Key 4

Relationships: Can't live without 'em.

Sexual abuse is a crime of relationship, and can only be fully healed in relationship.  As survivors, we often live at one extreme – either in “I can take care of myself and don’t need anyone else” mode, or the exact opposite: fully dependent on others.  And some of us experience both of these extremes at one time or another (see also Key 5 Balance).

Simply put- we tend to be relationship challenged.  We may feel distant or cut off from other people.  Our first relationships in life weren’t all safe, stable, consistent, and loving.  This Key can be a chance to review your past and present relationships, and notice what you might like to be different in the future.  For some, it can be a chance to re-parent yourself - to do it over the right way – the way you would have liked.

How do my early relationships in life affect how I relate to people now?  It can be helpful to know a little about Attachment Theory.   Here’s the basic idea: our first relationships are with our caregivers, and we become attached to him/her/them in one of 4 ways depending on how they relate to us:

  1. Secure: we feel safe and secure because our caregiver consistently responds to our needs.
  2. Avoidant: caregiver avoids us when we’re in need, so we don’t form much of an attachment.
  3. Ambivalent: caregiver is inconsistent – sometimes caring, sometimes neglectful.
  4. Disorganized: caregiver may be frightening, intrusive, or abusive.

We often have different types of attachments to different people in childhood.  Having even just one person with whom we have a secure attachment relationship as a child makes a huge difference in how we grow up.  These early attachments set the stage for all of our relationships to come.  We carry these patterns with us, and we often don’t realize it.

How can a therapist help with this?  No matter where we’re at, a therapist can basically be a secure attachment figure for us.  They can listen. They can validate. They can reflect things back to us better than a mirror.  Having a therapist whom we can connect with is extremely beneficial.  Selecting one can be very personal, or might be more dependent on who is nearby or who accepts your health insurance.  There are a wide variety of therapy styles, but what often matters most is the level of rapport.  Some important questions to ask yourself are:  “is this therapist attentive and present and caring and respectful of me?” and, “Do I feel safe with this person?”  More on selecting a therapist

Safety with another person – what does this even mean?  I think of it as a general sense that the other person not only cares about me, but would never dream of intentionally hurting me, and has a strong sense of boundaries (this especially, is what abusers lack).  I used to have a general feeling that people are not safe, that they will inevitably hurt me, and that I might not be able to stop it.  And I didn’t even realize this is how I was operating.  It was just something I learned and became my natural approach to the world.   Consider what feels normal to you.  Marilyn Van Derbur (referring to why she chose to be a speaker), said “I chose terror because terror is what feels normal to me.”  In what ways do you choose what feels normal to you?  Do any of your present relationships leave you feeling unsafe, insecure, anxious, or attention-starved?  Are there currently people in your life who behave inconsistently, disrespectfully, abusively, aggressively, or in a way that causes you serious discomfort?

What is empathy?  Better than a sympathetic ear is an empathetic ear.  What’s the difference?  Sympathy is someone feeling bad for you; empathy happens when someone is being present and curious about you and your experience.  Therapists and close friends are your best bets for being heard with empathy.   When someone listens empathetically, they are listening to all that you’re communicating – not just the 7% that comes across in words.  They pay attention to your nonverbal communication too – what’s happening with your body and your emotions..  When your difficult experiences are received with compassion and understanding, it helps to release the energy behind them and transform them.  Sometimes it’s a very physical release, with tears flowing or a sensation of something being lifted from your chest.  Some survivor support groups have a saying “What’s shareable is bearable.”  Secrets are a burden.  Empathy can shift the weight off your shoulders.

What’s the easiest relationship to have, that can help me?  MUSIC!  Have you ever listened to the lyrics of a song and thought “Wow – whoever wrote this knows exactly what I’m feeling!”  That’s a beautiful thing about music – it makes it possible to feel a real connection with a singer you’ve never even met, and not only that, but with everyone else who has been touched by the song too.  At a shelter for abused children I had the privilege of listening to a handful of kids speak about their experiences, and more than half of them quoted song lyrics that they related to their own lives.  Music, and their personal relationships with specific songs, was helping these kids heal.  It can help us too.

Try compiling your own “soundtrack for healing.”  Mine included 4 kinds of songs: songs I used to enjoy listening to in my younger years; songs with lyrics about sexual abuse; songs whose lyrics seemed to have been written to describe my life’s painful experiences; and lastly, a few upbeat songs that left me feeling hopeful.

What about my partner/spouse?  If you have a spouse or partner, they are going to be a part of your processing in some way, whether they like it or not. Recovery is difficult, and will be challenging for your partner as well. There are support groups for loved ones of survivors, which can be helpful since partners may suffer secondary trauma, and may struggle with the relationship, or understanding the process, or with knowing how to be supportive.  Partners often need to hear from some other source that the worst thing to say is “get over it – that was a long time ago.”  It can be difficult for others to understand that you’ll have to get through it as an adult before you can begin to put it behind you.

If you want your spouse to be inspired to be supportive, ask them to read Marilyn Van Derbur’s  Miss America By Day.  If you want them to hear that saying “why can’t you just get over it” is not helpful, then have them read Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child.  Although be aware that this book says that new relationships often don’t survive.

What about my friends and coworkers?  There are people you can tell, and people you won’t want to tell.  Whatever you do, taking care of yourself is important.  Consider what the other person’s reaction will be before you tell them – what’s the best case scenario?  What’s the worst?  Could I live with that?  Personally, I shared with certain friends and not with others, and I kept it out of the workplace as best I could.  This is where compartmentalizing is useful – putting parts of yourself into separate boxes, and acting the part.  I had my worker-bee ‘me’ that got stuff done on the job; I had my Mom ‘me’ that did the best I could to take care of my kid;  and then there was the entire ‘me’ that let it all hang out with my therapist  and with friends who had similar experiences.

At times, not being open about what you are going through can make the process harder, but sometimes it’s the best way to take care of yourself.  As long as much of society harshly judges the victims of sexual abuse, as well as mental healthcare, the best way to care for yourself may be not to share.

One Quick Thing:  Warning: we’re still vulnerable to abuse. We have been voted “Most Likely to be Sexually Victimized by a Doctor or Therapist.”  Why?  Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to consider “exploitative relations with an authority figure to be normal” – which makes us not only more vulnerable, but also less likely to realize when something is inappropriate.  But wait there’s more – we can be traumatized all over again, even if we tell ourselves that we’re okay with the sexual relationship.

We have a tendency to think we're special in a negative way, which can show up as thinking, for example, 'it's okay for me to be abused because something about ME makes this person not be able to resist me, and that's why I've always been abused, but it wouldn't be okay for it to happen to someone else; I'm a special exception to the rule.'

Stay tuned for more on topics including parenting, family of origin, confrontations, and conflicts.