Sexual assault and harassment are huge in the news right now, and there’s been some positive and negative fallout. On the negative side, people have realized that sexual harassment and assault is way too common. On the positive side, many people now feel emboldened to come forward with their own stories, thanks in part to the #MeToo campaign, and no longer have to suffer in silence. As a result, you suddenly may have found yourself reading about and listening to stories from friends and family members that you’d never heard before. And you might even have heard a story from your partner and aren’t totally sure how to react.
Sexual assault is scary and it can impact people for the rest of their life. “When there’s a violation during sex it can have a lasting effect because it can impact us on many levels including physical, emotional, psychological, and relational,” says marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago and author of the upcoming book You Are Not Crazy, Love Letters From Your Therapist.
And those effects can seep into your relationship in several ways. “Long after the assault, the victim not only can have issues of trust, especially if the assault was by someone known,” says psychologist Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces. Also, many people who have been victims of sexual assault can have lingering negative thoughts about themselves. “They may feel ashamed even though they did nothing wrong; they may think they showed poor judgment by being in a certain place or with certain people, or they may fear being judged by others,” Coleman says.
All those fears and beliefs can create complications and insecurities that can surface at any time in your relationship. While that may explain why your partner reacts a certain way to negativity or has insecurities you can’t understand, it also means that what you say and do can impact your partner more than you realize.
Above all, if your S.O. opens up to you about a past sexual assault, it’s important to be a good listener and let them talk. “Do not judge,” Coleman says. However, he adds, it’s OK to ask your partner if they think the memory of the assault might be affecting their relationship with you, as well as what you can do to help.
You probably already know this, but it never hurts to say it again: Once your partner has confided in you, keep the information to yourself. It’s their story to tell—not yours. And, while it’s OK to bring it up again in the future with them, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t seep into your arguments. “Talking about sexual assault in the past should only be done in a respectful way that promotes healing,” Klow says.
That said, if you’re struggling with intimacy or trust issues that may be a result of the assault, it’s important to talk about it in a calm, respectful way while also stressing that this is something that impacts both of you. “It’s important to understand that the victim and the partner may both be affected directly and indirectly—a lot of deep understanding and care about how the other feels goes a long way to soothing feelings when someone cannot get what they want on a certain issue,” Coleman says.
While it may be enough for your partner to talk things out with you, they also may benefit from therapy. If you feel like you’re not helping as much as you’d like, Coleman recommends learning about PTSD (a common side effect of sexual assault) and talking to your partner about the possibility of going to therapy together. A mental health provider should be able to give you both guidance on how to heal and move forward as a team.
Above all, listen to your partner about what they are and aren’t OK with. “People heal from traumatic experiences in different ways,” Klow says. “Allowing people to move at their own pace can be effective.”