Has Your Partner Been Abused?

You may need to take action to build emotional intimacy.

4 min read

May 15, 2000 -- Elizabeth Haney was sexually assaulted at school by a group of male classmates when she was 12.

Now 24, the San Francisco woman finds that repercussions of the attack have made her incapable of connecting love with sex. She has had just two serious romantic relationships in her life. She admits she is more comfortable with casual flings, partly because the closer she gets to a man emotionally, the less she wants to have sex with him.Haney (not her real name), is currently in therapy to help overcome what she calls her "separation" of love and sex.

But three months into her current relationship, Haney continues to keep her 29-year-old boyfriend at arm's length, emotionally speaking. "I care about him," she says. "But I don't want to get too close."

The arrangement, however, has started to cause friction. Recently, Haney flew into a jealous rage when her boyfriend took a phone call from a woman friend in her presence. Although outwardly viewing the relationship as a fling, her reaction to the phone call suggested otherwise. "I got upset, and he tried to talk to me about it, but I wouldn't talk about it," she says. "I couldn't say what I wanted to, and he got frustrated."

The impact of childhood sexual abuse on adult intimacy varies from person to person, but experts say Haney's relationship troubles are not uncommon. And the numbers behind this dilemma are substantial. According to University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor, PhD, an estimated 20% of women and up to 5% of men in the United States were abused sexually as children.

When those abused as children try to form adult romantic relationships, they can be affected by anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem. Some have no sexual desire; others may have a high sex drive. The history of abuse can also test the partner's limits of patience and understanding. But researchers and mental health experts say there are steps couples can take to help overcome these difficulties and cultivate a healthy, meaningful relationship.

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.

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.

But Herman cautions partners against thinking that their support alone can vanquish their mates' demons. "You didn't cause this, and you can't fix it all by yourself," she says. But partners can go along to therapy sessions, if invited, as a show of support.

As for Haney, she plans to continue with therapy until she is able to combine physical and emotional intimacy. "I am pretty determined when I set my mind to something," she says. "I don't like to live this way. I don't want what happened to beat me."

Stephen Gregory has been a journalist for 10 years and has worked for such publications as The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and U.S. News and World Report.