How to support the abused
August 1, 2012 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I've started to date again after the end of an eight year relationship. The good news is I've met an amazing woman and we're starting to develop a more serious relationship. The part I (male) need help with is that it turns out she was physically, sexually, mentally, and emotionally abused in several previous relationships over the course of about 15 years. How do I support her as a new relationship partner? Can you recommend any good resources for me to read?

We're both in counseling separately, so the usual Metafilter advice doesn't answer the question. I'm hoping for specific things we can do to help her be more comfortable that also nurture a growing relationship. For example, I've thought of instituting a non-sexual safe word so that if we're cuddling on the couch watching a movie and she starts to freak out she can let me know so I can give her the space she needs to self sooth. More context: we're in Maryland, both in our mid to late thirties, both financially independent, and she has a great two year old daughter whose father is mostly absent and dysfunctional.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've thought of instituting a non-sexual safe word so that if we're cuddling on the couch watching a movie and she starts to freak out she can let me know so I can give her the space she needs to self sooth.

Is that a problem she has? Has she asked you to help come up with a solution for it?

Here's the thing that's making the corner of my eye twitch: I think you're trying to be considerate, but it's coming off as kind of controlling. The internet can not tell you what she needs, or tell you what to decide she needs. SHE can tell you what she needs and her doing so should be an important part of the relationship so that you have an open and honest dialogue rather than repeating old patterns.

So I guess my advice is: what you can give her is agency. You decide your own boundaries and respect hers, and vice versa.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:57 PM on August 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

I agree that this is a question for her, rather than AskMe.

For reading I recommend The Female Brain; while it has nothing specific in it about abuse victims, there is some incredibly useful information on how women's brains differ from men's, specifically concerning sexual arousal, that you may find helpful.
posted by Specklet at 2:06 PM on August 1, 2012

You know your best resource? She is. Tell her your goal is to support her and her sense of safety and autonomy. Ask her if there is anything, whether awareness of areas of discomfort, books she thinks you should read, or boundaries she'd prefer you didn't cross, that she wants you to be aware of. And then listen.

Or, alternately, just be attentive. If she discusses this topic, listen hard.
posted by bearwife at 2:09 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

right, I'm with those that say that it isn't clear whether this is an issue she's come to you with or a situation that's developed (being emotionally triggered and needing a coping mechanism) or something that you anticipate because of her background. Can you clarify, OP?
posted by sm1tten at 2:16 PM on August 1, 2012

Mod note: This is a comment from an anonymous user.
From personal experience the best thing you can do is take things very slow and allow trust to build. I learned a few things from my current girlfriend which I wish I had known earlier. You will have to excuse me for generalizing -- this is true in her case and I expect *could* be true in many cases.

- She often goes along with things that she is not comfortable with, because the alternative has caused her immense pain in the past, and she is used to just bottling up the discomfort and carrying it -- this is how life has been for her, in general, just let it all pile up on you and soldier on (until now thankfully). We eventually learned that things work best when she is the one leading the exploration of boundaries, initiating sex, and so on, because that removes the perception of pressure that she feels like she has to go along with.

- The answer to "are you okay" is almost always "yes I'm fine", because I'm sort of hoping she's okay, and exerting subtle pressure on her to be okay that she can feel, and as above it's hard to go against pressure, whereas "how are you feeling right now" gives her more room to be honest.

- She tends to interpret things in really bad self-deprecating ways that I would never have anticipated. For example, when I tell her I wish things were easier for her, I meant to comfort someone in pain, same as if they'd broken their leg; To my horror she was interpreting it as "I wish you weren't broken because I prefer non-broken people". Likewise my anger towards her abusers was sometimes felt as anger at her for being "fallen" and imperfect. It was a lightbulb moment when we figured this out.

- Similarly, one of her biggest fears is that she is darkening my otherwise bright skies with her presence, spoiling my charmed life with the mud she's been forced to live in, and she seemed to expect me to leave at any moment until I think I convinced her that I was not going anywhere. It helped for me try to interact with her as a person, not as an abused person, and to reassure her that while she obviously carries this pain, the pain is not who she is, nor is it even a drop in the bucket of who she is. Also, when my own vulnerabilities and emotional issues came out into the open it was a huge relief for her, because it shattered the dynamic of the perfect and the imperfect that she tends to buy into, and made it okay for both of us to be imperfect and human.

- It is VERY hard for her to talk about past abuse, and it will come when it's ready, but that might take a while. Likewise, it will be there forever and is not going to "get better", though it might get slightly easier over time.

- But despite that, invitations to talk tended to come as oblique hints, trial balloons to see if I was open and trustworthy and could be trusted to hear about her pain without becoming disgusted or angry or making it about me (a memorable reaction from a past boyfriend after telling him about her past rape: "this is the worst thing that could have happened to me!"). Or trying to fix it. Usually she just needs to be heard, needs to know someone cares, needs a hug.

I suppose I recognize a bit of myself in your question, in which I was eager to be a great boyfriend and to make this work and wanted to know what I could do. The answer is to do everything you can to resist being a controlling influence, and that includes trying to control her responses to abuse. Take things slow and let her take the lead on escalations of intimacy. And to pay attention, really really pay attention, to her signals and her cues, especially those that are unspoken, because those are the important ones.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:37 PM on August 1, 2012 [24 favorites]

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Call it a situation that is developing, that we are actively talking about and working on. I agree with the comments emphasizing that she is going to be the best guide on this stuff, and I'm definitely "listening hard" to her. I'm asking the question because I'm looking for books for me to read like Greg Nog recommended and/or to brainstorm some ideas/strategies for us that she can then pick, choose, reject, or add to.

Thank you, anonymous user, for sharing your experience. My gut is leading me in the direction you outline, and you had several suggestions I hadn't thought of.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:54 PM on August 1, 2012

Recognize that lack of abuse is not a teaching moment like abuse is; you can't make her feel safe: you can only give her a safe environment. Healing will take years.

Understand that if she starts reacting unusually it may be due to unnoticed triggers. You must be sensitive to new stressors or combinations of old ones, and be ready to return to safe ground.

Be kind, ask for status without judging, be willing to deal with seemingly excessive reactions with aplomb, and be sure she has agency at all times -- and knows it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:22 PM on August 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't push. If she is uncomfortable with something, just back off. That is your teaching moment: She does not have to warp herself or tolerate invasiveness to please or appease you. It is an actively respectful thing you can do. When in doubt, back off. A man did this for me and it was really, really huge.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:33 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just stopped back in to applaud you for being a thoughtful and sensitive person. And to give a standing ovation to anonymous via cortex.
posted by bearwife at 12:07 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

On her feminist blog Fugitivus, a woman whose username is Harriet Jacobs reflects on how her partner indicated to her that he was a safe person to be around. (Jacobs is a survivor of rape, child abuse and partner abuse.)
Basically, he showed in a lot of ways, big and small, that he respected my feelings as legitimate, and believed I was a whole person who was capable of making my own decisions for valid reasons.
Here's her entire comment -- it's long but well worth reading. I hope that both you and your partner can relate to Jacobs' observations, and I wish you both well in your new relationship.
posted by virago at 7:18 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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