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October 01, 2014

What trips up couples? Poor communication, overworked spouses, the stress of raising children, financial pressures — these are what typically come to mind. But one culprit often goes unmentioned: a partner's history of childhood sexual abuse. Some studies estimate that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been subjected to sexual abuse as youngsters.

Despite the passage of time, the impact of early abuse on a couple's satisfaction — especially on emotional and physical closeness — can be profound.

Complicating matters is the fact that some partners have little to no memory of early abuse, and those that do remember don't always realize that it may be an obstacle in their way.

Here's how it works: Unwanted physical or sexual contact during childhood almost always becomes associated with fear and upset and shame. It's a linkage that lives deep inside, so that during moments of emotional or sexual intimacy with an adult partner, the original feelings — fear, upset, shame — become triggered. It's why spouses with an abuse history often resist closeness, feeling unsafe, unsettled, guilty or ashamed when invited into intimacy.

Some signs that hint at the possibility of early sexual abuse include:

  • Shutting oneself off from any kind of closeness
  • Feeling unsafe within a relationship, particularly within the sexual dimension of the relationship
  • Harboring negative attitudes and/or feelings toward sex
  • Experiencing discomfort or pain upon being touched
  • Resisting the stirring of sexual desire
  • Fearing loss of control during sex
  • Experiencing thoughts or images of sexual abuse during sex
  • Feeling drawn to sexuality that has a compulsive or risky dimension (such as a fascination with pornography depicting abusive behavior)
  • Seeking physical distance after engaging in sex

These signs can be associated with other psychological challenges and don't necessarily reflect early sexual abuse. But when blending love and sex becomes a source of pain and anxiety, it's worth investigating whether sexual abuse might be the stumbling block. Counselors skilled in this area can help loving couples get past the barriers to the joy and satisfaction that emotional and physical closeness can bring.