Trauma is not something I would ever take lightly. I have been fortunate enough in my career to work with many women who have experienced sexual trauma. I have sat with them as they went through nightmares, flashbacks, memory gaps, and the painful process of healing. Trauma can take over a person’s worldview and affect every aspect of their life.
Yes, trauma is a tricky beast that can take many forms. But it is not unconquerable. I believe in every person’s ability to heal from traumatic experiences. You may not ever go back to who you were before, but you can come out the other end healthy and thriving.
This post today is for people whose spouses have experienced sexual trauma. It can be so difficult to understand the behavior of a traumatized person. You may feel isolated or frustrated or unlovable yourself. I am by no means an expert, and so this post will only scratch the surface of what it will take to heal as a couple and build a trusting relationship together. To hear more, listen to our podcast episode with Dr Wyatt Fisher. I hope if you take anything away from this post, it’s that your experience is valid. You and your spouse both have a lot of hard work to do, but I know that your marriage can flourish if you are both willing to be patient and put in the hard work.
The Nature of Trauma
Like I said above, trauma is a tricky beast. To define it simply, trauma is any change in cognition or behavior that is the result of a traumatic event. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the official definition of a traumatic event includes “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (DSM-5-TR, pg 301). These exposures include seeing or hearing about one of these events happening to a close family member or friend.
However, we now know that negative events like betrayal of trust, neglect, and other adverse experiences can have a similar effect on a person as do the officially defined traumatic events. If you ask a clinician, they will most often describe it as Trauma (big T) and trauma (little t). For the purposes of this post, we will use the word trauma to refer to any event that has caused a negative change in our behavior and way of thinking.
Trauma affects each person differently. Some people go through traumatic experiences and are not majorly affected. Others experience trauma symptoms from circumstances some define as average. It’s not our job to judge what was traumatic for others. If you have trauma, resist the urge to compare yourself to others. Everyone will have their own unique journey to healing.
An odd thing about trauma is that it often doesn’t manifest right after the event. Our bodies are trained to go into fight flight or freeze mode when we are threatened. All of our resources are directed toward surviving. It is often only when we finally feel safe that traumatic symptoms start appearing.
Sexual Trauma and Its Effects in Marriage
Like any other trauma, sexual trauma will look different for every person who has experienced it. It can remain dormant until that person finds a safe relationship. As a spouse, this can be really confusing. Your spouse may suddenly not want sex or anything sexual. They may stop touching you and pull back. It can be very hard to share traumatic history, and so your spouse may not have shared with you their experience. This can be confusing and frustrating. Even when you as the spouse know about the traumatic history, it can be hard to find ways to help. Oftentimes, it feels like the “typical answers” of more date nights, snuggling, words of affirmation etc only make things worse.
Your experience is valid. It’s normal for spouses to feel hurt, disappointed, confused, lonely, abandoned, angry and rejected. It is so hard to feel like you can’t stop the one you love from pulling away. Let’s talk about what you can do to help your spouse as your relationship heals from sexual trauma.
What a Spouse Can Do
This first step is to seek education and understanding. You being here, reading this post is a great first step! You can also listen to professionals like Dr. Wyatt Fisher and others trained to work with trauma. Most importantly, seek to understand your spouse. Create a safe space to share emotions. Work to be non judgemental and an active listener. Don’t pressure or force them to open up, but be grateful for the information they do volunteer.
Remember that the “typical answers” may not work here. This is because trauma can create a cycle of resentment. A person who has experienced trauma may read evil intent in the most innocent of actions. This is called projection; when a person projects bad intent onto neutral or good actions because of their past life experience.
For example, imagine a husband who wants to have sex with his wife, and so he starts to massage her and give her a lot of attention. His wife may not see this as an act of love because her trauma has taught her that these actions precede something painful and/or demeaning. Therefore, this wife may react harshly because something in her subconscious is coloring her world view to believe sex is something to be avoided. Her husband, who has no idea why his wife is acting like this, gets hurt and may show signs of frustration. His wife will in turn see this as proof of her assumptions and pull further away.
This cycle can play out in many different ways, making a once great relationship cold and distant. Therefore, the first step will be to address the foundation of resentment.
The “Wedding Cake” approach
Dr. Wyatt shared his “Wedding Cake” approach to healing a relationship. The bottom tier of the cake is to address resentment. This will require both spouses being able to switch off their flight or fight response. Finding a place of calm will help you to look at your interactions with more objectivity. This doesn’t mean we won’t have fights or moments when we are activated. But it is intentionally coming back together when you are calm and seeking for understanding.
As the spouse of someone healing from sexual trauma, you may feel angry and/or resentful toward your spouse. You may feel punished for crimes you didn’t commit. Anger is often a secondary emotion we use to protect ourselves from more vulnerable emotions. Your feelings are valid, but expressing anger and contempt will only worsen the cycle and drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Seek to be in touch with your mind and body. What emotions lie under your anger? Perhaps you feel lonely or worthless or unseen. Be vulnerable with your spouse and share these underlying emotions. Let them see the hurt part of you. In this way, you can make the first step to building emotional intimacy with your spouse.
That brings us to the next tier of building friendship. Once the cycle of resentment has been broken, you can start rebuilding your friendship. This looks like spending time together; do things together that are fun and outside your other responsibilities. Have moments of shared liking (watching a favorite tv show, reading the same book, learning to do something your spouse loves etc.)
Add Sensual Moments
Once the friendship tier is solid, you can build sensual moments. This is not sexual yet. This looks like no-strings-attached touching, like hugs and hand holding. It looks like compliments and letting your spouse know how much you do appreciate them.
Move Cautiously into Sexual Experiences
Once both of you are ready, you can move to building a safe and healthy sexual experience. Take it slow, and ask for consent at every stage. Let your spouse know they have complete control over what happens to their body. Remember that sex doesn’t always have to be the main course. You can have sexual moments that don’t lead to penetration.
The whole process of healing from sexual trauma will take a lot of time. Dr Wyatt said he and his wife took 5 years to heal completely. Everyone’s journey will look different, and growth is not linear. You may have to go back through these steps a few times.
Although this process can be frustrating, it is also wonderful. As the spouse, you have the opportunity to play a vital role in the healing and growth of the love of your life. You can help them learn that they are of worth; you can support and witness as they take back their voice and choice. You can hold space for your love to overcome the horrendous things that happened to them. Although you are not the one who hurt them, you will be the one to prove that they did not deserve that hurt, they are worth more than that, and that they can be more than their trauma. And that is beautiful.
Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!