How Childhood Sexual Abuse Can Affect Adult Relationships

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Trigger warning: sexual abuse

When you’re a child and someone touches you in a way they shouldn’t, it changes you forever — there’s no question about that. Something is taken away from you that can never be given back, can never be fixed.

When your first sexual experience is with someone who is a child predator — even if they are the same age as you — it morphs your mind into thinking you did something “wrong.”

And when you are told to keep it a secret, which you usually are, it inflates the belief that sex and intimacy are dirty and wrong, no one can help you, and you are stuck dealing with an awful, heavy secret.

While some endure that secret forever, others may reach out and get rejected, ignored, and told they aren’t telling the truth, And even those who get the support they need, and see their abuser pay consequences, are still left with emotional scarring that never leaves them.

I was sexually abused by a family member from the time I was a baby until I hit puberty. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I felt I could tell him “no,” and I had the power to stay away from him. There have been moments when I wondered why I waited so long, why I didn’t speak up, run, hit, kick, or pull his hair.

I’ve decided to stop wondering why I let it happen and realized my mind and body were just shutting down, so I could survive. The last thing I wanted to do was talk about an incident after it happened. I wanted to stuff it, to run away, to never think about it again because to speak of it was to relive it, and as a little girl, that was too much for me to bear.

It has affected my sex life as an adult, and I think it always will. I’ve been to therapy, and I’ve talked about it with my partners, but there is no quick fix when you are messed with in this manner, when your body is made to do things against your will.

You are supposed to feel good and in control when you are sexual with someone; being intimate with another person should be your choice. And when it is forced upon you, there is a part of your soul that never recovers.

There have been moments when I was with someone who I was so strongly attracted to, and wanted nothing more than to connect with them on a sexual and spiritual level, but I couldn’t. There have been times when I’ve been in the middle of something so amazingly wonderful and had a dark demon come to sit on my shoulder, and I’ve had to stop immediately. These memories are excruciatingly painful for me to relive.

I talked with Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist who’s been practicing for over forty years, and authored twenty one books on the subject of sexual and emotional abuse. Engel says our first sexual experience is so powerful, it is carried into every experience we have afterward whether we realize it or not.

If you have a wonderful experience with two consenting partners, it sets the tone for future experiences and you will have a positive outlook on sex as you will want to feel that feeling again.

However, if your first sexual experience was one that was forced, and you were manipulated, “the negative feelings surrounding it will follow you into future sexual experiences,” Engel says. Adults who were sexually abused as a child sometimes become hyper-sexual and develop addictions to sex and pornography, while others have to have complete control over every sexual experience they have: They need to say when, where, and direct where they can and cannot be touched, and it robs them of being able to enjoy the moment with their lover.

Emotional intimacy can also be a big problem that affects future relationships for those who were abused. For instance, you may be interested in having sex with a new partner, but as the relationship grows, your sexual desire for your partner disappears completely. Not because you’re not attracted to your partner, but because you are often triggered by memories of the past.

Childhood abuse isn’t something that fades into the background. It sticks with us, even though we have desperately tried to free ourselves of the massive burden — a burden we did nothing to cause.

Dr. Engel says the only way to try and heal is to reach out for help “by seeking individual or group therapy.” It’s tough to talk about, I know, but the importance of telling your story in a place where you feel safe — and can be heard, validated, and understood — is crucial to start the healing process.

Your recovery needs to include, “recognizing it was not your fault, gaining compassion for your suffering, expressing your anger, and giving the shame back to the abuser,” Engel says.

Not taking on the shame yourself is a huge struggle, but Engel says it’s what can cause the most damage to the person who was abused and she urges former victims to “focus on healing shame with self-compassion.”

This is an ongoing battle for those of us who have been victimized, but if we know our past trauma is affecting our overall happiness as an adult, we can take action and get the help/support we need. It is possible to enjoy sex, intimacy, and relationships, and we all deserve that freedom and joy.

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