How Child Abuse Survivors Can Still Build Healthy Adult Relationships
When I was growing up, other people thought of my father as a good man — a church leader and a pastor; a great speaker; wonderful, kind, and amazing.
But behind closed doors — when no one was looking — he was abusive.
Abusive to my siblings, to my mother and to me. He used religion as a means to get us to follow his narcissistic commands. While the bulk of his daily abuse was physical, it took many forms. And while the scars on my body have since faded, the psychological scars it left on me will last me the rest of my life.
Though I’ve been out of his house since 2012, for years I was incredibly reluctant to discuss the experience. But as my journey as a survivor has progressed, I’ve realized the need to talk about abuse is an important one. For many survivors — male survivors in particular — the door to healing can be hard to open. The echoes of what happened years ago can still haunt you as an adult.
For abuse survivors, self-doubt and subconscious fears from years of trauma can be deeply implanted; they might be carrying years’ worth of pent-up emotions with them — things like anger, angst, shame, and hatred.
These emotions might seem like they can stay safely locked up and hidden, but the longer they are carried around, the more likely they are to burst open at the wrong moments. Not to mention that navigating through life holding onto this burden by yourself can be a harrowing experience.
That’s why the support of those in our lives is so essential. Unfortunately, many people in relationships with abuse survivors don’t know exactly how to do that. One upshot of that is that dating and getting married can be unexplainably hard for those who have gone through abuse during their youth.
Below, you’ll find some key factors men in relationships with abuse survivors should know based on things I’ve learned from my own relationship with my husband, conversations I’ve had with male abuse survivors and input from trauma therapists and mental health experts.
1. Don’t Try to “Fix” Things
When you see your partner having an emotional moment, your first instinct might be to try to fix things, but that’s not a viable approach when dealing with the trauma experienced by victims of childhood abuse.
Instead of trying to make things better for them, focus on trying to be there with them.
“Your partner does not have an illness; they are wounded,” says Dr. Lowell Routley, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and four decades of experience working with trauma victims. “Post-traumatic stress reactions are a result from this woundedness. By being with your partner during distress, you are showing them that relationships can be safe. Respecting their need to take care of themselves will deepen and strengthen your relationship. You will be seen as truly on their team.”
“Remember, this distress is temporary,” he adds. “Woundedness is not something about your partner that you have to fix. Just being with them will give them the freedom to experience the healing of their wounds. Healing cannot happen until the survivor can be in a safe place with safe people.”
Another thing you won’t be able to fix is your partner’s intense fears. As Routley points out, that’s in part because they’re rooted in something deeper.
“To help you as a supportive partner to understand and empathize on a deeper level you need to know about terror vs. fear,” notes Routley. “When you hear what seems to you like normal fear or anxiety, it is much more than that. Fight-or-flight is often a reaction where the survivor may become totally helpless and ‘shut down. It is as if their mind is playing dead. They are mentally frozen. Consider that their fear in a given life circumstance is really terror. No logical thinking will bring insight or direction to know what to do and how to be safe.”
As your companion might cry and try to explain themselves, triggered by things that remind them of their past trauma, they need you there with them by listening, holding their hand and loving them without needing to fix it. This will do more than you can imagine to help them on their healing journey.
2. Show Your Partner Empathy
Author and academic Brené Brown defines empathy as taking perspective; placing yourself in the other person’s shoes; withholding judgment and listening; recognizing emotion in the other person; and communicating that you recognize that emotion.
That list of traits is what everyone needs when handling those difficult emotions from past trauma.
But how do you get through the deeper parts of the relationship when it seems like the person beside you is breaking apart, triggered by something that might be completely unknown to you? I’ve been there. My husband and I got through it, but those moments can be some of the hardest.
First, it’s important not to brush off what’s happening just because it’s unpleasant.
“Never minimize a survivor’s experience,” says Routley. “At the point the survivor feels safe enough to share their story with you, accept what [they tell you] as valid. When they finally bring their past into the light of present day, that alone is a big deal — they’re taking it out from under a mountain of shame. There has to be a sense of safety with you, to trust you would not use it against them.”
It’s also important not to let what your partner’s telling you change how you see them. They’re coming to you for support, and if you pull back now and begin treating them differently, that will hurt.
“What is finally shared may be even more horrific in reality,” admits Routley. “But don’t let that color your relationship or the present day. They are indeed the person you know and love. Their genuine self is intact. Childhood trauma does not define a survivor.”
Routley also differentiates between sympathy and empathy. “Sympathy is different from empathy, in that it communicates pity for the other person, looking down on them rather than being with them in their struggle,” he says. “To simply say, ‘I understand’ is not being empathic. In reality, you did not walk in your partner’s shoes, so you do not understand. It would be much better to use these words: ‘I can’t imagine what this is like for you, but I want you to know that I am here with you right now. We will get through this together.’”
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3. Engage in Random Acts of Kindness
Sometimes, a survivor still going through the stages of healing is fighting just to get through their day. When your partner is feeling depressed, close to tears and resisting physical affection, it’s so important that you pick up on those cues.
Instead of backing off, this is your opportunity to engage in random acts of kindness.
Your partner’s used to harsh treatment from a past abuser — whether that was a parent figure or someone else in their life or even multiple people. Their shield and their outer wall has been their strength and protection when no one else was there to help or stop the abuse from happening to them.
It’s not up to you to break through their shield, but it is up to you to unconditionally love them and win their trust. It’s your job to treat them the opposite of how they’re used to being treated.
Abuse survivors can appear closed-off or unemotional even when they’re screaming on the inside. Random acts of kindness with no expectations attached can help soften that hard outer shell, so it will eventually melt away.
Not sure what will mean the most to them? Well, there’s a good way to find out.
“When our partner has a history of childhood trauma, it’s difficult to know exactly how to be helpful in the moments they are struggling,” says Shannon Thomas, author of “Healing From Hidden Abuse.”
“The best approach is to ask,” she continues. “A simple question of ‘What would be helpful to you right now?’ shows you care [and] are there to be supportive, but also keeps you from overstepping into codependency by trying to fix your partner, or walk on eggshells attempting to read their mind or body language.”
Here’s the thing to remember, though: In breaking through the walls that survivors have up, it’s important to give without asking anything in return. Do something unexpectedly special for your partner without expecting them to return the favor. If they’re emotional, allow them to simply feel treasured — let them know you love them for who they are.
4. Let Them Be Emotional
It’s important to expect some unexpected emotions from a person who’s been through severe trauma, and be OK with them.
This goes back to empathy. Let them be in that emotional place, and look for their cues. Follow up on those cues. Sometimes, they’ll want to be by themselves. That’s OK — give them some space. But, within an hour or so, make sure you check in on them by being gentle.
Never judge them for random outbursts of anger or tears. This is not about you. What your partner is expressing is most likely bottled-up past emotions, still working their way to the surface. Instead of judging them, your job is to let them know you love them, and simply be there for them. Stay close. Express your love. Show them you care.
“Oftentimes, those affected by childhood trauma have a difficult time expressing it in words, especially if the trauma happened before they were able to talk,” says Ryan Smith, a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry.
“Bodily feelings similar to what they experienced at the time can trigger the emotions that corresponded to the trauma during times that may not make sense in the present context,” he adds. “It is important to be aware that the trauma victim needs extra understanding and support during these times [especially if] they are not sure themselves why they are feeling anxious in a seemingly innocuous situation.”
A person who has survived abuse is a force to be reckoned with. Healing after years of abuse is an incredible example of strength. Your partner went through hell and came through it, but they need to know they don’t have to be strong all the time. Give them a shoulder to lean on, and space to show weakness. Acknowledge their pain and let them get it out in the open.
Above all, be patient with your partner. Just knowing you’re behind them 100 percent, no matter what, will mean more than you’ll ever fully understand.
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