'Til Trauma Do Us Part: The Impact of Trauma on Sexual Connection
Because trauma affects you physically and emotionally, it inevitably impacts your conscious and unconscious desire for closeness and connection. Traumatic events of both a sexual and nonsexual nature can have a devastating impact on a couple’s sexual intimacy. After rape, female victims often distrust and avoid intimate relationships and may struggle with difficulties in arousal or psychical response. (Mills and Turnbull, 2004). Avoidance of sexual activity, finding sex boring or burdensome, reduced desire and performance difficulties have been associated with war exposure and combat trauma ( Matsakis,1996). The grief from losing a child as well as traumatic life events like cancer, miscarriage, auto accidents and natural disasters impact intimate relating and sexual connection (De Silva, 2001).
Most partners don’t realize that it is common for one or both partners to experience a lack of desire, sexual performance problems or avoidance of intimacy after trauma. Feeling shame and blame, they often fear that the lack of responsiveness in themselves or their partner is an indication of lack of love or permanent dysfunction. They assume that they alone are struggling sexually so they avoid speaking about it – even to each other!
What Should Partners Know? It is important for partners to realize that what they are experiencing is a common sequel to a life threatening experience. The trauma symptoms of hyperarousal, intrusion, avoidance and numbing disrupt the psychological and physical safety and trust people need to be intimate.
It is difficult, for example, to feel sexual if you or your partner is frightened or hypervigilant to sound and touch. Partners suffering from nightmares and traumatic memories can be too exhausted to be sexual or too preoccupied to relax and connect. The numbing and constriction which keeps a person from feeling in the aftermath of a trauma can also keep them avoiding intimacy because it stirs up feelings – and all feelings have become unsafe.
How Does Knowing Help?Accepting all of these responses as understandable does not mean you must surrender to them. It means that you must put them in perspective and address them if you plan together to reclaim your intimacy.
First Steps in Reclaiming Intimacy
“More than Friends”
One of the most crucial steps in reclaiming intimacy is to communicate the wish to be together in a sexual way even if this wish can’t be acted upon at the present time. While this may seem like a simple and obvious concept, it is actually powerful, because partners in pain assume the worst about each other. Many fear that any expression of sexual interest or affection will bring with it expectations of response. Others keep their distance to avoid being rejected by or upsetting the other partner — so no one says anything.
If you are working together on reclaiming your sexual connection, letting your partner know that you still want to be “more than friends” is a step toward being together. Mutually expressed desire can compete with geographical miles, physical limitations, medication side effects and PTSD symptoms.
If you want to change the way you are relating and re-establish your intimate bond, you don’t need to start in bed but you need to start making time for yourselves as a couple. Remember when you first met – how you worked at finding time to be together? Back then, regardless of what you planned, you usually had a preconceived expectation that it was going to be positive, maybe sexual. Now you need time to find each other again. Even if you both have your doubts make a plan – a movie night, a dinner date, a walk on a regular basis — treat it like a commitment to connection and it will become one.
Cupach and Comstock in their work with couples (1990) suggest that there are three domains of expressive communication – companionship or doing things together, empathy as listening and sharing, and physical connection as touch, caress and sexual intercourse. Couples who spend time together tend to share and understand each other more and begin to feel more sexual. Ever notice in the movies that the couple stranded together on the island ends up in each other’s arms?
Saying No and Hearing No
Safety and trust are crucial to restoring a sexual connection. For you to build true intimacy both partners need to be able say NO without fear so you can feel the true meaning of YES.
Saying NO in a way that is tender and reassuring can actually send a message of trust and connection. “I love that you want to get together tonight and I love how you look – I’m so exhausted I just can’t.”
Accepting NO with a message of desire instead of anger or rejection makes it safer for both to say YES at another time. “OK but don’t wear that perfume with anyone else but me.”
If one partner has a pattern of always saying no, it is important for the other to share his or her wish to be sexual and to express an interest in understanding the other’s feelings. Try not to predict, judge or give up. It does not matter where you start – assume the best and start somewhere. As you see in the case of Cheryl and Nick below – both will benefit.
After Cheryl lost the baby, she stopped saying much and didn’t seem to want to do anything. Nick saw her expression when they were in the company of friends with kids, but was unsure if he should say anything. Around the house, he would try to engage her but she was always busy with chores. As a few months went by, Nick worried that they would both fall into despair. He wanted to make his need for time and connection with Cheryl clear, so he started leaving little notes asking her for a date. Cheryl threw them away or ignored them. Trying not to feel rejected, Nick started leaving larger notes. Each day the note on the refrigerator got larger until finally he taped up a piece of oak tag board that said, “You’re my girl—I won’t give up. How about dinner Friday night?” They settled on a lunch date. (Excerpt from Healing Together, p. 51)
For Further Reading:
Cupach, W. R., and J. Comstock. 1990. Satisfaction with sexual communication in marriage: Links to sexual satisfaction and dyadic adjustment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 7: 179-86.
De Silva, P. 2001. Impact of trauma on sexual functioning and sexual relationships. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 16 (3): 269-78.
Matsakis, A. 1996. Vietnam Wives: Facing the Challenges of Life with Veterans Suffering Post-traumatic Stress. Baltimore: Sidran Press.
Mills, B. and G. Turnbull. 2004. Broken hearts and mending bodies: The impact of trauma on intimacy. Sexual and Relationship Therapy 19(3): 265-89.
Phillips, S. (2009). 'Til Trauma Do Us Part: The Impact of Trauma on Sexual Connection. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2009/10/til-trauma-do-us-part-the-impact-of-trauma-on-sexual-connection/