“I was 7 years old. Or maybe 8?” she said.
She seemed puzzled and lost.
She stared at me, looking for assurance that what she was saying was true. Her name was Sasha.* She was in her mid-30s and had been married for more than five years. Initially she sought my services because of anxiety. After a few sessions, she shared how a family friend had molested her for years.
“Let’s see if we can trace back,” I said.
She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the molestation began. Using various therapeutic interventions and tools, we navigated through Sasha’s history. Gruesome as it was, eventually we were able to pinpoint a time.
“Seven,” I said.
“Yup, age 7,” she repeated as her body rocked back and forth in agreement. “That’s when it all began. It went on for so long that I don’t think I had the mental energy to figure out when it had stopped.”
What is sexual trauma?
Most people can recall devastating events in their lifetime including the date, time and location. Sexual trauma is often different. This explains why Sasha struggled to recall her age when the abuse commenced.
- sexual assault
- sexual abuse
- sexual harassment
- childhood sexual abuse
- sex trafficking
- online sexual harassment
- sexual violence in relationships
Victims of sexual trauma may have trouble recalling specific details about their experience, but they can vividly remember feelings associated with the experience.
Sound confusing? Think of it this way: Say you got into a car accident. You may not remember the crash’s specifics, but your body still feels the pain caused by the accident. Sexual abuse survivors have the ability to suppress details of the actual trauma. While the feelings associated with the trauma and the effects remain, the memory of the actual act, plus the dates and times, may depart. The inability to remember details presents several challenges:
- doubt that the abuse even happened
- lack of reason to seek help
- feelings centered on shame and denial
- lack of access to resources due to the unprocessed trauma
In my line of work, I meet many “Sashas.” Those who are silent. Those who have suffered from sexual trauma and have not dealt with it. They go on with their day, participating in normal activities such as taking care of their home, going to school and being active in ministry, while secretly struggling in their marriage.
What happens with unprocessed sexual trauma?
Sasha came in for what she believed were harmless thoughts that were affecting her ability to focus. After several sessions, the impact her past was having on her life and in her marriage became clear. Sasha discovered her past childhood sexual abuse created a blurred film in her mind that caused communication barriers with her husband, triggered body shaming and resulted in a lack of sexual fulfillment in her marriage.
Her anxiety turned her into a critical person who could not find good in anything. In fact, during a session when I asked her to describe herself within the marriage, she replied, “I’m not good enough. He is going to leave me one day.”
Sasha’s insecurities, coupled with her refusal to communicate feelings and her lack of engagement during sex, resulted in marital issues over time. Moreover, her constant gripes about her shortcomings and flaws frustrated her husband. He was tired of affirming her insecurities, weary of saying “I love you just the way you are” and fed up with feeling guilty when he didn’t text or return her calls right away.
The seriousness of sexual trauma
As Christians, we believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. We trust that we can cast all our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7) and that “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
We cannot minimize sexual trauma’s impact. It is one of the most invasive types of abuse that can single-handedly destroy someone’s overall mental state and life. When someone is sexually abused, he or she is robbed of his or her innocence and peace of mind. The victim fights self-identity issues and self-hatred for years. If not processed in a healthy way, the abuse can impact his or her marriage.
Statistics and diagnosis
According to the National Sexual Violence and Resource Center:
- One in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime in the U.S.
- 81% of women and 35% of men report significant short- or long-term impacts such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As a clinician, I’ve treated many clients who have a history of sexual trauma. Like Sasha, most suffer from PTSD. I’ve noted from my experience some of the most common psychological impacts of sexual trauma as well as behavioral impacts relating to sexual intimacy.
Four psychological impacts of sexual trauma
Pushing away the spouse
Victims of sexual abuse sometimes believe they caused the abuse, triggering unhealthy thought patterns. They believe they influenced their perpetrator to take advantage of them. Often a perpetrator can successfully manipulate the victim’s mind to believe it’s his or her fault. Victims may say things such as “I shouldn’t have worn that” or “It’s because I was too nice.” Once the abused individual convinces himself that it’s his fault, he sees himself as bad and unredeemable. He constantly tries to reach an unrealistic standard he has created in his mind. The victim can also hate his body because it was “damaged,” therefore no one would ever want to be with him.
This psychological impact can harm a marriage. Insecurities can cause the abused spouse to distrust his or her partner without reason. It can also produce consistent self-doubt. These insecurities lead to unintentionally pushing away a spouse while the victim can’t express his or her true feelings. Trust issues and shame begin to develop as an outcome of the abuse.
Feeling like their body is not theirs
One of the outcomes of sexual abuse is the defenseless feeling that overwhelms the victims. This happens because their body was used without permission and sometimes used despite aggressive objections; therefore it may create a sense of powerlessness.
My clients work through weeks, sometimes months, of intense therapeutic sessions just to regain confidence and accept ownership of their bodies. Victims of sexual abuse may struggle to understand or accept the Bible verse, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). This verse can be distorted and misused if taken out of context. It can feel threatening to a victim. A husband may cause his wife to shut down emotionally and experience an unfilled sex life if he uses this verse without being sensitive to the wife’s past.
However, a more helpful approach is found in Ephesians 5:28 where compassionate care is clearly shown: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” This verse can bring peace to someone who was previously abused and is now married.
Distorting views of people and over-sexualizing intent
Victims of sexual abuse usually have a heightened sense of awareness because their trust was violated. They may view others negatively and assume everyone has evil intentions, causing paranoia and false accusations. These beliefs often apply to their spouse as well. These negative views lead to over-sexualizing innocent behaviors. For example, if a male family member has a young child on his lap or if a mother kisses her son on the lips, someone who was sexually abused may view those actions as sexual encounters.
Rehearsing the abuse during intimacy and exhibiting anxiety symptoms
This is an immense issue and is more common than people realize. It’s a problem that should not be ignored, because experiencing flashbacks especially during intimacy is to suffer through angst during a sacred moment that should be enjoyed. Often the spouse who is not experiencing the anxiety symptoms does not realize that his or her spouse is not fully engaged in intimacy.
Five behavioral impacts on sexual intimacy
Not expressing discomfort during intimacy with your spouse
Victims of unprocessed sexual trauma may believe they cannot share something they did not enjoy during intimacy because their abusers told them to “keep it a secret” or silenced them forcefully. They become accustomed to staying quiet and being oppressed. This mindset becomes distorted when the victim of sexual trauma accepts discomfort during intimacy with her spouse and never says anything.
Reliving the traumatic experience if the spouse is forceful
A spouse may replay her sexual trauma in her mind if her husband is dominant or commanding during intimacy. He may desire a vibrant sexual experience without any malicious intent. To the victim, it may come across as too forceful.
Startling easily when touched or surprised
Victims of unprocessed sexual trauma may exhibit a chronic sense of hypervigilance. Unexpected touches are neither pleasant nor appreciated.
Unwilling to explore new ways to be sexually intimate
Unprocessed sexual trauma can cause an individual to be sexually cautious. He may feel anxious if his wife deviates from a comfortable routine. Some abusers use their victims as a means to explore different sexual fantasies. That’s why some victims refuse to try different ways to be intimate with their spouse in the bedroom, as they fear unpredictability.
Developing unhealthy sexual habits at a young age
Children and adolescents are not cognitively developed enough to understand the physical and emotional effects of sex. If a minor is sexually abused and he doesn’t receive treatment, he may become curious about sexual activity. His curiosity may lead to misguided behaviors such as watching pornography, engaging in compulsive masturbation or being promiscuous.
Sexual trauma should not be dismissed as insignificant. No matter how long ago the horrific act occurred, the effects are long lasting. However, this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
Healing for the victim, the spouse and the couple
In my practice, I often treat individuals with sexual trauma who, over time, report a significant improvement in their mind, physiological reactions and marriage. Here are some practical solutions for the individual victim, the individual victim’s spouse and the two of them as a married couple.
For the spouse with the traumatic experience
What happened to you was horrific, and your feelings are valid. May God grant you a peace that surpasses all understanding. Here are some tips that can help start your healing process:
Begin with awareness. Acknowledge that you can’t put the experience on a shelf and walk away.
Don’t avoid the issue. Avoidance is a defense mechanism. It gives the Enemy power over you. By not bringing your experience to light, the Enemy can continue to feed you lies about the trauma. Lies such as “It was your fault” or “You will never get better.” Keeping your emotions suppressed can create anxiety, depression, anger and bitterness.
See a Christian counselor. Find a therapist who specializes in trauma. Clinicians who work with sexually abused victims will handle your sessions with great sensitivity. A good therapist will support you through the healing process step by step. Counseling can help you discuss the abuse without shame, experience clarity and improve your relationships. Counseling is not easy, and progress is not always immediate. But it can benefit you in time.
Share with your spouse. Be open and honest with your husband or wife about your feelings. Sharing your feelings can create deeper intimacy between you and your spouse. Enlist your counselor to mediate if communicating your emotions to your spouse is not constructive.
Journal your feelings. Many of my clients find journaling helpful. There’s something about taking the thoughts bouncing around in your head and putting them down on paper. It’s a release, and it reduces stress since those thoughts can become overwhelming.
Another great benefit of journaling is looking back and tracking your emotions. Journaling is also a great tool for self-discovery. Sexual trauma can cause an individual to struggle with finding purpose and self-identity.
Take time to read your thoughts and look for common themes. Learn more about yourself and stop seeing yourself through the lens of your trauma.
For the victim’s spouse
The Word says that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus came so that you may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Do not to let this experience steal your marriage, kill the bond between you and your spouse, and destroy God’s good intentions for your marriage.
Schedule physical intimacy. When intimacy is scheduled, it’s an agreement with consent from both the husband and wife. This is a temporary suggestion. The goal is to eventually have spontaneous intimacy without your spouse having anxiety symptoms.
Discuss new ideas first. Engage only in intimate positions you’ve agreed to in advance. Do not introduce them in the moment.
Call out your spouse’s name. Let your spouse know you’re approaching her before you touch her.
Attend counseling sessions. Process subtle areas in which your spouse’s past experience have affected your marriage.
Listen without judgment. Ask your spouse how you can help.
For the married couple
Increase your quality time dramatically. Sexual abuse victims need to develop safe, nonsexual relationships. Engage in romantic activities that do not lead to intercourse. For example, plan a candlelight dinner followed by snuggling under a blanket with music and light conversation.
Trauma from sexual abuse is a sensitive topic. I believe that there is nothing our God cannot tackle (paraphrase of Luke 1:37). He has put in place a plan for redeeming your past; God knew of your abuse when you got married or He knew you would marry someone who was abused. He is there to help heal all your wounds, “redeem your life from the pit,” fill you with love and compassion and satisfy you with “good things” (Psalm 103:3-5, NASB).
Marriage is a beautiful covenant established by God. He desires for you to have a wonderful and intimate union. By His grace, you can overcome trauma and celebrate a fruitful and enduring union.
*Names have been changed.
A variety of marital issues can lead to challenges or even hopelessness for one or both spouses in a marriage. Gaining a sense of hope and direction often requires understanding the underlying issues and relationship patterns which may have led to the crisis. Reach out to well-trained helpers even if you are the only person in the marriage willing to take action at this time. We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or [email protected]