Sexual relationship with someone with a bad history
February 6, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm dating a girl who has had a difficult past and who seems to be strangely absent during sex. Help me figure out how best to deal with this.

It's been only a few weeks but we are already incredibly tight and are already effectively a couple. We're very compatible and hanging out is the easiest and best thing in the world. I've been so incredibly happy since we started dating; so has she, it seems. Except...

Sex. She's into it when it happens, and enjoys it, but never initiates it and tends to be a passive partner, e.g. does not express desires or ideas during sex, doesn't say anything unless in response to me, barely touches me in sexual ways, hardly responds to my touch. Physical contact and touching itself is not a problem at all, but when there is a sexual element to it she seems to shut part of herself off somehow. Discovering this has been surprising because her personality is normally bursting with creativity and expression; she is somehow not there during sex, or not herself. Wondering about this, I began to suspect she'd had some bad experiences in the past.

I learned today I was right. She told me she was sexually assaulted as a young teen, endured a long period of bullying and harassing and people treating her with a lot of cruelty in general, and is only recently free of a long abusive relationship. Her life has been difficult, to the point where I'm frankly amazed she has not been crushed into nothing. But she has tremendous strength, and seems to be in a good place about all of this; not blaming herself, and being able to talk about it without difficulty, for example.

This is a new situation for me and I need advice. Sex is very important to me and the long-term health of this relationship will, I think, depend on settling into a sexual dynamic that works for both of us. Things are fine for now because it is still so early and everything is still fluid, but I have a foreboding sense that a pattern wherein I am the only person asserting an identity will lead to eventual frustration. Yet I can hardly put pressure on her to be something she's not, or to bring out and express sides of herself that she has learned to keep closely hidden for very good reasons. These things have to happen on her schedule, if they happen, and the best way forward I think is to provide a safe encouraging space for her to explore them. But I have to consider that even this may be too much to ask; I frankly have little idea how deep the scars may go and what the effects may be. And that this may preclude any possibility of the healthy sexual relationship I really want to have with her. The thought of this makes me incredibly sad. I kind of feel like I need to ask her what she wants and needs from me in a sexual sense, but doing even this makes me nervous in that I am worried about crossing a boundary that I can't see.

Hence, advice needed from those who have been there. Tell me what I need to know or be thinking about, and how best to proceed. (I'm male, late 20's, she's mid 20's, both with several long relationships behind us, though as I said her most recent one was very nasty.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

There are several books out there that are frequently recommended by therapists for dealing with (re)learning healthy intimacy. The Sexual Healing Journey is one.
posted by OmieWise at 8:07 AM on February 6, 2012

Hi! I'm in the same position as your girlfriend, only my current (BEST DUDE EVER) partner and I have been together for four years.

Nobody has raped me in six and a half years and I still have some trouble initiating sex, although I don't check out during the act anymore. It took a lot of reflective work in therapy and with workbooks at home to realize that whenever I thought about how maybe I would like to have sex with my partner, the scared part of my brain would go "but why would you want to do that to yourself?" and then I'd have to spend a couple of hours aggressively distracting myself with some other activity in order to stop shaking.

It took a long time (a LOT longer than a few weeks!) before it really sunk in that I am safe now. Some of the best things my partner did to support me through being scared about sexual contact were:

1) Noticing when I seemed to be spaced out and asking for a status report—sometimes I was not even aware that I was not doing fine until it was pointed out to me, and after it was, I could start to do something about it.

2) Helping me come up with a list of ways to feel better if I was freaked out. This was homework from my therapist and we worked on the list when I was feeling okay, and he contributed a lot of ideas. (Like, figure out whether my body was cold and if so wrap up in a blanket and put on slippers; engage in a small ritual with a reward at the end, like preparing a favourite tea; asking for a hug if contact would help; etc.)

3) Never never never ever pressuring or guilting me into sex. (You sound like a very gentle and attentive person who's not in danger of doing that anyway, so thumbs up!) That didn't mean we never talked about how it could be frustrating that we weren't having all the great sex we wanted, but guilting/shaming into changing was off the table.

4) Being super reassuring! Thanks to my history of abuse I thought that my partner's arousal meant that it was my job to satisfy him. That is a really unfun way to approach sex and it was buried under layers of bad feelings about it, so yeah, this also took lots of work in therapy. Once we figured it out, it was easier to understand why an erection or a sexual overture made me freeze up emotionally, and understanding made it easier to check myself before I wrecked myself, as it were.

OmieWise mentioned a good sexual trauma-related book; another book that helped me was Life After Trauma (not focused on sexual abuse, but has a ton of useful strategies to deal with difficult feelings in the present, and is reassuring and gentle without being excessively hand-holdy).
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:21 AM on February 6, 2012 [24 favorites]

I guess the point is "crossing a boundary you can't see". If you are ready, and if you act authentically and kindly to her, you don't have to worry about crossing her boundaries. I would say that you have to start slowly and build a lot of trust in your relationship. In time, your healthy boundaries can help her reinforce her own boundaries.

If you're not ready or have poor boundaries, this may become very difficult.

So it's a personal thing. Are you the right person to be with her, knowing she has this past?
posted by nickrussell at 8:28 AM on February 6, 2012

I was raped two years ago, and when I started having sex recently I had the same problems your girlfriend has.

I think it might have helped if you had waited longer before having sex. I don't know if you only met a few weeks ago or knew each other before then, but either way, a few weeks together is not enough time to build a strong emotional connection and sense of trust. You might want to wait and see if it improves with time, but if it doesn't, you really need to talk to her about this. She might not even realize how she's acting or that it's a problem for you.

Since you said she can talk about her past without difficulty, there's a good chance you can have an open, honest conversation about these sexual issues as well. Maybe she needs therapy, or maybe she simply needs more time to recover from her most recent relationship. No one here can give you that answer; you need to talk to her about it.
posted by lali at 9:39 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't had the history of assault that the OP and some here are describing thankfully, but I do agree that it's a bit early to be getting into all of this. Not just about the sex, but the whole acting as a couple thing a few weeks in.

This might settle with time, and I feel like in her shoes it might be overwhelming to get book recommendations or have to discuss your sexual dynamic. Maybe this is just a lot of pressure for her right now and you'll have to take it a bit slower.
posted by sweetkid at 11:49 AM on February 6, 2012

You might want to read up on dissociation. She may be dissociating when you're having sex. Depending on her trauma history, she may not even realize she's doing this - she may have started as a teen or even earlier. And it may have been part of her coping in her past relationship. Being sexual may be triggering for her, too, but, depending on how fragmented the trauma is, she may not even realize that she's experiencing flashbacks, as they may be emotional or perhaps she dissociates immediately.

You sound like a sweet person, but you might want to slow things down and build more intimacy and perhaps check to see if she is interested in therapy. If she just came out of an abusive relationship, she may need to heal. And, of course, you can be on that journey with her.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:56 PM on February 6, 2012

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