The development of one’s sense of self is ongoing. It is a journey, not a destination. Tragically, the sexual abuse or incest survivor’s journey has been inexplicably contaminated. At the core of any healthy relationship is trust. Trust can be defined as a feeling of safety, comfort or security with another person. In healthy development, trust naturally evolves. The child cries to receive comfort, food or attention. As these cries for attention are attended to, the child learns to trust the caregiver.
As adults, how do we decide whether to trust? We share our thoughts and feelings with someone and watch their reaction; if the response feels safe, if it is caring, non-critical and non-abusive, the first step of trust has been established. For trust to grow, this positive response needs to become part of an ongoing and reliable pattern. It need not–nor can it be–perfect. For the survivor, trust has been skewed and betrayed, sometimes before she begins to walk and talk. Intimacy is impossible without trust; for the sexual abuse or incest survivor, trust is impossible–the inherent right to intimacy has been wrenched from their emotional grasp. The inherent right to intimacy and trust can be regained through the therapeutic process. This distortion of intimacy teaches many confusing contradictions: to be cared about is to be taken from; to need someone puts one at risk of being taken advantage of; and to receive leads to an anticipated payback. For the sexual abuse or incest survivor, intimacy equals danger and damage. Intimacy has become more threatening than sex. As a survivor, she is accustomed to dealing with sex. She has learned the rules, ‘you get what you want at my expense’–and thus she detaches from her body and therefore is comfortable with the sexual interaction. The survivor equates sex with love. After all, she was told by her perpetrator that he loved her while he was sexually abusing her. She believes that she is only accepted if she is willing to give herself away. She can be sexual with strangers or friends, switching into automatic (even with her partner) as she did ever since the abuse, and feels nothing. Nevertheless, at some point in a serious relationship, she will begin to feel as if something has gone wrong.
Although she is starved for intimacy, she cannot experience it. She did not experience it as a child and, therefore, does not know how to have a healthy adult relationship. Nor does she know how to choose healthy men with whom to have a relationship. She will often reenact the abuse by choosing men who are verbal, physical or sexual abuse perpetrators. While she feels threatened or abused (without seeing a connection to her experience of sexual abuse or incest, if she remembers it) she is frequently unable to empower herself; thus, the power imbalance as occurred with her initial perpetrator is manifested again.
Power imbalances in relationships take several forms. Survivors frequently become involved in sexual relationships or marriage with older and/or more powerful people, simulating previous relationships with older, more powerful abusers. The sexual abuse survivor continues to be a child.. The survivor may connect with men who are strong and controlling protectors (caretaker, co-dependency) who may never abuse her, but with whom there is a basic power imbalance. In these circumstances, the victim has interpreted her partner’s possessive control as attention or caring. Or she might see commitment as suffocation or engulfment. Intimacy means having to give everything away; she may avoid relationships out of fear she will be sucked dry..
Underneath the fear of engulfment is the inherent need for intimacy. This inherent need for intimacy has been contaminated by the abuse and is now being experienced as acute fear of abandonment. This fear is compelling. She wants to control the actions and attitudes of her partner, requiring and demanding constant reassurance and contact. This constant demand compels the partner to withdraw. The relationship may be further complicated in incidents where the survivor chooses a partner who is unavailable. The pursuer and the withdrawer seem to find each other. Or perhaps they connect with each other because two pursuers recognize they would overwhelm each other. with the constant intensity of pursuit before the relationship develops beyond the dating stage. On the other hand, the withdrawer finds the constant presence of another engulfing, seeking space in times of stress. The dance of be close, don’t be close, by the pursuer and withdrawer is a difficult balancing act.
Many survivors marry loving, attentive partners. However, ironically, the consistent love and attentiveness by the partner frequently becomes an enemy. For no apparent reason, the survivor may lose interest in sex or feel threatened or abused. She may suddenly think her partner is having an affair and may go to great lengths to catch him. This behavior puts a great strain on the relationship. Her partner may withdraw for emotional solace, unknowingly adding to the survivor’s insecurities. She may even end the relationship believing he had an affair, only to repeat the pattern again. The survivor desperately pursues sexual relationships, thinking that this will fill the emptiness. Survivors come to each new romance with tremendous need and no inner resources or skills to build an intimate relationship. Further, this combination–tremendous neediness and no inner resources or skills–results in dissatisfactory relationships. The fact is sex is not sex, and trust, caring and violation cannot co-exist.
Both male and female survivors generally question whether they deserved or somehow wanted to be sexually abused; they believe if they failed to defend themselves, they must have wanted it. Although both female and male survivors frequently view their abuse as a loss of manhood or femininity and are disgusted with themselves for not fighting back, men judge themselves more harshly. As a result of their guilt, shame and anger, both men and women punish themselves by engaging in self-destructive behavior such as: alcohol or drug use, prostitution, rape and numerous other criminal behaviors. For some men self-destructive behavior means engaging in aggressiveness, such as road rage, arguing with friends or co-workers, or picking fights with strangers, as well as domestic violence as a way to regain their honor. Both men and women pull back from intimacy and end up feeling more and more isolated.