You’ve lived with the after-effects of sexual abuse for too long. Now, you’re wondering if it’s affecting your relationships. The answer is yes. Here are some reasons why.
Sexual abuse makes it hard to trust. You’re never sure if someone wants to use you. If someone appears caring and kind, do they really want to take and not to give? How do you figure that out and feel safe?
It’s not easy if you also have fears of abandonment. Or wall yourself off in terror of any kind of intruder. You might be hyper-vigilant about a lot of things, looking over your shoulder either literally or metaphorically. Certainly, you’ve suffered depression and anxiety. Maybe your symptoms are quite severe.
Not only don’t you trust others, but you also live with a deep sense of shame. All of this makes life very difficult. It’s hard to open up. Love and friendship have scared or disappointed you too many times. You don’t see a way out.
You need help. But either you’ve been too ashamed to look, not sure who you can trust, or past psychotherapy has failed you too. You try to adapt to your life, but you want to be happier. You’d like to have love. Or, if you do, you want to feel safer and more open in the relationship you have.
So, what’s getting in the way? Let’s explore some different things you might experience as a result of sexual abuse: 1. Distrust. 2. Choosing wrong relationships. 3. Shame. 4. Never feeling good enough. 5. Over-giving. 6. Staying distant and keeping your walls up. 7. Problems with intimacy.
These are difficult to change on your own. But, they all can get better with help.
Who To Trust?
Sexual abuse makes trust a big question. Relationships were not at all reliable as a child. There was no one to count on. And, certainly, whoever abused you, betrayed you. Maybe you’ve even had to keep it a secret, not feeling there was anyone who would listen and understand.
You may be quite certain (or were, even when it was happening) that something wasn’t right. But, either you didn’t feel you’d be believed. Or, you wondered if it was your fault. Maybe that doubt is still on your mind. You wanted to tell someone, but you were afraid you’d be blamed. Or if you did try to talk, maybe you were.
None of this makes trust easy now. And, trust is essential in any close relationship. So, either you don’t get close. Or you (not consciously) choose relationships that only confirm your distrust and make you feel more ashamed. Maybe you stay away or run fast from close relationships so not to take the risk.
Choosing Wrong Relationships
Have you chosen the wrong relationships? You may sometimes not even know, mistaking someone’s self-serving interest for love. Or maybe you even find yourself in abusive relationships that humiliate or shame you, thinking that’s what you deserve. Or with people that take, take, take, with no thought of you.
It’s not your fault. There are reasons why.
When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s common to choose the wrong relationships. You don’t expect love. Have to be happy with anything you get. Expect to be mistreated, or to give more than you get. And with the kind of self-doubt you feel, you just “take it” if the one you love makes you feel there’s something wrong with you.
You aren’t surprised if you don’t get very much back. Or if you find yourself with someone unreliable and not to be counted on emotionally. It’s so familiar. You try hard to give enough; be good enough, but then you get left anyway. That’s one more painful abandonment.
Plus, you’re never sure if you’re the one who’s done something wrong. You ask yourself, do you need too much? Do you have to be resigned to being alone and taking care of yourself forever? You have a lot of shame and self-doubt about your needs anyway. And, you suffer because of that.
Shame After Sexual Abuse
Shame has followed you into every aspect of your life. And, that shame goes on and on if the effects of your sexual abuse haven’t been treated. It does affect your relationships. You never know if you can safely open up with anyone.
Shame is one of the worst after-effects of sexual abuse. You fight it. But it’s at the heart of most of your struggles with trust, friendships, and love. You wonder how people are looking at you, sure you’re being judged. You try hard to do your best and to be lovable. But, you live with a judgmental voice inside your head.
That voice watches you and blames you for everything. Makes you feel that you’ve done something wrong. You live with the belief that there is something wrong with you, in almost everything you do (or maybe say). That shame lives so deeply in you it feels like it virtually exists in every pore. You can’t believe it isn’t really you.
You don’t think you could ever feel differently. Or that anyone you admire or respect or think is good could possibly want you. So being in a wrong relationship is paradoxically a built-in safeguard that you’ll stay closed off. It’s hard to open up with anyone if you carry deep and old shame.
Never Feeling Good Enough
But, if you never feel good enough, it’s even harder to let someone that might be good for you, see who you really are at your core. You’re convinced they wouldn’t like what they find. You don’t. So, it makes you more vulnerable and scared if you believe you’ll be rejected for that real self you keep hidden away.
Never feeling good enough has been a life-long struggle. You find fault with everything you do. You’re very self-critical. And, it’s hard not to imagine that everyone else thinks the same. You’re watching out for judgment and rejection all of the time.
These feelings are at the heart of many of your current fears and anxieties about relationships. And, they began with the experience of sexual abuse. Now, these feelings are being lived out in your feelings about yourself; whether anyone loves you or can; and how much you have to give to have a chance to be loved or to get anything at all.
Over-Giving & Expecting Little
You over-give because you feel that’s what’s expected. And, do whatever’s asked of you. You ask for little in return; you’re used to it. Being abused means you were expected to give what no child should. You feel giving and giving is the only way you can get even the least amount of love.
Maybe it was the only way you did get any kind of love or attention when you were little. You’re at a loss about what love is. Likely, you lived an emotionally deprived life as a child. Or maybe you were quite neglected. So, the whole thing about giving and what you might reasonably want in return is very confusing.
Now, you over-give out of habit. And, self-protection. You’re the helper. Being needed at least gives you some kind of value. Maybe you won’t be left. Or yelled at. You expect almost nothing. Asking for something feels out of the question.
If you get even a little, you think it should be enough. Of course, it’s not. And, when you give and give, you do have resentment and anger. You’re deprived of the love and acceptance you need. The only other option is closing down.
Out of disappointment, you decide to stay away from relationships. You don’t want to take the risk of being hurt. And, anyway, you already have some walls up. Watching to see who can be trusted and if anyone will offer anything that feels out of genuine care or concern.
Staying Distant & Keeping Your Walls Up
If you stay distant and can’t get close, it’s most often to protect yourself from being hurt or taken advantage of. To fend off any potential intrusions. You can’t really relax with anyone – not in your marriage, your committed relationship, or especially on a date.
Maybe you run away before you can get close. Or, if you do open up, you might need a lot of reassurance that you are loved. Sexual abuse is emotional abandonment. So, if you don’t get an immediate text or phone call or response, you’re convinced it’s over and just more proof you aren’t wanted.
Or, maybe you never open up. Your relationships stay superficial. You choose distant relationships because they suit you. Feel you have someone, but there’s little risk. And, in some ways, you’re in control. Needing that kind of control is totally understandable when the effects of sexual abuse go untreated.
Neither of these two ways of being in a relationship satisfies a deeper need for love. Even when you do have love, you hold back and it doesn’t give you the comfort or pleasure you need. Opening up to love is too scary.
Problems With Intimacy
If intimacy brings back memories or feelings of your early molestation, it can be hard to let go. Anyone you let yourself get close to can seem like a molester.
Sometimes the memories aren’t even conscious. But, what you know is this: you often don’t like being touched or intimate. You want to enjoy it, but you don’t. You go through the motions. Feel anxious and uncomfortable. You wonder if this feeling can ever change. It can.
It’s understandable that you can’t let go and open up. Love is something a child should be able to trust. Your sexual abuse severely hurt you and broke your trust. When there is someone you think you might trust now, you doubt it.
Sometimes, now, even when you’re with someone you’ve learned you can trust, you still don’t feel safe. Why? The sexually abused child still lives inside you. That traumatized child self who doesn’t trust love is the one that needs help to work these effects out. Because it interferes with a lot of things.
Things like: turning to the one who does love you when you need some emotional support. Plus, in many instances, it’s not just emotional closeness that’s a problem. Untreated sexual abuse makes it difficult to enjoy the good sexual intimacy that is a part of any loving relationship. You sometimes ask yourself if there’s any hope.
Is There Hope?
Yes, you can find hope in psychotherapy with someone that understands and specializes in treating survivors of sexual abuse. Because you can do more than merely survive. You can learn to trust. And to open up (and enjoy) all that a good love relationship can bring. If you haven’t yet, you can learn to choose “right.”
Wrong relationships; shame; fears of closeness; never feeling good enough; intimacy problems, and hopelessness about having what you want and need do not have to fill your life when your sexual abuse is treated. You don’t have to be alone with secrets or with feelings that no one has ever understood.
The wonderful thing that #Me Too has taught us – is that you can find someone to listen. To “speak out” to, about your anger, hurt, and fears. Your life can change. All you have to do is take a calculated risk with someone experienced enough to help you. Then what you can do in therapy will transfer into life, friendships, and love.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst. I specialize in and have over 35 years of experience treating survivors of sexual abuse. Help is possible. You don’t have to suffer the effects of unsatisfying relationships, fears, distrust, or intimacy problems as a result of childhood molestation. Don’t give up hope.
Michael Regier PhD
This is a really great article for sexual abuse survivors.
Dr. Sandra E. Cohen
I appreciate your comment, Michael. This is something I care deeply about.
Mary Ellen Goggin
Excellent article. It will help couples that often don’t recognize the profound impact of childhood sexusl abuse on their relationship.
Dr. Sandra E. Cohen
Thank you for commenting, Mary Ellen. I’m happy to know that you find the article helpful. Helping my own patients with the effects of their sexual abuse is something I am committed to and feel very deeply about.