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Ending Silence
with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Romantic Relationships Following Childhood Sexual Abuse

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) often struggle with the immediate damage resulting from the abuse (in childhood) as well as the latent consequence of the abuse (in adulthood). Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are faced with many emotional and psychological challenges as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Research suggests that the worldviews of adult survivors are often shaped by the sexual trauma enduring during childhood. The trauma of sexual abuse is multifaceted as it not only involves the sexual abuse but betrayal (if perpetrator was known to survivor prior to the abuse), the feeling of powerlessness (inability to protect oneself against the abuse), stigmatization (being a victim), and sexual trauma (overly sexualized or sexual dysfunctions).

In addition to a distorted worldview, many adult survivors struggle with issues related to trust (trust of others as well as themselves) that can prevent or significantly impact their ability to engage in a healthy committed relationship. Even as adults, survivors of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to view relationships and life’s more difficult moments as insurmountable obstacles. Trauma experienced in early childhood can make survivors more vulnerable to cycles of self-defeating talk and actions. Personal perceptions about self-worth and authenticity of others is typically distorted in a negative way, leading to a dysfunctional cycle that becomes reinforced if left unchanged.

Unfortunately, adult survivors of sexual abuse may be less skilled at self-protection, continuing to retain the perception of victim rather than making the adjustment to survivor. This tendency to be victimized repeatedly may be the result of general vulnerability in dangerous situations and exploitation by untrustworthy people. Survivors consciously and unconsciously think, feel, and behave under the influence of early sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse not only robs children of loving, caring years, but continues stealing valuable experiences and healthy coping mechanisms from adult survivors.

Trauma of Sexual abuse can be Impacted by the Following:

• Relationship between abuser and survivor
• Age at time abuse began
• Length of Abuse
• Cultural influences (some cultures may view sexual abuse as shame to both the family and the victim)
• Length of the abuse
• How family members and other trusted adults responded to disclosure or earning of the abuse
• Whether was any legal consequences for the perpetrator
• Both immediate and latent physical consequences of the abuse
• Early therapeutic services for the abuse
• Previous trauma experienced

For adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, interpersonal and romantic relationships can be more difficult to balance than any other relationships in the survivor’s life. Interpersonal and romantic relationships are more difficult for survivors as they are more “delicate”, they must be maintained in order to survive. Familial relationships are concrete, you are either family or you are not, there are no gray areas. Therefore, how can a survivor establish and maintain relationships when they struggle with issues of trust?

Intimacy following sexual abuse in childhood can negatively impact desire, arousal, and orgasm as it is often associated with sexual activity, violation, and pain. Although, for the survivor, negative correlations are usually drawn between sexual abuse and intimacy with a partner, survivors are more likely than non-survivors to engage in risky sex. This behavior includes engaging in sex with multiple partners, unprotected sex, being more likely to experience unplanned pregnancies, and contract STD’s. Past sexual abuse influences adult relationships in many different ways making it is nearly impossible to achieve a healthy, enduring, and lasting relationship when abuse from the past has not been addressed or appropriately managed. Adult survivors are often isolated and are less satisfied with their relationships than adults who were never abused.

Adults who have been sexually abused as children often carry wounds that are triggered in current relationships which carry similar dynamics to the relationships in which the sexual abuse occurred. Interactional cycles of survival are then activated in the couple relationship which make it difficult for survivors and their partners to feel in control, powerful, and connected. Sometimes, intimate adult relationships retraumatize adult survivors, leading to additional suffering. Notably, therapists who are not trauma informed and trauma trained may unwittingly do the same thing.

Survivors often harbor a deep seeded belief that no one can really be trusted that intimacy is dangerous, and for them, a real loving attachment is an impossible dream. Many survivors believe they are irrevocably flawed, not good enough and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.

Struggles in Romantic Relationships Can Include:

• Feeling unworthy
• Feeling Dirty
• Undesirable
• Depression
• Self-doubt
• Shame
• Suffer from PTSD
• Inability to orgasm
• Dissociating during sex
• Lacking trust of partners intentions/motives
• Overwhelming Emotional Reactions
• Remembering Abuse through Bodily Sensations
• Acting on Unconsciously Buried Abuse
• Difficulty communicating feelings to partner
• Difficulty accepting love
• Engage in Avoidant Coping Styles

Not surprisingly, children, like adults, internalize emotional experiences from their lives. Their identities are formed by absorbing and thinking about how the attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of those around them inform their world. Abused children, however, find themselves in extremely difficult environments and surrounded by harmful role-models and caretakers. However, survivors can reclaim the power and control of their life, control their emotions/responses to triggers, and improve the quality of their romantic relations.

Individual therapy and couples therapy, specifically, trauma-informed therapy works by helping couples begin to see how they experienced traumatic abuse or neglect, and how it still affects them, and impacts their current relationships. This approach enables the therapist to provide specific insights to help couples separate past issues from present ones. Progress often comes more readily through a combination of individual sessions and work as a couple. Trauma-informed therapy helps partners learn how to understand each other, how past trauma impacts their relationship, and how to process thoughts and emotions in healthier ways.

Romantic Relationships Following Childhood Sexual Abuse


Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.


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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2019). Romantic Relationships Following Childhood Sexual Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/ending-silence/2019/12/romantic-relationships-following-childhood-sexual-abuse/

 

Last updated: 25 Dec 2019
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