Intimacy After Abuse: Starting the Conversation
*If you are a victim or survivor of abuse, please know that this post is sexual in nature and may be triggering for you. I urge you to be kind to yourself and pause or stop reading if you need to.*
After the abuse ended I knew I was messed up, but it would take years for me to fully grasp just how messed up I was, especially when it came to sexuality and intimacy. The sexual abuse I suffered as a young teen was very formative for me. My abuser was "my first." I had no prior sexual experience of any kind and little to no knowledge of sexuality, so the abuse was my framework for sexuality and intimate relationships, and it was a framework which was built on a really lackluster foundation.
I've often joked with close friends that I could go the rest of my life without sex and I'd be perfectly happy. We have a good laugh about it but the truth is that sex is a really complex and oftentimes very frustrating area of life for me. It almost never fails to dredge up memories from my past trauma, and though I often succeed at disallowing those memories from robbing me of an intimate connection with my husband, I don't always succeed and the unsuccessful moments can undo a lot of progress.
My husband has always treated me with the utmost respect and understanding. He's pretty masterful when it comes to being mindful of my past and communicating with me about what I'm comfortable with. He understands consent to a T, meaning he understands consent is something that happens before, during, and after sex. I can't adequately express how much it means to me that he is so kind and thoughtful when it comes to sex, but it doesn't negate the way trauma changed my brain. After nine years of being married to him, the jarring flashbacks and panic attacks after sex have definitely settled down, but the persistent, painful reminders are still there.
During the abuse, any sexual contact was about my abuser - his desire, his lust, his satisfaction. It was never about my pleasure or comfort, and I learned to live with that. Even if something did feel good for me, that was never the point, it more like an occasional side effect. I was never allowed to say no and I was never asked to say yes, I was simply expected to meet his sexual needs at any and all hours of the day. Sexual contact from him was not an expression of love and affection, it was greedy and one-sided, and the result was that intimacy and sex were ripped apart from one another in my mind. Recovering from that detachment has been very difficult, and I'm really not sure what being healed from that looks like yet.
One of my difficulties in intimacy after abuse is that sex is now directly linked to anxiety. The thought of my husband wanting sex is severely anxiety-inducing for me. During the periods of time between intimacy, as sexual tension naturally builds, my anxiety increases with it, and not because I don't enjoy having sex with my husband. It's because I hate sexual tension. When I was a girl, sexual tension meant something terrible was coming, and I didn't know if it would happen in the middle of the night or in the middle of my math homework. I hated that tension, that not knowing. I hated the trauma that followed the tension.
In my marriage, sexual tension is not followed by trauma. It's followed by my husband having the patience of a saint while he waits for me to initiate sex (another area of difficulty.) He knows him initiating sex makes me want to run for the hills, so he waits. And when I do initiate sex, he double checks with me to make sure I'm fully consenting and comfortable.
During the abuse, I was never allowed to initiate physical contact of any kind, let alone sexual contact. My abuser controlled every aspect of our interaction. If I initiated physical contact with him I was rejected, which was deeply hurtful to me, so I learned to follow his rules. The long term result of that has meant I am uncomfortable initiating sex with my husband but also uncomfortable with him initiating sex. I'm sure you can see the conundrum here. The place we have settled on, the place that feels healthy and good for now, is that I initiate all sex in our marriage but that it's appropriate for my husband to gently communicate with me when he's really desiring intimacy, and that there are no expectations or pressures when he does communicate that with me. If this sounds complicated that's because it is. But it's workable.
There have been periods of time in our marriage where intimacy and sex have been less troublesome for me, times when something else takes the center stage of healing, and our sex life has been abundant and communicative and healthy. But healing is a fluid process that doesn't always move in one direction, and I'm familiar enough with it to understand some issues may resurface, especially if they haven't been fully dealt with, and that's okay.
Abuse is permeating. If love heals all, abuse does its best to destroy all, and rebuilding is grueling, heart wrenching work. Intimacy after abuse is an area where I'm still in the thick of figuring things out. I've come a long way and I have a long way left to go. This - talking about it openly and without shame - is a really big step for me, I can feel that.
I look forward to continuing this series on intimacy after abuse. There's much more to say about it. If you have suggestions for discussion, experiences you'd like to share with me, or thoughts on the matter in general, I would truly love to hear from you. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org