How to Help Your Partner Cope with Male Sexual Abuse
You may feel like there's nothing you can do to help your partner address the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse, but Dr. Howard Fradkin says there's always hope. Discover ways to help your partner cope...and strengthen your relationship along the way.
- If you remember just one thing, it's that love is very powerful. Communication, acceptance and caring for a survivor is very critical to that man, making him feel safe enough to talk with you. Remember: A survivor has had his trust betrayed, oftentimes by someone he knew or knew well, so his ability to trust others has been substantially impaired. Regardless of whether you're close to a man who has told you he is a survivor or you only suspect a man may be a survivor, it's very important to support him and earn his trust slowly.
- Never assume or tell a man you know he's a survivor of sexual abuse. If you suspect it, it's important to be gentle, because a survivor walks around with a great deal of shame, as men are "not supposed to be" victims. A gentle response might be to tell him: "I am here to listen to you. I am here to provide support to you, to talk about any problems you are having. I know you may be afraid of judgments. The only judgment I will have of you if you ask for my help is to give you my respect for your courage."
- When your partner does choose to tell you about his abuse, it will be a normal reaction to wonder if it is true. In fact, you may want to disbelieve your partner's truth because you feel way too much pain hearing about it. If you know the perpetrator, it may be even more difficult, especially if you have positive feelings or perceptions about the perpetrator. On occasion, there are ways to validate a survivor's story, but oftentimes, it's his word versus the perpetrator's. Being believed is one of the greatest gifts you can give a survivor. Empathizing with him about his pain, betrayal and shame is another great gift. Think about this: Given how difficult it is for most men to acknowledge they have been abused, why would you think they would make up a story about being abused? Lying is extremely rare; for most survivors, it takes a great deal of courage to speak the truth, and when they do, they need your acceptance.
It's natural for you to want your partner to talk about his abuse, his feelings and reactions. Just because you want to know doesn't mean your partner wants to talk. Tell him it's okay to take his time, to do it at a pace that feels safe enough for him. He may need to tell his story a little bit at a time, rather than all at once. In fact, for most men, this is preferable so they don't become overwhelmed.
- Let him know you are willing to help him locate outside help, therapists and support groups if he is too afraid to reach out.
- Some male survivors of abuse have a very difficult time staying present during any emotionally challenging discussion. If you notice your partner drifting away, getting sleepy, losing track of the conversation or if you notice a sudden shift in his mood, he may be engaging in a defense called dissociation. It's a learned defense mechanism that allows him to protect himself from intense emotions. If you notice this, it's okay to gently say his name and tell him you are still here and willing to talk when he's ready.
- A male survivor may engage in a variety of self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors to cope with the feelings of betrayal, violation and shame they feel as a result of his abuse. These behaviors often serve the purpose of helping him feel numb, such as smoking, drinking, compulsive sexual behaviors, compulsive gambling or compulsive eating. Any and all of these behaviors will absolutely interfere with your ability to be intimate or close to your partner.
If your partner or family member is engaging in these behaviors, he's not only hurting you, he's also hurting himself, but he may not be able to accept this. Denial, a powerful defense mechanism, allows the survivor to resist awareness, which affects the survivor and the people in his life who care about him. Accept that the survivor is doing the best he can to deal with his abuse today. That doesn't mean you need to accept that he cannot address these issues differently tomorrow. If he's stuck acting out, outside help is most likely needed to break the cycle. There are 12-step programs to deal with these behaviors that will help the survivor, partners and family members. Remember: It feels shameful for a survivor to need help—he often believes he shouldn't have allowed himself to be victimized in the first place, so he's not likely to feel welcoming of help. At the same time, some part of him knows he's hurting.
Again, love is a powerful healing force—letting him know you love him enough to invite him to get the help he needs is critical. You are not responsible when he acts out, so refuse to take that responsibility. Do take responsibility for being sensitive to his feelings.
- If you are in an intimate sexual relationship with a male survivor, there are likely to be many issues that surface. Your partner may avoid sex altogether; he may only want to engage in sex if he's in total control; he may believe sex is dirty and something you do with strangers; he may have no ability to combine sex with loving feelings; he may question his sexual orientation; he may struggle with the ability to become erect, stay erect or have orgasms; he may get triggered by certain sex acts or certain smells or sweat or body sensations during sex.
If your partner suddenly withdraws or you sense him going away, stop the sex act immediately—he may or may not be able to tell you what he experienced, at least not right away. Be as patient as you can. All of these behaviors are common problems that a survivor experiences when he risks being sexual with another person.
It's important to know that a survivor can learn how to combine sexual and emotional intimacy. Too many significant others or spouses spend years being neglected sexually because they are afraid to challenge their survivor partner. You have a right to get your needs met, and although you may think you are protecting your partner, in reality you are prolonging his recovery when you don't address sexual problems that arise. If you can, address them by saying: "I would like to feel closer to you, and at times, I feel blocked. I need your help to talk about my experiences with you." it's very different than, "You need to address that problem of yours."
- Remember that the gender of the person who abused the survivor in your life has a great influence on the way it affects your interactions. This is complicated and can't be boiled down simply. For example, if you and your partner are gay and your partner was abused by a man, he may feel great shame or be absolutely unwilling to engage in activities he was forced to do while being abused. Your survivor may have been forced to have orgasms during his abuse or perhaps he knew the way to get the abuse over with was to have an orgasm, so having an orgasm may not be associated at all with pleasure, which obviously can have an impact on your mutual satisfaction. If your partner is heterosexual and his perpetrator was a female, he may feel great humiliation that he was controlled by a woman; he could react with you by always wanting to be in control, or conversely, he may avoid sex or perceive any pressure from you as similar to what the abuser did and may shut down.
- You have the power and the influence to be instrumental in helping a male survivor heal and recover. If you are a survivor as well or an addict or suffer from other emotional or mental health challenges, it's important that you get your needs met too. A survivor generally doesn't like to be smothered and taken care of. He tends to be very proud. You can be much more effective in helping him if you are also getting your needs taken care of.
- Refuse to shame a male survivor for not being "man enough" or "masculine enough" to get the help he needs. He's already suffered enough shame without you adding any more. Recognize and affirm every positive step he takes as another step toward valuing the boy inside of him and the adult man who is in a relationship with you.
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