If you are currently dating, the odds are high that you will encounter a romantic partner who has experienced sexual assault.
Navigating a romantic relationship is already challenging. For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, it can be even more difficult to feel safe within a romantic relationship — especially a new one. If someone you are dating or love might have suffered sexual assault, some extra care could go a long way to help this relationship flourish and grow.
Sexual assault violates physical and emotional boundaries, rattles trust in others, and can even undermine survivors’ trust in themselves. “How did I not realize this person was dangerous?” they might think. Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault, but that’s not easy to remember when you’ve suffered that kind of trauma.
I am not an expert in sexual trauma recovery, but I scratched the surface of the topic in my first job after college, which was providing advocacy and short-term support for sexual assault survivors. Informal expertise in this arena also comes from my own life. My friends and I are finally talking about how acts of sexual violence against us, which we thought were boxed up in our past, still invade our relationships today. We are teaching ourselves to ask for what we need from our partners so that we feel safe with them.
For anyone who has been through sexual assault, disclosing that experience to others — even a significant other — will not be easy. These principles can help you be more informed and compassionate, regardless of whether you know your partner has a history of sexual trauma.
Allow the relationship to progress slowly
While everyone’s journey is different, getting back into dating after surviving sexual assault can feel scary. Survivors may struggle with physical intimacy and trust — these dispositions are foundational for any relationship, but are areas that are most affected by the assault. Accept that your relationship might move more slowly than you’re used to. Your SO might only want to meet up with you in public places for the first few months of dates. Or perhaps they won’t allow you to drive them home. They may also be slower to embrace your physical touch.
Kindly accept these boundaries. Inquire about the reasons behind those limits if it feels right. Allow them to disclose as little or as much as they want. Listen and believe them. Accept their preferences, regardless of whether you think their boundaries “make sense.” Do not protest by trying to prove that you are different from other people or that you are more trustworthy. Instead show them over time that they can trust you by being a good listener and respectful partner.
Note that communication and empathy will be critical here from both sides. It can be easy for these boundaries to come off as rejections from your SO, and it can be easy to dismiss your SO’s limits as irrational.
Embrace the word “no”
Sexual violence violates an individual’s physical boundaries. Before sexual violence occurred, it is likely that a verbal boundary (such as saying “no”) was violated. Relearning that saying “no” matters is another part of the healing process for survivors. Listen and respect when your partner says “no.” Teach them, through your responses to arguments, that it is safe to express their needs and to disagree with you. This will help them to regain their own confidence as well.
Accepting the word “no” is also critical if your loved one has experienced domestic abuse. In the cycle of abuse, saying “no” typically leads to an explosion of aggression and a withdrawal of affection from the abuser. The abused individual learns to avoid any risk of conflict (i.e., stops expressing their opinions) as a means to keep themselves safe. They minimize or withhold their own needs because confrontation only leads to violence or a breakup. Break that cycle by demonstrating how loving partners weather fights and resolve conflicts.
Make space for them to have choice and voice within the relationship
Sexual assault is motivated by power and control over another individual. Aid your loved ones’ recovery by providing space for them to take that power back. Inviting them to choose anything from where to eat, where to park, and what movie to watch can restore their sense of agency over their own life. Everyday opportunities for your loved one to have choice and options can mean a lot, especially if they were in abusive relationships with little control over decisions.
Ensure they know you love them for their personality
Physical attraction is a healthy and normal aspect of a relationship. The people I worked with often shared, however, that their sexual assault caused them to feel used for their body and reduced to their physical characteristics. So it is extremely important to assure your loved one that you appreciate them for who they are as well as how they look. Consistently affirm all the non-physical attributes you love about them so that they know you see them as a whole person. For example, they might feel less threatened if a physical compliment happens at the same time as a compliment about their character.
Be aware of touch or noises that might act as triggers
Experiences of trauma can embed like muscle memory in the body, making everyday touches or certain noises into triggers that bring forward some of the survivor’s emotions from the trauma. If your significant other tells you that a certain touch on their body makes them recoil, listen. Maybe you didn’t think anything of sneaking up behind them and grabbing their waist. But if it scares them, truly take that seriously. Do not repeat that motion unless they say it is okay.
Don’t try to save them — accompany them instead
I want to emphasize the difference between showing compassion and being a savior. Recovery is your loved one’s personal journey and there is no normal timeline for their healing. You are not meant to fix or heal another person or do their work for them. Your only job is to accompany them and to be the best partner you can be. You might suggest that your loved one access professional resources such as therapy or the National Sexual Assault Hotline as an additional support. And finally, remember your partner’s trauma does not define them. They are a whole person with all those likes, dislikes, hobbies, hopes, fears, and things you love about them. Help them to see themselves as a whole, awesome, lovable individual — not as a victim.
These considerations are important in any healthy relationship. They become even more critical if your significant other has experienced sexual violence. With these basic principles, you can meet your partner where they are at, and demonstrate God’s unconditional love for them.