I take a lot of calls from caring, gentle men who are confused and hurt by the seemingly incomprehensible behavior of the women they love. Usually I find that it’s because they’re sexual abuse survivors, and carry those scars into their relationships. Sexual abuse, especially the kind that starts early in life, generally by a family member or someone trusted by the family, creates a wide range of behaviors. These behaviors are symptoms of trust that was never able to develop or was violated during their formative years. Take heart, men, there is hope. You can love these women, but with a patient willingness to learn what to expect, how to handle it, and the knowing that you alone can’t “fix” her.
When dealing with a woman who has been raped or survived incest, the woman exibits varying levels of disconnection, some subtle, and some quite overt because of the secrecy that’s always central in the equation. These women come across as having difficulty in forming healthy, lasting bonds with non-abusive men because of the secrets she keeps and because she simply can’t trust. And don’t we all wrestle with trust issues? The scars she suffers usually aren’t physical, they’re the scars that come from being dehumanized and abandoned by the people who were supposed to protect her but didn’t or couldn’t. She is guilt-ridden, betrayed, and violated, so she learns to distance herself from people as a self-protective mechanism. So breaking the silence and learning to trust and be trusted are central themes regardless of the form of abuse she suffered, when, or the behaviors the abuse has created in her.
These women sometimes have a hard time feeling worthy of a kind man; they feel that they’re too broken for someone “normal” so they exhibit a myriad of behaviors designed, unconciously, to drive away the caring man who makes them feel inadequate. Generally they try hard to be “normal,” as they struggle to gain mastery over these negative behavior patterns, but inside of them something painfully unexplainable fills up and needs release. Gentlemen, you are not the reason she behaves in ways you don’t understand, her issues predated her relationship with you, and it’s not personal!
My best advice for you is to arm yourselves with information. Read books, articles, and anything you can get your hands on about the long term consequences of sexual abuse. There’s a lot written on the subject by professionals who specialize in this area of psychology. One resource I’ve found is RAINN.org (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), who has both telephone and online hotline services at 1-800-656-HOPE, but there’s a lot more out there. Perhaps you can join a support group so you can learn how your behavior affects her and why it may feel like it’s personal, but really isn’t. Make sure that your well-being isn’t dependent on “making her better.”