Friday, January 22, 2010

Sexual Trauma

Titian's image of the rape.

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Sexual Trauma is a barrier to sexual intimacy.  Trauma comes in many forms.  The most extreme is sexual abuse, but it can come in milder forms.  For example someone with increased sensitivity catching your spouse looking at porn can be a trauma.  Another might be finding out your spouse is having an affair.  Childhood sexual abuse is a sexual trauma.  Sexual trauma is when an event that threatens your well being and the associated feelings become connected to sexual behavior.  Often the associated feelings are subconscious.  They will pop up without understanding or explanation.   Sexual trauma can be from within the marriage or from some other event from the past.  To be clear unwanted sexual behavior of an aggressive nature is abuse whether the couple is unmarried or married.  Forced sexual contact is rape regardless of marital status. 

One of the difficult aspects of trauma is that the memory and associated feelings are often locked into the brain and do not go away.  There can be some relief through various therapies, but it only takes a moment to bring up those feelings from the past.   Imagine if you will a super camera that records everything, sight, sound, smell (very strong in trauma), thought, feeling, sensation.  Now that super camera has an automatic alarm attached to it that is loud enough to wake the soundest of sleepers.  That is what it is like to experience sexual trauma and cues that remind of the past trauma.

Once trauma is encoded into the brain it pretty much becomes a permanent part of that persons life story.  Interesting there are some therapy techniques that help people retell their story so that they can better cope in the present.  This may make coping more effective, yet even in this scenario the trauma is still a part of the life story.   

One of the most unhelpful things you can do if your spouse is struggling with sexual trauma is to tell them to either "get over it" or "stop punishing me."  "Get over it" is irritating and down right disrespectful.  It communicates you are not a safe person to deal with genuine feelings and blames the victim.  Remember your spouse is the victim.  "Stop punishing me" is playing the victim.  You are not the victim in sexual trauma (at least in this hypothetical scenario) your spouse is.  You cannot help your spouse leave the role of victim by playing one yourself. 

Let me just say if you are in a relationship in which trauma is regularly occurring or is severe in nature you need to find a safe place.  Reconciling with a person should be done with the greatest of caution and only after the person has demonstrated a change in heart and change in behavior.  Placing yourself in a dangerous situation is foolishness don't do it!!!!!!

To help a spouse who is a victim of sexual trauma you have to recognize your role in it. 

If you are the person that instigated the trauma you have to make a full admission to your role and take steps to break the behavior that traumatized your spouse in the first place.  You have to take responsibility for these behaviors without blaming your spouse.  Sexual Trauma is often rooted in anger.  You have to be willing to take a look at how you handle anger, frustration, and irritability.  You might need to seek out help of another as you learn to deal effectively with anger.  If you do not then your spouse will not feel safe to allow for sexual intimacy. 

You might be thinking, "But I did not cause this."  It is important to recognize that people who have been traumatized can and often are retraumatized by the behavior of others.  You may not have initiated the trauma, but as the spouse of a victim of sexual abuse you have an obligation to takes steps to not retraumatize them.   You have to be willing to break from those behaviors regardless of how your spouse should feel or not feel safe.  Stated another way:  You cannot help your spouse develop coping skills for past trauma by constantly pulling the scab of the wound.  

If you are the victim of sexual trauma and you desire to have true sexual intimacy with your spouse then you have to take a path of learning to trust another with your body and vulnerably again.  It is not an easy path, but it can be done.  If your spouse is the cause of the sexual trauma and is repentant then you are needing to take the path of going FORTH (see previous post).  You also may want to seek additional help of a counselor, pastor, and/or trusted friend. 

It is sad that in order to accomplish ideal sexual intimacy that we have to address the ugliness of sexual sin whether the guilty party or the victim or the spouse of the victim.  However, we have to take a stand to protect others from trauma and become safe people else we risk becoming part of the problem.  Without repentance (a change of heart and direction) then true sexual intimacy cannot occur. 

One of the most beautiful things that can happen in marriage is that the relationship can be a source of great healing and hope.  If both spouses commit to loving each other in the manner in which you hold the other's needs higher than your own and you enlist the healing power that exists in the grace of God then genuine healing can be the result.  Together you can build sexual intimacy and overcome the past sexual trauma through a safe, compassionate, loving, caring marriage.  If it is lost then it can be restored if both spouses seek it.  If it is present then your marriage is a place of great worth. 

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