"It's very hard to be a partner with someone who has been sexually abused as a child," says Janice Palm, executive director of Shepherd's Counseling Services in Seattle. Especially when the person doesn't talk about it. And many men never do.
Are there clues? Palm, whose center runs one of the few therapy groups in the country for partners of sexual abuse survivors, describes a pattern of behavior with the telltale sign of pervasive unavailability.
When a child is abused by a person he trusts, Palm says, he learns that intimacy is dangerous, that attachment will hurt. Based on this early lesson, he may instinctively avoid closeness as an adult.
Many survivors lose interest in sex completely. Others emotionally withdraw during the act. (Partners will complain, "He's very loving and attentive, but when we start to get sexual, he just goes blank. It's as if he's not there.") Often, young victims learn to disconnect emotionally to get through the abuse.
The fallout from abuse may manifest as promiscuity or sexual addictions like looking at pornography. Another red flag is discomfort at being touched.
A man who is unusually overprotective of a son or daughter may be expressing what he wishes a parent had done for him as a boy. This behavior may intensify when the child reaches the age at which the father was abused.
Once the abuse is out in the open, Palm says, let your partner take the lead about how much he wants to talk. As a victim, he had no control. Typically there is such shame and inadequacy attached to the abuse—it's the child logic of "I feel bad, I am bad," "I feel dirty, I am dirty"—he likely doesn't want you to see him that way. Or he may be hesitant to expose you to the horror of what happened to him.
The best thing you can do is encourage him to get help. Individual and group therapy are effective (check out MaleSurvivor.org for a directory of specialists). If he doesn't want to attend, remind him that when he's ready, you'll support him. Finally, be compassionate but truthful ("You know, honey, this is really interrupting our relationship, and I don't think I can live this way anymore").
When you see someone you love suffer and become vulnerable, it's very hard to take care of yourself—but it's crucial for both of you. That may mean finding your own therapist for support.
From the October 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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