Upset Partner

Friday, January 12, 2007

Question

I am the partner of an incest survivor. We have been together almost a year. She was in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder when I met her, and has been on medication for depression throughout our relationship. She is a gentle and beautiful woman and we are in love. But I don't know how much longer I can stand what the incest has done to our sex life. Before you dismiss me as a selfish pig, let me describe what I am talking about. First of all, I can't be spontaneous or at all quick when I initiate sex. I have to verbally ask her, in a calm tone of voice, if she'd like to make love before I put my hands on her body. I miss the lengthy foreplay I had with other lovers and their ability to surprise me or allow me to pounce on them and take them energetically.

Once we start making love, my current girlfriend often has flashbacks. There is no way to tell when these will happen. Sometimes the same sex act that was okay yesterday is a trigger today. The flashback usually ends the sex, and I wind up holding her for as much as an hour while she cries. She has a low libido, and I am always worried that she forces herself to have sex because she believes that if she doesn't gratify me, I'll leave her. I cannot be affectionate with her if we are in the shower or sitting on the couch because she feels trapped and pressured to have sex. The worst thing of all is to have her curl up into a ball of shame and self-hatred after we've had sex. There seems to be something triggering about pleasure itself for her. I feel like such a shit head when I'm panting, the sweat is drying on my body, and I've had a terrific orgasm, only to see the person I love the most in the whole world acting as if I have soiled her or injured her.

I want to do the right thing. I am sure that if she could heal from all the abuse that she experienced, she would be such a powerful woman, even more amazing than she is today. Her therapist keeps saying that it takes a long time for PTSD to abate, and urges her to be patient. I can't even talk about how frustrated I am with her but I have told a couple of my friends, and they told me I should leave her. I don't want to go, partly because it will fulfill all of her self-defeating prophecies about being abandoned by men who can't help her to find her way out of this nightmare. If I could really feel that I was helping, or see a light at the end of the tunnel, I could grit my teeth and tighten my belt and tell my dick to shut up, and tough it out. But I keep asking myself on our really bad nights if this is what the rest of my life is going to look like, and I have to admit I think that would be a tragedy. What should I do?

Answer

So much is going on here that you sound rather traumatized yourself. I'm not joking, necessarily, because it is traumatic to re-live violent or abusive incidents with someone you love. You, too, wind up feeling helpless and ashamed. You are getting so much negative feedback when you have sex with her that I'm surprised you are still getting erections. It sounds like you really love her, but unless some big changes are made, you are correct in saying that this relationship is not healthy for you.

The first step is to get some help or support just for yourself. If there is no support group for the partners of incest survivors in your area, start one. Rent a room in a church basement; they're cheap for self-help groups. Put an ad in the paper. And see who shows up. If you don't feel comfortable facilitating the meeting on your own, maybe you can persuade a local therapist to come to the first few meetings. If a group sounds intimidating, look for some counseling. You are under a significant amount of stress, you feel bad about yourself and your relationship, and you can't figure out how to help your lover with her pain. This is a setup for clinical depression. Don't wait until things get worse. You deserve a place where you can unload your fears and concerns without being afraid you are withdrawing support from your partner. Somebody needs to take care of you.

The second step is to get more information about the treatment your partner is receiving. Does she have adequate medication? It doesn't sound like she does. It may be time for a new evaluation or a second opinion. I'm curious about her therapist's qualifications, goals, and beliefs about sexuality. Some therapists believe that being sexually active is bad for incest survivors and should be postponed until after lengthy therapy. Does her therapist know how bad the sex is for you girlfriend? Is she perhaps too shy to talk about this with her therapist? Would it be possible for you to meet jointly with your girlfriend and her therapist to ask a few questions or express some concerns? Or would some couples counseling maybe be a helpful experience?

Finally, you need to talk some difficult things over with your girlfriend. The fact that she has almost no libido concerns me. Your fear that she may be agreeing to have sex with you just to keep you from abandoning her may be accurate. That would explain the frequent flashbacks and unpleasant backlash after lovemaking. What are your lover's real desires for the sexual part of her life, and what does she honestly feel she wants from you or can give you? If she wants loving companionship and physical contact without any demand for sex, that's fine, but you are the wrong person for that job. Has she ever expressed an independent erotic desire to you for some specific touch or activity? Does she have any ideas about what might help make sex more fun? Is the idea of "fun" in general threatening to her? Maybe she needs to learn how to relax and play in a nonsexual way before she is ready to explore the realm of Eros. Does she think she can get better? When she imagines getting better, what does she think her sex life will look like?

People who were sexually abused as children never really got to be children. Current therapy often attempts to guide the client into having a sort of second childhood by visualizing their hurt inner child and learning how to protect, defend, and care for that little person. Some people are able to do this work while they also tend to adult needs. Others are not. Being in long-term, serious danger damages the personality and changes the way the central nervous system works. Folks with PTSD tend to be hypervigilant, over-reacting to the smallest cue that they might be at risk. Simply learning how to relax and enjoy oneself is very challenging. It can be done, but it takes a while. I believe it would help you to know if her therapist has targeted this problem.

You were really on to something when you said it was as if pleasure itself was a trigger for your partner. I too have seen this issue come up for many incest survivors. The body contains nerve endings and organs that react to stimulation whether it is wanted or not. It's a myth that unwanted or coerced sex always feels horrible. Some pedophiles are quite skilled and obtain arousal from the arousal of their targets. But many people, even those who specialize in work with sex abuse survivors, are uncomfortable with this or ignorant about it. They don't want to sort out the complexities of what a forced sexual experience actually felt like, to the body as well as the mind. The person who was victimized needs to know that some of what they experienced was involuntary, even if it was pleasurable. A moment or two of good feeling (or more than that) doesn't mean they secretly wanted what was happening. It doesn't mean they weren't raped, and it doesn't mean they are bad or perverted. An adult rape victim may even experience an orgasm. This is just one more piece of humiliation and degradation, as far as the rapist is concerned. And he may use it to justify his crime. But the rest of us have to know better. We have to understand that pleasure is not synonymous with consent. And if a person has repeatedly been exposed to pleasure combined with unwanted pain and fear, of course any sensation of erotic pleasure will be frightening. It takes a long time to build an association between consent, pleasure, and safety.

You and your lover may be able to salvage your relationship if you can determine what would help her to feel safe. It's also important for her to buy into that goal. As I said earlier, if she doesn't feel ready to work on her sexuality or she would rather not get all worked up with you, this project won't succeed. A good place to start is Staci Haines' book, The Survivor's Guide to Sex: How to Have an Empowered Sex Life After Child Sexual Abuse (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1999). Read it together and see if discussing it or doing some of the exercises can help the two of you to break through to a more stable, enjoyable, free space.