Healthy romantic relationships after sexual abuse in past?
September 22, 2006 8:25 AM   Subscribe

My significant other revealed to me that he was sexually abused as a little boy by a friend of his, who was also a boy. The incident, without describing it in detail, was one of sexual humiliation. The shame and suffering he now feels is immense and has carried over into other areas of his life, including his relationships. He told me what had happenned because I knew something was wrong and pressed him. We are now college-age (and in college too) and he had never told anyone before me. I have said to him that many other people have been sexually abused and have learned to accept their past, but I have said this without knowing if it's really true. Because of the problems caused by the event and other events that followed, I have broken up with him but am serious about being with him after he takes care of himself in therapy. Does anyone have insight on the possibility of moving forward after such a traumatizing event?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

This article seems useful. And, yes, people do survive and recover.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:32 AM on September 22, 2006 [2 favorites]

He will likely find a support group to be an immense help and relief. However, it make take a few tries to find one with a vibe that's comfortable for him. Best to find something where he'll be comfortable just listening for awhile before he's encouraged to share his story.
posted by desuetude at 9:13 AM on September 22, 2006

I think it goes without saying that he should look into therapy, but I just wanted to point out that a lot of colleges have on-campus therapists available free of charge. It could make things a lot easier.
posted by fogster at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2006

I think the fact that you broke up with him after he revealed his past to you probably doesn't bode well for the two of you.

Therapy isn't going to magically take care of him in a few months. I'm sure that it's possible for him to put it behind him, but it will take time, and understanding.

I'm not suggesting that you have to take this particular burden on, but if you are actually serious about being with him, you'd probably do better to start working on being with him while he's working through this in therapy.
posted by Good Brain at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2006

I was sexually abused as a child. Here are some of my issues -
a) control. I really prefer to be the boss of most situations. If I am not comfortable, or become fearful, I must know that it is very easy for me to leave.

b) large groups. This is because the person who took advantage of me repeatedly made use of the fact that there were so many people/family members around, if anybody noticed my absence it was attributed to being off somewhere reading or playing alone or with some other kid who really was alone.

c) alone with strangers. Same person also raped me while he was babysitting me.

d) volunteering information readily. That old, "If you tell, I'll hurt you," never came to be, and I still, deep down, believe that it might.

I work on these things a lot, though not currently with a professional. I wish you the best in dealing with this, I know that my boyfriend's love, support, and encouragement have meant worlds to me in six years that we've been together. If, however, you are not able to be the person your partner needs, be honest about it, for your own sake, and for his.

YMMV (Because my childhood and adolescence were rife with other problems, I cannot guess how much mileage any other person could get from my anecdote, but I do know that once people know that something terrible happened to me, they are far less likely to make idle jokes on the subject.)
posted by bilabial at 10:10 AM on September 22, 2006

Without more details, Good Brain is right. Whatever support you are giving him now is nothing compared to what you are telling him by your actions--you are reinforcing every single belief he has about his issues--that it makes him unworthy of you. I think you agree. That's really, really bad. You pressed him to give up his secret, which he was afraid to give up, and then broke up with him when you revealed it. You have destroyed his trust in people.

You take people you love as you find them, not as you want them. You will understand this more as you grow into maturity.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:12 AM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

By the way, I'm a woman, which may affect how I've dealt with this, and I am 24 now.

I also, for what it's worth, wish I could have posted this anon, but felt it important enough to share.
posted by bilabial at 10:12 AM on September 22, 2006

I don't think others should be so tough on the OP. If this question had described how the SO was acting (not really done here) without mentioning that he had been abused as a child, there would be an enormous chorus here right now saying that she (I assume) should dump him immediately.
posted by grouse at 10:31 AM on September 22, 2006

Because of the problems caused by the event and other events that followed, I have broken up with him but am serious about being with him after he takes care of himself in therapy.

Let's not be too hard on anon. I think this statement is vague enough that the assumption that he or she heard the story and promptly broke up with the guy might not be quite correct. More details here would have helped, or perhaps fewer details, since that sentence distracts from the actual question.
posted by JanetLand at 10:34 AM on September 22, 2006

"You betrayed his trust by breaking up with him"

Anon has said that it's not just the abuse revelation, but a bunch of subsequent events, that led to their breakup. There's a lot we don't know, so let's not jump down anon's throat.

That said, yes he will (probably) be able to put this event into perspective, to decrease the control it has over him now. Therapy is the first step. The second step is just having more life experiences which reinforce the message that he is in control of himself sexually, able to say "yes" and "no" and have those wishes respected, valuable to people for himself not for his body, etc.

College is when a lot of people really start coming to terms with terrible events from their childhood. It is not quick, so it is unrealistic to expect that he will be "all better" within a few months. If you want to be with him, recognize that this is and will remain an important part of him -- if you love him, you'll have to deal with this part of him too. So... you say it's unhealthy now, and ask if it will get healthy? He will get healthiER, but probably won't get to a point where he has no lingering quirks/issues from this. Judgment call.

BUT - you are both young. You're not married to him, and you're not obligated to stay with him. Even if this hadn't happened, you might not have stayed together for more than a few months. So don't listen to people who are trying to say that you are required to stay with him. If he's not ready to be in a healthy relationship and you're not willing to be in an unhealthy one, breaking up is the right course.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:39 AM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

In honesty it doesn't sound like a promising situation however:

You need to make a choice to either stay or leave now, and not try and defer it to see how he turns out because by then it'll be too late to restore the ultimate trust needed for a happy life-long relationship.

Life will throw other hard problems at you in future and both of you will always be wondering whether something will come along to drive you apart again if you don't go through this first one together.
posted by scheptech at 10:48 AM on September 22, 2006

I have broken up with him but am serious about being with him after he takes care of himself in therapy.

I don't get what this means. You've broke up with him but you're serious about being with him? Does that just mean you're not having sex with him any more? Does it mean you're not hanging out with him? Does it mean that you're seeing other people, but will dump them if your ex gets sorted out?

As things stand, he now needs to recover from being abused and also from being dumped because he was abused.

I think you need to either stay in the relationship and support him or break up with him. Break up means break up. It doesn't mean ... whatever you're doing. You need to send him and yourself a CLEAR message. You're currently sending a MIXED message.

You ARE allowed to get back together with someone you dumped. But that's a new "contract." Break up with him. Later, if he morphs into someone you'd like to date, date him (if he still wants to date you). Don't try to have your cake and eat it too. It's not fair.

Or commit to him and stay with him through thick and thin.

To answer your question, of course people have gotten over being sexually abused/humiliated. Some people have gotten over worse things: concentration camps, etc. (By "gotten over," I mean they've been able to lead healthy, productive, happy lives and have had good relationships.)

That's SOME people. Other people haven't recovered from traumas. Still others have partially recovered but have occasional setbacks.

You can't accurately predict whether or not someone will recover from a trauma -- or, if they do, how long it will take them. There are too many factors involved: the personality of the victim, the intensity of the abuse, the support system, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 10:58 AM on September 22, 2006

Yes, you can move forward after such a traumatic event. And it's fantastic that you care to explore this.

I was sexually abused as a child and I’ve started therapy more times than I suspect I ever needed because I was looking for a magic cure. I’ve since realized that only I know what’s best for me. It's helped to be in a lengthy established relationship. Which brings us to... “but [I] am serious about being with him after he takes care of himself in therapy.” Woah, horsey! Not only did you put a condition on the relationship, you think there's a magic cure - or an implied time table? Sorry, my friend. "Recovery" is truly set by an indvidual's time table and the scope of the pain. I started suffering from PTSD when my children turned the age that I was when my abuse started. That was quite the surprise because I felt 'fine' before the first episode began.

This is now about you and you have to decide if you're gonna sit on the fence or not. This is a chance for you to plumb the depths of your humanity as well build a relationship - whether it's "just friends" or "something more." If you want to stick by him – and I do encourage you to do this - then I would encourage you to read this.
posted by lostinsupermarket at 11:16 AM on September 22, 2006

I don't know the OP, but I can imagine that some of the boyfriend's behaviors are unacceptable and those behaviors are seemingly results of his being abused. I understand the OP's choice to not be with him if his behavior is unacceptable. So, everyone who is saying "commit or leave", maybe we can lay off the judgment for a minute. College is a nebulous time, so let the relationship be nebulous for just a moment longer.

That being said, in answer to your question, I second the notion of looking into counseling. Maybe even together. You have a perspective that no one else does-- you see how the past affects his present. I would encourage you to see out counseling together, if you are indeed serious about being with him long term. The counselor will no doubt want to see him alone as well, but this could be a step in getting him help, if he's not strong enough to get help alone. Call the counseling center, tell them you need a kind and gentle counselor to see both of you at least once regarding the topic of sexual abuse in the past.

Good luck to you.
posted by orangemiles at 11:19 AM on September 22, 2006

I have broken up with him but am serious about being with him after he takes care of himself in therapy.

I think you need to do some research on abuse and how people have gotten over it -- because these things take time. Your ex is not going to start therapy and then miraculously 2 months later be completely over all of his issues. You might be waiting a long time. In addition, I don't know what happened between you that made you break up with him, but if you can without harm, you might want to consider supporting him through this, it will likely help him to know that someone is cheering for him.
posted by echo0720 at 11:24 AM on September 22, 2006

Love him.
posted by A189Nut at 11:26 AM on September 22, 2006

"Because of the problems caused by the event and other events that followed, I have broken up with him..."

there's a whole world of stuff contained in that revelation right there.

I tried desperately hard to salvage a relationship with a similar victim of childhood sexual abuse. This guy was absolutely the best human being I've ever had a relationship with... 90% of the time... when he had his shit together. Unfortunately, the other 10% of the time he was a complete and utter trainwreck: (likely) bipolar, a pathological liar, an alcoholic, criminally irresponsible and dangerously violent. A lot of this stemmed from what he claimed to be control issues, which is a fair assessment.

Now. IANAP so I have no way to know which parts of his train-wreck-ishness was his own personal quirkiness, and what part can be attributed to his childhood. Anon (wisely) doesn't go into detail about "the problems caused" because that's not totally pertinent to her central question - her concern is whether they can pick up the pieces and move on. The problems that caused her relationship with this guy to pause could be anything between 'he-can't-get-it-up', to a mutual agreement of 'let's-take-a-break-so-we-can-both-fix-our-own-issues-and-concentrate-on-studying' to 'I-had-to-get-a-restraining-order'.

grumblebee, I tried, very hard, to live with my x "through thick and thin". I reached my point of no return when he thew some poor kid through a glass entry door and down a flight of concrete steps (to the tune of jail time, a restraining order and a personal injury suit) because he assumed I was 'cheating on him'. Um, no actually, the kid was from Citizen's Action asking me about a poll survey... my x was drunk and showed up in a rage, and this was after *on his own recognizance and not at my urging* he'd gone back to AA for like, the sixth or seventh time. Oh and also? at the time we weren't even living together and were supposedly 'on hiatus', also by his own decree.

And... fercrissakes, these are college students. As in, very likely young enough that they may not have been in Happily Ever After mode to begin with. Considering how many people are ready to jump into the 'breakup' threads with the 'you're-too-young-to-settle-down' theme...

oh hell. Anyway, to anonymous: YES! People do absolutely recover and move on from childhood abuses of all kinds, not just sexual. It takes time, understanding and support. If you can't be intimate with him for whatever reason, please do be aware that during this time he will also absolutely need someone that he can relate to and trust within his circle of friends. If you're able to be a good friend to him, outside of and beyond any 'relationship' baggage that may be between the two of you, then do it.

Also, my personal experience is put here merely to illustrate what can go on, and is way out on the fringes of extreme. Most people can handle their shit far, far better than my x -- could be that my x is simply batshitinsane and would be regardless of whether he was molested as a child.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:12 PM on September 22, 2006

Honestly, I'm a bit irritated at how surviving abuse is so often called out as a relationship and mental health issue. Of course it's an issue that might require some work and sensitivity in a relationship. But there are dozens of other concerns that could wreak havoc in a relationship as well.

The whole myth that abuse survivors are permanently broken really bothers me. On the one hand, I think that parts of the therapeutic community take advantage of this, (and when I do counseling, I sometimes have to ask, "how does picking at this wound for the dozenth time help me live day to day?") I know that some survivors take advantage of it by using their "brokenness" to excuse bad behavior in relationships. It seems that in the TV dramas that you just don't see abuse survivors who are not either criminal, or dysfunctional. And then there are the assumptions that it's the kiss of death in relationships.

The basic fact of the matter (and this is from a study that drove such a knee-jerk reaction that congress had to censure it) is that responses to abuse vary over a huge range. Some people due to a combination of environmental support, disposition and genetics are resilient and move on with their lives. Other people develop chronic mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression. What's critically important is where he is at now, not what happened to him once upon a time.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:19 PM on September 22, 2006

Yes, people do get past abuse. But only if they work at it, and that can be very hard and painful.

However, the (ex)SO hasn't even begun to work on it. However he did tell you, which is good for him because you care enough about him to do something about it.

I'm sure he knows how big of an impact this is having on his life, but he doesn't know what to do. If he trusts you (??) you need to take the lead. If you're in a college you have access to counselors. Take him to one. Or, if he's religious he might respond better to a leader of his church who should be well networked with community support services. (No priest wisecracks, mefites.)

He will, in general, hate the idea, but be firm with him that if he wants to overcome what this memory has done to him, that he needs some help. Reassure him that there is help, and the people he will be talking to want to help. He will feel incredibly vulnerable, but these people exist to help him, not to take advantage or humiliate him.
posted by Ookseer at 5:21 AM on September 23, 2006

grumblebee, I tried, very hard, to live with my x "through thick and thin".

I didn't mean to imply that anyone should stay in a broken relationship. That's a personal decision and no one can make it for you -- and no one has the right to judge your final decision.

I'm just in favor of MAKING A DECISION. Piss or get off the pot. Stay together or break up. A half-way arrangement of mixed messages helps no one and hurts everyone (even college students). (I was in a half-way relationship throughout most of my college years -- with someone who had been sexually abused -- and it was four long years of pain for both of us.)

I also don't feel angry at people who are in confused, half-way relationships. I've been in plenty of them and I could bare the hypocrisy of berating others for what I have done. But when I was in them, I knew I wasn't living well -- or treating others well. I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too. I was trying to keep distance yet forestall loneliness. This is a very understandable, human thing to do. But it doesn't work, and it tends to do damage. We all need to try no to do this.
posted by grumblebee at 5:59 AM on September 23, 2006

Anon, I know this question was posted a while ago but I went through something very similar to what you're going through (your side of it, not your boyfriend's). I would love to get in touch if you're still reading, you can contact me via the info in my profile.
posted by inactivist at 6:04 PM on November 30, 2006

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