to do just that.