At Living Well, requests for assistance for men who have experienced sexual abuse are often initiated by women partners or family members. These women tell an all too familiar story of care and concern, as they struggle with the impact of sexual abuse on their partner, on their relationships and on themselves. It is typical to hear the following comments:
What women partners report
For the past couple of years I have been struggling to understand what has been going on… I love my husband… I know him as a dear, kind man, yet am watching him distance himself from me and our children… He is working longer and longer hours… He stopped talking to me… he stopped coming to bed… he keeps saying it’s not you, it’s me… if it isn’t me then why am I being punished? When I told him things had to change or I’m leaving, that’s when he told me… he told me about being sexually abused two years ago, but he won’t go and get help… I don’t understand… he made me promise not to tell… I know it sounds ungrateful with the hell that he has been through, but I didn’t sign up for this… How long will it take for him to get better… I don’t know what to do… I feel like I am going under… we need help… It’s tearing our relationship apart… It’s tearing me apart.
The women we speak with are not just wanting to know how best to support the men in their life, they are seeking support for themselves as people whose relationships and life are being ‘torn apart.’
What can make relationships particularly difficult
In supporting partners after sexual abuse, and trying to offer personalised support, we are aware that there is a complex interplay of factors, both social and sexual abuse related, that confront these women. Young men’s typical ways of managing the effects of sexual abuse can have them flying under the radar in their teens and twenties. These coping methods include not talking, denial, drinking, drugs, casual sex, numbing, risk taking, and limited expression of emotions. It’s how young men behave, right? However, when young men start a relationship they are often challenged to change these ways of living life, as partner’s seek relationships based on commitment, trust, love, care and intimacy. What can make this even more difficult is intimate relationships can trigger reminders of the childhood sexual abuse. This is because abuse often occurs in similar interpersonal contexts, but involving a betrayal of trust. It is not surprising then that pressure for change often builds in relationships.
Partners are quite often the first person a man will tell of the sexual abuse. On average, men disclose sexual abuse 22 years after the event, 10 year later than women. Telling does not mean, however, that the shame, guilt, and fear of people questioning his manhood or sexuality (the things that led him to keep the abuse secret) just go away. Partners report pressure to take on and keep the secret. This has an effect of isolating women from important sources of personal support for them at a time they most need it.
Pressure to be the sole supporter
The pressure partners can feel to act as sole supporter is too much to expect of one person. We know that being well connected and supported is important for our health and well being. However, current men’s health research notes men are less likely to access health care and counselling than women. Further, men have smaller social support networks than women, and men are unlikely to have a close confidant other than their partner. This lack of support compounds problems for couples dealing with sexual abuse, leaving both parties struggling to cope.
Lack of community recognition, awareness and support for men who have had unwanted and abusive sexual contact has a significant impact on the lives of men and on the lives of women. Our intent in naming some of the challenges that couples face in addressing the impact of sexual abuse has been to both highlight the complexity of factors at play, and to encourage greater support for partners and families. There is much not mentioned here, including the particular challenges that face women who have also experienced sexual abuse, mothers/fathers and same sex couples (hopefully we can includes some articles on these issues at some point).
Relationships can be a place of healing
At Living Well, we know from experience that just as relationships can be a place where problems related to sexual abuse can appear, they can also be a place of profound healing. Walking the healing journey together can be hard work and infinitely rewarding. Healthy, happy relationships can be an antidote to sexual abuse. Relationships can be a place where people learn to feel safe and have their choices respected. Relationships are a place where individuals can learn self care and offer care, support and encouragement to others, where couples can build trusting, respectful, intimate, sexy, loving relationships.
If you or your partner are struggling with the impact of sexual abuse, we encourage you to seek further information and support from a counsellor or service provider who has knowledge and experience in working with people who have experienced sexual abuse. Partners of men might also find help in our pages under Information for partners.