You Need Help: Is It Possible to Repair a Relationship After a Consent Misstep?

Q:

I’m a couple of months into a new relationship with a wonderful woman. She’s funny, kind, empathetic, and not afraid of being vulnerable, which is a big part of her emotional availability and makes me feel safer than I’ve felt in relationships before. Part of what I love about our relationship is our sex life. I have a history of sexual assault, so sometimes sex can be difficult for me to enjoy — I get nervous, and I find it hard to articulate what works for me and what doesn’t. My new partner is patient, and creative, and is open to using toys and trying new positions, and our sex life is getting better and better every time we try. I have never had such an amazing sex life with a partner before.

Until the last time! The last time we had sex, she came over late after having gone out with friends. She gets really flirty and handsy when she’s been drinking, and I was really tired, but I had a hard time saying no. I thought I was past this (it was my M.O. for a long time after my assault,) but I guess not. I tried to playfully say no, to cuddle instead, but we ended up starting to have sex, and it was really triggering for me. After a while, she noticed, and we stopped and she apologized profusely, but things haven’t been the same since.

She knows a little bit about my history, but I haven’t wanted to share too much. In the past, I’ve overshared, and it’s made the relationships weird and heavy too early on, and anyway, I’m finally ready to put that crap behind me. I really like her, and it’s my first relationship in a while and definitely the first one I’ve been excited about. But lately I haven’t been able to relax, and my sex drive is pretty low. I’m worried the relationship is ruined before it even really got started. What should I do? Do I have to break up with her, or is there a way to work through this?

A:

Dating is hard, and dating when you have a history of trauma is frequently even harder, so first of all, I want to commend you for being brave. So much of experiencing trauma means that we go through life in survival mode — reacting from fear, even unconsciously, rather than responding from a place of strength and discernment — often without even being aware of it. It sounds like you’re in the place of wanting to choose differently for yourself. This is a courageous step forward — and with any change we decide to make in our lives, it’s natural for there to be a couple of bumps in the road.

There’s a lot to unpack in your letter, so let’s start at the beginning. You’re in a new relationship, which is great! You like your new partner, and while there was a misstep with regard to consent in the interaction you described, overall, you write about her in a positive way. You feel safe with her, which is huge for someone with a trauma history. It sounds like there’s a lot of reciprocity in your relationship, and you’re able to recognize that she’s emotionally available and attuned to you. She’s patient, and she doesn’t run from vulnerability. And, on the flip side, she doesn’t bombard you with it either. Nor do you feel compelled to share too much too soon with her, having recognized that that was one of your patterns in the past that you’d like to change.

This speaks volumes to me, especially given your trauma history. Sometimes, when we’ve experienced harm, it can be our impulse to divulge the details of the ways we’ve been hurt onto new partners. While the reason for this is often connected to anxiety over our own safety — perhaps we believe that if we tell our partners that we’ve been hurt before, it’ll guarantee that they themselves will never, ever hurt us. But trust between partners doesn’t really work that way. Trust takes time, and a healthy partner will recognize that. In fact, I think it’s pertinent to mention that if you were rushing ahead and sharing everything right away, I might tentatively ask you to consider the intention behind that; sometimes, the dynamics that create for such intense and immediate vulnerability could be emblematic of trauma bonding, which would be a red flag.

Since the relationship is new, I am going to encourage you to slooooow things down and try to allow yourself to gain some perspective. New relationship energy is a real thing and it works on our brains like a literal addictive substance. When we’re in a new romantic relationship, we crave our partners, and one part of that craving is illustrated in the way we idealize them. Since this is a new relationship, ask yourself: Is it possible that up until now, you’ve idealized your girlfriend and the relationship (a totally natural thing!), and part of your dismay and disorientation around this most sexual experience with her is that it is breaking you out of the idealization phase? New relationship energy is such a heightened state, and part of what I’m getting in your letter is another heightened and intense state: that of black and white thinking. Is everything “ruined” because you experienced harm in your relationship? Well, that’s entirely up to you to define for yourself, though your description of your girlfriend — funny, kind, empathetic, emotionally available, patient, creative, attentive in noticing your upset and willing to hold herself accountable for her actions — make me think that, at the very least, you’re willing to stick it out a little longer to work through this.

Another question I would have for you is this: Is it reasonable to expect to never experience harm in a relationship? NRE makes us think that our partners and our relationships are perfect and that they’ll be perfect forever, but perfection — especially with regard to how two (or more) flawed and imperfect humans strive to connect — is impossible. What matters more than maintaining the fantasy of this perfection is to deal with the reality of harm and the work of repairing that harm. If you’re both willing to do this (and it sounds like you are) then, no, I don’t think things are “ruined” just yet.

Which brings us to trauma. Trauma — particularly the trauma of sexual assault — is a relational injury, a betrayal of our bodily integrity and autonomy, and, as I’m sure you know, the impact of trauma extends beyond the incident itself to sink its fingers into relationships you want to navigate in the future. This is not to excuse your girlfriend’s actions — coming home drunk, being handsy, not paying attention to your cues or having the presence of mind to ensure that you were also enthusiastically consenting to sex in the moment are completely on her, and I would hope that she recognizes that and is doing what she can to hold space for you as you both process the consequences of this experience for both of you. She apologized profusely, as you said, but I would encourage you to consider that “to apologize” is a verb and as such, can’t just be in the words she says to you. What is she doing to show you that she is sorry and that her behavior, going forward, be different?

More importantly, what, specifically, do you need from her to start to feel safe again? Logistically, this could look like any number of things, and Scarleteen had a great post on Instagram recently that was a cheat sheet to your trauma history and your triggers. If you still feel it’s too soon to have the talk with your partner, that’s fair, but maybe fill out the cheat sheet (pictured below) for yourself. What about this particular instance was triggering for you? Was it the alcohol? Was it the way you tried to advocate for yourself, and were ignored? What came up for you in that triggering moment? What were your body’s reactions trying to teach you about yourself and your needs? What do you need to move towards feeling safe again? Is it something that your partner can help provide for you?

If you’re not ready to have that conversation, that’s okay too. You can share as much or as little detail as you feel you need. Perhaps you take a break from sex while you work out how you feel and what you need. Or maybe, if you don’t want to stop the physical element of your relationship entirely, you both have a conversation about what elements of your physical romantic relationship feel safe to you. Maybe you cuddle on the couch, or sleep together wearing fuzzy pajamas. Maybe kissing is okay, or holding hands. Maybe you just go out for tea, and take your dates out of your respective homes, in order to slowly reimagine intimacy without the pressure of being alone together in a private place. When you’re a survivor of trauma, taking the time to do these reevaluations, rather than just barreling through in an effort to seem “normal,” is of paramount importance to re-learning not only how to communicate your boundaries to others, but how to really honor and respect your boundaries for yourself.

There are things your partner can do to help you feel safe with her again, and there are also things that you will have to do for yourself, and learn to practice within your relationship. (These things — navigating harm/rupture and healing/repair in a relationship can also be practiced with a therapist, and in fact make up the most important parts of the therapeutic relationship. It can also take some of the pressure off, and a good therapist will not only be with you through the process, but also help you to develop some awareness of what the process is like for you, with a bird’s eye view perspective which is helpful in cultivating mindfulness around moments when you feel triggered or overwhelmed.) When you write that you “get nervous and have a hard time articulating what works for you and what doesn’t,” I read into that a little bit of the freeze stress response, a trauma response that shuts you down until the danger passes in hopes of keeping you safe enough to survive. When you write that you “tried to playfully say no,” I read a little bit of the lesser-known fawn response, in which we try to act placating and friendly in the hopes of avoiding danger/harm. Working with a therapist who will help you identify some of your stress response patterns can take some of the mystery out of them and contextualize them. If you recognize that the way you respond in triggering situations — even with an otherwise safe and caring partner — is your body trying to protect you, it can also be an opportunity to be mindful and gentle with yourself as you try to devise for yourself how you want to show up differently.

I hear you when you say you’re “ready to put this crap behind you” — and I also want to encourage you to be gentle around some of the frustration that I read into that sentence. This might feel awful — who wants to be carrying around so much pain and shame all the time, after all? And yet — a very dear friend of mine described healing from trauma like healing from a deep, deep cut: Maybe it won’t ever go away completely, and maybe there will always be a scar that aches when it rains and tugs if you move too quickly in the wrong direction. Trauma is exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s heartbreaking. It’s sly. It’s a shapeshifter, and sometimes it springs up in situations when you would least expect it, or with people who have otherwise proven themselves to be as safe and well-intentioned as it is possible to be where intimacy (always at least a little risky!) is concerned. It’s easy to feel like this is your fault, and that there is something wrong with you for not having healed yet. But guess what — maybe there is no yet. What happens if you try to accept that? What feelings come up for you, then? Is there anger? If so, who is the anger directed toward? My guess would be that it’s anger and frustration directed at yourself. But ask yourself — why? Why should you judge yourself for the way your body, in its wisdom, has ensured your survival?

When we judge ourselves for having experienced harm, this is also something of a distraction from the fear and anxiety of knowing that we couldn’t protect ourselves, that there was so much that was out of our control. Fear of being hurt again can take our breath away. Anger is so much easier — but the anger of self-recrimination will keep you stuck. What would it be like to let go of that? What might exist on the other side of it? Grief? Mourning? Could you sit with that, be curious about it, get to know it?

Trauma is part of your history, something that — like with the rain, or that tug that reminds you that harm was experienced there — you’ll have to practice some awareness around. This is not me trying to put a positive spin on this; believe me, I’m not the “trauma made me who I am today” type of person. Fuck that. I wish you had never experienced trauma. I wish that for me, too. And I don’t want to suggest that there’s no way to heal, either, or that there will never be a day when this crap is behind you. But it doesn’t seem like that’s where you are right now. What would it be like to accept that non-judgmentally, with expansiveness, with compassion for yourself?

Grief over the ways we’ve been hurt can feel endless. Will we ever reach the bottom of it? And yet grieving for our injured selves can also be profoundly healing; an acknowledgment that we deserved better and that we did the very best we could. Grieving, holding space for that sorrow without accusing or judging yourself, is uncomfortable, but it’s also an act of compassion and love. You deserve to be that patient with yourself, to love yourself that much. You may need to learn to move differently, with more intention, with fierce protectiveness and self-love (the scary kind, the kind that might make your self-advocacy an inconvenience to others). That fierce kind of self-love, too, will show you who your partner really is. Can she be strong enough to be patient, and to be accountable? Only time will tell, but this experience is the reminder from your body that you need to go slow, and that you now have the opportunity and the will to do things differently.

Christina Tesoro is a New York City-based writer, sex educator, and therapist. In her spare time she loves to read tarot cards, lift heavy objects, and go on long walks with her dog. She is determined to learn how to do a split.

Christina has written 15 articles for us.

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