How To Recover From Sexual Trauma In A Relationship

sexual trauma in a relationship
Photo by Ana Maria Moroz

At seventeen years old, I had two goals:

1. Get a boyfriend.

2. Have sex.

I didn’t care which way round.

They were very normal teenage aspirations, and it was all my friends and I talked about. After all, none of us looked like goblins; how come we hadn’t hit the jackpot yet?

So when I met my ex-abuser, I willingly (and sometimes unwillingly) complied with every sexual act put upon me, not knowing the damage it was doing to my self-esteem.

After three and a half years of abiding by his every need, I left and suddenly felt like I had been set free. I could talk again to whoever I wanted. Laugh again, without it being questioned. Watch the films I enjoyed and pursue the hobbies I loved, free from the fear of an emotional outburst.

I soon found it wasn’t that simple. The actions and words of an abuser leave their mark in your mind long after they have left. I didn’t trust anyone. I had trained myself not to smile at strangers. Even though I was now in a healthy and loving relationship, I felt on edge, jumping at sudden movements and suffering from reoccurring nightmares. I fell into a deep depression, ruminating about the past and all the hurt my abuser had caused me.

The worst thing?

I felt like my body wasn’t mine anymore. It had been used and manipulated for someone else’s pleasure. I had no voice and no passion. I was terrified of feeling sexually empowered in case it invited another abuser in.

So, I began a mission to reclaim my body as my own. I wanted to be a proud womxn, who was not ashamed of her past and who could be sexual without being sexually abused.

If I have rough sex, I ask for affirmations of love and tenderness

I like a good bang; who doesn’t? Sometimes, it’s just what you need.

Whereas BDSM is a respected community with an emphasis on boundaries and consent, abuse violates exactly those things.

So how can I have a bit of rough and tumble without reinstating the fear that I am being abused?

The trick lies in checking in.

My partner asks me if something feels okay or what it feels like. If I need to reaffirm that he loves me as a person and doesn’t just see me as a body, I reach for a hug halfway through or entwine my fingers around his. I ask him beforehand to make sure he tells me he loves me or to mix the rough sex with gentle tenderness if it’s getting too much.

If rough sex is what turns you on, but you have a fear of being re-triggered, try easing yourself into it slowly. Try one or two things and integrate them with compassion and tenderness from your sexual partner.

Find your voice in the bedroom without having to speak

A large part of being abused is having your voice taken away and becoming trapped inside your head.

Sometimes, you desperately want to tell the person you love what you are thinking or feeling, but you have trained yourself into silence for fear of further danger. The words physically won’t come out.

If this sounds like you, try writing down your needs in the bedroom beforehand and give them to your partner. Writing is often easier than speaking. For example, “I want to have rough sex tonight, but I need you to tell me you love me throughout and that I am safe.”

Safewords are important, but again, speaking your mind may go against your instinct. Instead, use a body signal and tell your partner what it is. For example, “if I squeeze your arm, then it feels good. If I tap your shoulder, it means stop immediately.”

Remember, practice makes perfect. It’s easy to get carried away or even shut down in the bedroom. So, try out your safe signals around the house and not just during sex.

Honor my whole body, not just the parts that feel good

Dissociation from sexual trauma is common. Your body might go numb to protect itself, or you don’t feel present in your body during sex, experiencing a detached feeling.

Abusers often view womxn as sexual objects, and we subconsciously sense that is how we’re being perceived at the time.

We can feel it from their lack of emotional interaction with us, doing things that are only pleasurable for them, or solely focusing on the body parts they find attractive, rather than viewing us as a whole person.

Instead, ask your partner to light up all your senses. Kisses on your stomach and neck, soft strokes, or using massage oils are ways to start the nerve endings firing all over your body.

Lighting candles, wearing or lying on silk, and using aromatherapy is another way to get your senses tingling.

It’s equally important that your partner honors your body outside as well as inside the bedroom.

Do they respect your clothing choices, the diet you choose, and any activities or hobbies you enjoy? They can give advice or guidance, but it’s important to remember it’s your body and yours alone.

Take physical control of your body

What often hurts the most about abuse is the powerlessness you can feel as a womxn. Any control you had over your body has been taken away, and you can feel defenseless and vulnerable in a patriarchal world.

A common way to try and get some form of control back is manipulating what you are eating. I want to say, with the kindest of hearts, that is not the way.

While a healthy diet is beneficial, restricting or overeating to repress feelings or take back autonomy is an unhealthy path I have been down.

Instead, learn a physical discipline that allows you to own your body and channel your emotions, so you can begin to trust and love yourself again.

I took up yoga for my anxiety and discovered how beneficial it is to learn how to breathe through painful memories. With regular practice, you will be amazed at how quickly you can start achieving poses you felt were far beyond your capabilities.

The real change came when I took up Female Fight Club—a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class solely for womxn.

I channeled all my anger into learning how to punch with strength, learning a combination of moves or high kicking pads, and I did it all wearing floral-patterned gloves.

Who says you can’t be feminine and a badass?

There are plenty of defense classes dedicated solely to womxn. Find a gym specializing in defense techniques rather than attending a gimmicky add-on, like boxercise.

If you commit to a discipline with measurable progress, you are taking charge of your body. You have decided to be in the driver’s seat. With practice, you will begin to feel physically and mentally in control again.

As our coach once told us, “all you need to do is turn up.” Although easier said than done!

Find your voice

Losing who you are as a person is part of the abuse. There is no room for you anymore. Learning how to take up space unapologetically is difficult to learn if it previously put you in harm’s way.

Find your voice again and by that, I mean find who you are. Authentically, passionately, wholeheartedly you. Everything your abuser said, implied, or stopped you from being or doing—you can do it. It just takes time.

I found myself again when I started writing. I started a blog on my mental health journey and wrote a public, open letter of forgiveness to myself. Suddenly, I had control again. It was no longer his version of the story, no longer his rules. I had exposed him for who he was and what he did.

Admitting what happened to me was the first step towards recovery, but there were so many more. By pursuing the things that I loved doing, I came closer and closer to feeling like me.

Perhaps there’s something that lights you up inside, but for one reason or another, you stopped doing it. Maybe someone told you you weren’t good enough, it was uncool, or they didn’t find it attractive.

You know what? It’s your life. I know it can feel so important to seek validation from those who are least likely to give it to us. Maybe one day you’ll get it, maybe one day you won’t. Either way, not doing the things you love will create a small and lonely life.

Pursuing things we enjoy is essential to happiness, a basic human right. Everyone deserves to be happy. Yes, even you. Especially you.

Practice being present with sensations

Mindfulness has gained massive traction over the past few years, but have you ever stopped to consider how it could enhance your self-esteem and sex life?

Being in your body, rather than in your head, means you are more likely to experience sensations. Orgasm, I’m looking at you, you pesky devil.

Understandably, the concept of being in our bodies can be an extremely frightening thing when what we feel is unpleasant. However, our brains are our biggest saboteurs. Often, our bodies want to and will help us, given a chance.

I used to hate meditation because I could suddenly hear all my bad thoughts, loud and clear. I would sit in silence, flooded by painful memories, then start an inner dialogue about what I should have said or done.

It is perfectly normal when you first start meditation to feel bombarded by your thoughts and believe it must not be working, or you’re not doing it right.

In time, the mind will begin to settle, and you will start to feel your body again. Instead of suppressing painful memories, you will begin to process them and attune your brain to recognize critical thoughts.

There will always be noisy head days. Sometimes there will be blissfully quiet ones. The important thing is, you are checking in with yourself.

A good place to start is noting. Whenever you are meditating, and a thought pops up, you gently label it as a thought, then return to the breath. Is a twist of guilt distracting your attention? Note it as a feeling.

The great thing about noting is, the more you practice, the more you will start using it in everyday life, say, the bedroom.

The important thing to remember is, not all thoughts are true because not all the toxic things your abuser told you were true. As you begin to acknowledge your feelings, you can signal your partner to change what they are doing or reaffirm that you are safe.

Instead of feeling powerless to your thoughts and feelings, you start to have a choice about how to respond. You are in control of the situation instead of the situation being in control of you.

Where do I start?

Perhaps you have never been in what you would call an abusive relationship. Maybe you grew up with a critical mother who shamed your body. You experienced a toxic relationship with a so-called friend. Or you’re just trying to survive the patriarchal system that tells you, you aren’t good enough.

If you are recovering from past abuse or something about this article resonates with you, I invite you to follow the below advice:

Permit yourself to talk about your past abuse

Feeling silenced into shame is what keeps the abuse alive. Tell your partner or somebody close that you need to talk about aspects of the relationship because it affects your relationship with them in the present. You will be surprised at how understanding people who truly have your best interests at heart can be.

Remember, a close friend is not the same as a therapist. If you feel like you need to go in-depth and work through past trauma, finding a counselor is a life-long investment.

Write down your fears, but also your desires

What do you want in a future or current relationship, if you want one at all? Take a moment to write down your greatest fears, but remember that it is equally important to figure out what you want.

Maybe you want a healthy and passionate sex life. Perhaps you have a fetish you would like to try. It might be nothing to do with sex but the desire to be heard and feel like you can trust again.

Commit yourself to a new hobby for six months

It can take at least three months to get the basics of a new hobby and six months to start seeing progress. Make a list of everything you’ve always dreamed of trying, even if you aren’t confident enough to do it yet! Then, pick the top three and try each one. If there is one that fits most comfortably with your lifestyle, budget, and confidence level, stick it out for at least six months until you notice an improvement.

Physical activities are always a good place to start. A great sense of accomplishment comes by learning to perfect a new move or realizing you can get into a position you couldn’t before.

The key is enjoyment, so if singing is your jam, learning a musical instrument, or growing a garden, go for it! It doesn’t matter, as long as the hobby is solely for you and not to please anyone else.

Remember, recovery takes time

It can be frustrating when you know a sexually empowered goddess is locked inside you. But healing is a process. There may be times when you note how you feel and others when you get lost in your head. You may think you’ve finally found your voice, and then someone criticizes you back into silence.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take away from the progress you have made, and recovery comes in different forms. Reading this article is the first step, so take what suits you and leave what doesn’t.

It’s your body to be reclaimed and no one else’s.

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