Partner Sexual Abuse Questions & Answers

I just found out that my partner was sexually abused as a child - what should I do now?

If you haven't already, thank your partner for telling you about the abuse. At this time, it's probably best to do a lot of listening instead of asking questions. There are some good books that can answer some of your questions and get you more informed on this subject, and you can also browse through this site to learn more (check out our Library section). You might feel angry, and while that is normal it's probably not very helpful to your partner. The recovery process is going to be difficult, and most people find it essential to have some professional guidance from a therapist or counselor. Consider this counseling both for your partner and for yourself. Your primary care doctor can give you some recommendations, and you can also search a directory of therapists to find someone in your area. Our web site also has resources to help you along the way, and we encourage you to browse through the Library, Support Groups and Forums sections.

Why 'survivors' instead of 'victims'?

Some people prefer the term 'victims' but we use the term 'survivor' here. Those who have been sexually abused as children are indeed victims, and they can also be survivors. They can move forward, facing issues and working through them, and moving towards their authentic selves - this is surviving, thriving and living a fuller life. We use 'survivors' here because it presents a more positive future for those who have been abused as well as for their partners.

Who are 'partners'?

For our purpose at this site, 'partners' are those who are in an ongoing partnership type of relationship with a survivor. This would include spouses as well as men and women in committed relationships. We do not mean it to include parents, siblings, or friends.

How many people have been sexually abused as children?

The literature varies widely on this, but there seems to be some consensus that the rate of childhood sexual abuse is in the double-digits, maybe around 20% to 30% (though some estimates are above that). Abuse rates are higher for girls than for boys. So look around you - maybe 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 people you see have been sexually abused as children. That's a lot of people - millions - and many of those people go on to form relationships as adults. Unfortunately, this abuse is pervasive and it does affect millions of adult relationships.

How does this abuse affect survivors when they are adults?

Some research suggests that survivors are more likely to have PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). Survivors may also have amnesia about the abuse, or they may have what's called 'dissociative identity disorder' - multiple identities. They are also at higher risk for depression, addictions, intimacy and trust issues, and sexual dysfunction. Everyone is different though, and the effects of the abuse depend on a lot of other influences.

How does this abuse affect survivors' relationships?

Trouble with intimacy, control, and trust; behavior boundaries and anxiety are some of the areas that are tough in a relationship with a survivor. These issues and the effects of things like addictions and depression can really take a toll on survivors' relationships, and the partners who love them.

What does a survivor's recovery process look like, how long does it take?

Although the length of time varies, the recovery process will be measured more in years than in months. If the survivor is in therapy or counseling, things may get worse before they get better. Often a lot of sadness and anger surfaces, and the process will likely be difficult on your relationship. Therapy for survivors often excludes the partners; you might enter some couples-therapy along the way but most times you will be more of a spectator than a participant in the survivor's therapy process.

What can partners do to help the recovery process and keep their relationship alive?

There are many things you can do, but they could be condensed into seven points:

  • Offer a break from the conversation if things get too heated. Safety in the relationship is critical.
  • Pay attention to what you're feeling and put it to words, if you aren't sure then say so instead of remaining silent.
  • Face the problems and work on solutions while staying sensitive to your partner - sometimes it's best to defer things a while
  • Don't respond in kind and try not to take it personally (the anger is most likely for the abuser)
  • There will be some very stressful times so learn how to deal with it
  • You're in a tough situation that requires a lot of emotional energy; you won't do everything perfectly even if your partner sometimes expects that. Care for your own physical and mental well-being so that you can be a supportive partner.
  • Accept your partner for who they are.
  • Be sure to take care of yourself - get some counseling of your own, find understanding & supportive friends, keep doing things that refresh and renew your spirit; good self-care is essential.

My survivor told me about the abuse, but swore me to secrecy - what should I do now?

It's important for you to be able to talk about the situation and how it affects your life; it's critical to your own mental-health and well-being. Of course this is a very serious and sensitive issue for survivors and it's natural for them to want some protection. Talk with your survivor about your need to disclose this to others for your own good, for your own well-being. You might suggest that you agree on who you will talk to about this, and mutually select some trusted friends or family. You could approach those friends and family together or separately to reinforce the sensitive nature of the disclosure of the abuse. You might also decide to talk only to a professional counselor about this; they deal with sensitive issues every day and are accustomed to keeping their client relationships in confidence. Whichever route you choose, it is critical that partners be able to share their journey with someone they can trust, with someone who can provide some relief and support.

How do I go about finding a therapist or counselor to work with?

You can search online for local therapists and counselors, ask your primary care physician for references, ask family and friends, or look in the phone book. Come up with a list of two or three counselors, and then give them a call or interview them in person. Briefly explain your situation and ask them about it. It's critical that your counselor is well-qualified, and it's also critical that you feel comfortable with them. If you don't feel comfortable then evaluate someone else - this is too important to settle for something that doesn't fit. Our Library also has some resources for getting the most out of your counseling relationship.

How did this site get started?

See the About page for that.