Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sexual Violence In Her Past

Obligatory Disclaimer: This post is ideologically sensitive.

Today's advice was requested by a young man from the US who did not give his name. He asks:

Ok so earlier today my girlfriend dropped a pretty massive bombshell, that she was raped when she was eight years old. And it's just been swimming around in my head since she told me. I just don't know how I'm supposed to respond to something like that. I know that I'm not going to leave her or anything now that I know. But I just don't have a clue what the (expletive) I'm supposed to do with that knowledge in my head. I know that next time we're getting... intimate that it's just going to be hanging over my shoulder breathing down my neck and I don't know if I'll be able to get rid of it. Am I being selfish? I just don't know how to behave with her now."

Let's start with: you aren't being selfish. That is a pretty substantial piece of information and I doubt she expects you to know what to do with it any more than she knows how to deal with it herself. If she hasn't sought therapy regarding the incident, it would be wise for her to do so in the future, if not now. That isn't the sort of thing you can just walk away from and be perfectly fine. Despite the strong desire for that to be the case. She needs to talk about it and cope with it or it'll just fester in the background. Telling you may've been a start, but you're not equipped to handle this yourself no matter how understanding you are.

So why did she tell you? Many rape survivors feel the need to "confess" their past because once they get close to someone, they feel that those people can somehow tell. As if their past hovers over their head like a storm cloud announcing that something horrible happened to them. There are a lot of feelings of guilt attached to these events, even though the survivor did absolutely nothing wrong. This attaches feelings of guilt to present events, particularly not being honest about what they've been through. Who would ever want to be with someone that damaged? Plenty of people actually, but that isn't how many survivors perceive it. They view themselves as damaged goods and those who choose to be with them as doing so out of pity -- because everyone they tell immediately begins treating them differently. As if they are some fragile thing that will crack apart at any moment.

That is what you need to not do. She opened up to you about something very dark and emotional for her, but she did it for the sake of honesty. Not so that you knew to treat her more gently. She needs you to treat her the same as you did yesterday. Even if the news is eating away at you. It may be a good idea to see a therapist yourself, or even see a couple's therapist together. Feeling how you do now is natural. Over time you will realize she is still the same woman she was before and it won't lurk over you during intimacy. Remember that nothing has actually changed here. You should not feel guilty. This is something from her past. The way she views you isn't tarnished simply because you're also a man. She would not have told you if she thought you couldn't be trusted absolutely.

That said, don't avoid the subject, as that'll be obvious to her. Talk to her about it if she's open to the idea. Express how terrible it is that she had to go through that, but don't walk on egg shells around her. Ask her if she's gone for help and if she hasn't, offer to go with her if she'd prefer to not do it alone. If she is adamantly opposed to the idea of a therapist, let her know that's okay too. It's her choice. She may simply not be ready to take that step because it means confronting what happened to her head on. Truly coping with an event like that is more than letting people know it happened. It's facing it, standing up to it, and accepting that it happened to you through no fault of your own. It's a door many women, and even men, would rather just keep conveniently closed.