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Health & Sex

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Has Your Partner Been Abused?

You may need to take action to build emotional intimacy.

The Effects of Abuse

Not everyone who was abused as a child reacts as Haney does, preferring casual sex. But she's far from alone, according to a survey of 1,032 college students published in the November 1999 issue of the Journal of Sex Research. In the survey, women who had been sexually abused were more likely than those who had not been abused to be more sexually experienced and more willing to engage in casual sex, according to Cindy Meston, PhD, a survey co-author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas. (This was not the case for men.) Such behavior could stem from an unhealthy sexual self-image, she says. Or, some survivors may use sex as a means of getting validation from men.

Some who have been sexually abused have problems staying faithful, says Linda Blick, MSW, LCSW-C, a New York City retired social worker who has counseled many sexual abuse survivors.

But others may have a sudden loss of desire, says Bette Marcus, PhD, a Rockville, Md., psychologist. She recalls a patient who, two years into her marriage, began having flashbacks of sexual assaults at the hands of her stepfather. Marcus said the memories made it difficult for the patient to continue having sex with her husband, and although she underwent therapy, the marriage ultimately ended in divorce.

Those abused as children also may have difficulty trusting people, including relationship partners. A sense of security may be totally absent, according to Paul Tobias, PhD, a Los Angeles psychologist.

Getting Help

Abuse survivors and their partners should consider counseling, whether it's with a therapist, self-help group, or religious organization, says Judith Herman, MD, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard School of Medicine. It is just as important for partners to talk through their emotional states as it is for victims, she says. Tobias recommends checking with local associations of licensed psychologists and psychiatrists for referrals.

Partners should be especially understanding with abuse survivors, who can at times lash out for no apparent reason. "Have patience and sit down with the person and try to talk ... about what's going on," Blick says. It might be that they are having a flashback, for instance. In physical and verbal interactions, experts suggest following the lead of the partner who was abused.

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