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Old 06-15-2014, 11:32 AM
Seekingadvice Seekingadvice is offline
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Default Please advise me on how to support my girlfriend, I'm lost - *potential trigger*

Sexual assault trigger warning - I need to tackle some big issues in this post, I hope they won't be a trigger for you and I hope you can see that this post is clearly coming from a place of love and care, but I can't 100% guarantee that they WON'T be a trigger so if you don't wish to read on I will understand. If you do read on I shall be really grateful, I could do with the advice. Thanks in advance.

My girlfriend went through a sexual assault a few years ago which involved a lot of emotional blackmail from a guy who had been a good friend. She's convinced if she hadn't burst into tears at the time then it may have progressed to rape. This has (quite understandably) shaped her views on sex and this is affecting us now.

If I come on to her and she says no then I back away. I move away try to give her space. This in itself seems risky; there have been times where I have tried to give her space and she has assumed I'm in a mood with her for saying no. I would like to re-itterate something which is utterly fundamental - No means no and most importantly she has EVERY right to say it at any point.

Fact is I'm not in a mood with her, I just want to respect her space. I think some of her assumption for thinking I'm annoyed with her for saying no is relating to seriously misplaced guilt. I'll mark this with an astrix and talk about it below.*

Most of the time she recognises that I'm just trying to give space and we're fine. 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour (however long it is, it's kinda irrelevant). Chances are there will be a time when she rolls back to me and snuggles in close. She'll start kissing, I'll stroke her back, she'll kiss my neck, she'll have her hands all over my chest, our legs will intertwine - I'll read into all this - I'll stroke her bum, I might go to touch her breast then (this is where it goes one of two ways) sometimes we will have really great passionate sex.

And sometimes suddenly, out of nowhere... she will revert back to the point where she said no, scream at me for half an hour, compare me to a sexual predator, tell me I don't take no for an answer and lay into me until I feel like crap and am apologising and begging for her forgiveness. I hate seeing her hurt, I hate seeing her angry. I love her and I want her to know how much.

So this morning it all happened again in that exact cycle (a very repetitive cycle) and this time I tried opening up about how I feel about the situation. This wasn't easy, she shouted at me for a long time and when I first tried she told me it wasn't about me. Then when I tried the second time she told me all I was doing was denying it. Then the third time all I was doing was trying to pin the blame on her.

My first point is that I do find it difficult to read body language. This is something I struggle with in every day life. My Uncle has pretty severe autism and there are autistic traits which run through my family in my other uncle, my dad, my brother and myself. Either way the relevant fact here is that I struggle with body language and try to break it down to a logical/rational level. If there has been a reasonable delay between her saying no and in that time there has been a significant change in her demeanour to the point that she is acting as detailed above, then is it acceptable for me to test the water by touching her bum/breast?

She is more than entitled to say no again.

To compare me to the sick twisted bastard that assaulted her in the first place though... my second point is that this hurts. That hurts me really deep. I would never go against her wishes and (knowing the specific nature of her sexual assault) I never apply pressure, emotional blackmail or anything when she says no. Going back to the astrix though I think she does that herself, then blames me for it.

My third point would be that I struggle to see what counts as sexual behaviour and what counts as intimate behaviour, whats more is the rules seem different for each of us. Intimacy is wanted often even when sex isn't, I get that - I crave intimacy and love those moments with my girlfriend. Unfortunately though the same action on two different days is interpreted differently. for instance holding her chest while spooning her closely is really loving and romantic one day and then the next day it sparks an argument - incidentally her having her hand on my chest is always fine in her book because 'that's different'. Me kissing her neck is really hot and steamy and romantic one day... then the next day I'm only doing it because I want sex and she's already said no. Same goes for holding her bum, stroking her, tickling her, touching her legs... the rules change from one day to the next and I'm supposed to keep track of this by mind reading (body language surely doesn't seem to work).

Anyway today I tried explaining these points to her and I got told I was denying it and trying to tell her it was her fault. I'm not saying that. Where in the above did I say that? I just want her to know that saying no, then completely changing behaviour does change the situation and I'm sorry if I read too much into that... but shouting at me for an hour and telling me I'm a creep isn't going to help the situation.

I want to learn how I can support her. I want to learn this ideally from her, but whenever it comes up she begins shouting at me; layering it on that it's all my fault, that I don't accept responsibility for things, that I try to twist everything on to her... I'd like to know how? Most of our arguments I don't even get chance to speak - I certainly don't get a chance to do the whole PEER process (point, evidence, explain, relate), when I begin to try then I'm shouted over, interrupted, told I'm not accepting responsibility. If I don't get to explain my views then how can I demonstrate my starting point in the understanding of a situation, how can I ever begin to start that process of relating to her points through logical steps of listening, understanding and building on things.

She's shouted at me all morning, then burst into tears when we said goodbye, she's angry at me and I'm sorry for that. I love her and I hate seeing her like that. I feel immensely sorry, but after all that shouting I am no closer to understanding what is and isn't acceptable. Shouting like that is NOT a healthy or productive form of communication and I wish she could see that.

Now I'm wondering if I should be just backing off and never coming on to her... but I know she wouldn't want that and I know thinking it is quite immature of me. But how should I handle it? Give up trying to read body language? Talk to her more about this when we're fully clothed and in a safe environment? (I'm scared this will just bring up ANOTHER argument and I'll be reminded that I don't take no for an answer). Encourage her to seek professional support? Encourage her to post in these forums more?

Incidentally when she has talked to me about what happened with the other guy she has really opened up and told me I'm the most supportive person she's had about it. Which is in quite stark contrast to the above arguments. I'm worried maybe there's a chance that by being supportive (when I should perhaps have advised her to seek professional help) she has come to have unrealistic expectations of me as a 'professional'. Either way I wouldn't have it any other way, I'm never going to not support her.

*Okay so I suppose I should explain that astrix - basically she has told me many times about another boyfriend she has had (since the sexual assault). She had desperately wanted sex and was going without often for months at a time. She was frustrated and needed it but felt terrible because she had convinced herself that it must be because she wasn't good enough, because he had gone off her, because their relationship wasn't solid etc etc...

So every time she says no to sex she has this overwhelming sense of guilt relating to it. She recognises that I have a high sex drive and she doesn't want me to be frustrated. So she beats herself up over it. I know she does, but it's all in her head here - she's admitted herself that I don't trigger it and said that she's not sure what I can do. But I do feel I get the blame for it. If I come in and hold her or try to break the cycle then I'm told that I'm not accepting her saying no, whereas if I give her space then she sometimes sees that as me being distant and uses that as justification in her own mind for the guilt.

I feel like I'm placed in lose-lose situations and I feel like everything I do is wrong.

I also don't deal well with people telling me what I'm thinking or feeling. This is mostly because someone who was abusive towards me used to do exactly that; used to tell me I was in a mood, I would see it that he was picking a fight and ready myself for one, so by the time I denied I was in a mood it was already in a tone... I hate it when she assumes or even tells me what I'm thinking or feeling. I know my emotions better than anyone and if I were given the chance to discuss them I would make them clear.

Finally (if you have made it this far) then I would thank you immensely for your time. I realise sexual assault is a horrible topic, especially for survivors and I'm not trying to suggest that the partners of survivors have it as hard as you do. We do love you though, you are still women and you are each wonderful in your own way. Loving you means that if we see that you are hurt then we hurt to. We want to know how to support you but we need to know how to do that and shouting at us isn't the way to get there.

How do you advise I support her? I don't want to lose her but I'm reaching a point where I don't think I can do much more than I have
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Old 06-15-2014, 11:52 AM
london london is offline
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Okay, firstly, she needs therapy to get over what happened to her. It will be hard to change things if this "work" isn't done on both sides.

In terms of sex, what I would do is make a rule that you ask each other before you move on to the next stage. So you ask if you can spoon her, she asks you if she can kiss you, you ask her if you can touch her breasts. That way, you both get to practice gaining and giving consent in a clear and concise manner. I know it might not sound like much fun, but you can make it a bit light hearted.

And dude, you're entitled to be momentarily pissed off when you get blue balled. You're entitled to feel that. You just can't act like a dick about it. So don't beat yourself up for wanting sex with your partner and being disappointed that you aren't getting it. Just try and control how much those feelings influence your actions.

But going back to the asking thing. Do this every time you're going to touch her, in any way. And try, I know it's hard, but try not to let a cuddle turn into a quick bum grope. I know that when you have a partner, it's sort of natural to do that kind of thing, but it's far more important that you both learn to clearly give and withdraw consent. Hopefully, this will be a transitional thing and it won't be something you have to do forever. Hopefully it will spark personal reflection and then conversation about what makes a particular action okay one day and not okay on another day.
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Old 06-15-2014, 02:07 PM
kalahari kalahari is offline
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Hi, this is quite similar to something I've experienced recently, so I thought I'd chip in. I'm a woman who has experienced some (relatively mild, untraumatising) sexual abuse, but I have had relationships with women who have been molested, both in childhood and as adults, so I know a bit about how it feels from both sides.

You're right about her misplaced guilt, and your understanding of her behaviour seems insightful and accurate. I'm sorry to hear your story, and I can tell it seems bewildering, and hurtful, and you would like to do the right things, but what is right and what is wrong keeps changing.

But this is how trauma works: it is an irrational thing. She probably doesn't understand her reactions herself, and it must be gutting for her when you ask her to explain something she herself doesn't understand. To her, a sexual encounter probably feels like an unpredictable minefield - the same it feels to you. Anything can be a wrong move, and she is figuring it out on the go, just like you are. If it feels like she's holding the keys to the rules of the game, it's not true. She doesn't want to hurt you, and she probably feels awful about not being a healthy, rational person.

Basically: she needs to build trust in you, and learn how to feel in control. It looks like she's trying to do both. It will get better with time, but you can help. Think of it like trying to get a terrified cat to come out from under a car: you need to be totally predictable and safe. I highly second london's advice on asking consent on everything you do. "Can I unbutton your shirt?" "Can I kiss you here?" "Can I kiss you there?" It can be quite a nice erotic game. Also, you want enthusiastic consent, not just a lukewarm "well, if you really want" or "you don't need to ask." You can tell enthusiastic consent from a shrug without being an expert in body language. If you ask to touch her breast, and she says "you don't need to ask," say "yes, I do" and wait. Fundamentally, you want to wait until she wants you, you want to feel wanted. This is worth waiting for.

Another thing I recommend doing is clarifying the rules of the situation beforehand. What I have done has been to say: "We are going to move as slowly as we have to. There is no rush. I will ask permission for everything I do, and I won't do it unless I am sure you mean it when you say yes. We can always stop. If you say yes, and then you change your mind, just say it and we will stop." This last bit is very important - women often feel that, once they consent to something, they have no way out anymore, and that can create a horrible feeling of being trapped in an unwanted situation. If she says yes, then no, just stop, say something nice and un-angry, hug her, wait. She will be apologetic, and you say it's all OK. It's very important that she learns that she can control the sexual situation. That is how you will build trust, she will re-build a sense of control, and you will, hopefully, feel some clarity.

And, look, it's hard. People with trauma are not easy partners. But the reason why she's having a relationship with you is because she is trying to overcome it, and rebuild her capacity to enjoy sex and intimacy. Think of her as a warrior.

But, also - you must have a good support network. I tend to think it's particularly good to be poly if your partner is a survivor, because it's good to have another person to give you kindness, tenderness, comfort, and if need be sex. I've found that my partners usually felt relief that they don't have to give me more than they can, that I have other partners I can go to. It helps with the guilt they feel.

Good luck.

Last edited by kalahari; 06-15-2014 at 02:10 PM.
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Old 06-16-2014, 05:49 AM
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fuchka fuchka is offline
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I've been sexually abused in a way that has affected me in a similar way to your girlfriend, and the advice from london and kalahari is very good.

The trauma from sexual abuse can sometimes be a deep emotional injury that never quite heals. It sucks when a partner who is loving and non-abusive nonetheless triggers you. You want to be well. You don't want to be twisted up.

Through it all, you know that one thing is really important: to truly consent to how and when you share your body with another person. Sometimes, holding onto that, you can become kind of wild and prickly. It's hard to explain... and of course your girlfriend may experience this differently.

I know I've been hard work for partners at times, and it means a lot to me when someone takes care to create a safe environment for me to relate to them sexually. Well, yeah, of course, I'm worth it, but still - I know it can be frustrating for them, not just for me. And can trigger other things for them too.
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Old 06-16-2014, 10:44 PM
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The crappy thing about recovering from sexual assault is that sometimes you don't even know what the triggers *are*. Something that might sound completely innocent can turn out to be a trigger without you even realizing.

"You" in that paragraph refers to an abuse/assault survivor. I am one. I have had flashbacks, panic attacks, and major triggers from something as simple as the way Hubby stroked my hair or a particular phrase he said. Things I would never have realized could trigger me, until they did.

I second the recommendation that your partner get therapy, and I would say once she's comfortable with her therapist, it might benefit both of you if you could sit in on a session. Sometimes it's easier to explain things to a partner in a neutral, no-judgment setting. And even if you aren't judging her, she might *perceive* that you are; survivors often blame themselves, and project that blame onto the people around them, so if she feels the assault was her fault she might, consciously or not, believe you blame her as well.
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Old 06-17-2014, 01:58 AM
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Definitely agree with the suggestion for therapy.
Because-I have also experienced sexual assault and rape.

The triggers are sudden and sometimes something that was fine is suddenly a trigger.

HOWEVER-
that is not an excuse for verbally abusing your partner, which is what she's doing.

I'm NOT saying you should tell her that-that would be a big FUBAR on your part.

I am saying, she needs therapy to learn how to identify a trigger moment when it occurs and how to express that in a healthy way.

It could mean shaking her head no-and you know (due to previous conversation) that this means she's being triggered.
It could mean saying "I need space".

There are many healthy ways to respond to a trigger.
Screaming at your partner isn't one of them.


One of the things we have done, is we have an agreement that if I close my eyes in a sexual moment-that's a "warning" sign for him. Meaning, he will ask me if I am doing ok, any time I close my eyes. If I say yes-we continue along. If I say no OR I DO NOT RESPOND-that means we stop and he goes into "aftercare mode" (look up aftercare-BDSM for explanations on aftercare). I use that term, because it just really defines the behaviors and attitude he takes. He alters whatever the activity is, to him caring for my needs in that moment-whatever those needs may be.


I also suggest YOU see a therapist who is educated in dealing with sexual assault victims and PTSD issues. Because they can help educate you in what to look for, signs, symptoms, ways to relate to her. Things that will help you know when something is "off" even if she isn't saying "no".
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Old 06-17-2014, 09:25 PM
KC43 KC43 is offline
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I agree with LR about the verbal abuse not being okay. Your partner might not be completely aware she's doing it, or she may be acting out of sheer panic, but that still doesn't make it okay.

If she learns to identify the signs of being triggered, she will learn to catch herself before she descends to that point. But also, if *you* learn to identify signs of her being triggered, or at least how to handle her being triggered, if she gets out of control you'll be better able to address it.

For me personally, sometimes I am able to recognize that I've been triggered and to alert Hubby. Sometimes I'm triggered and unable to alert him, but he's learned to read my body language well enough to know if I'm triggered.

But sometimes I just go from 0 to 60 before either of us knows what's going on. I don't lash out at Hubby (I did hit him once, but that was during a full-blown flashback where I was so far gone I didn't know it was him, I thought it was one of my abusers), but I might start screaming, or crying, or curl up in fetal position and whimper.

At those times, Hubby has learned to speak very softly to me, without touching me, and say things like, "You're safe, you're with me, no one can hurt you. This is your safe place." And he will repeat that over and over until it gets through and I'm able to come down and let him hold me, which anchors me even more.

He somehow instinctively knew to do that the first time he saw me lose it, and he has been incredibly patient with me and has taken the time to learn, from me and from one of my past counselors, how to help me. Because of that, and because I've learned other coping skills such as focusing on one item in the room to remind myself of where I am and who I'm with, I haven't had a full-blown flashback in a few years, and I'm rarely triggered and when I am it's because I've ignored a sign that something is setting me off or because I've tried to push a comfort boundary that has always caused me to be triggered before. (I'm stubborn. There are some known triggers that I avoid, but there are others that I'm determined to conquer.)
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Old 06-17-2014, 09:32 PM
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LovingRadiance LovingRadiance is offline
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KC-EXACTLY!

It's critical OP-DO NOT try to tell your gf that she shouldn't be yelling at you. ESPECIALLY when it's happening-that will do NOTHING but make everything worse.

The key is to have someone who is trained to help with this sort of thing work with her on how to handle her triggers and recognize them when possible. As well as have someone (could be the same someone) work with you on recognizing when she's "off". Which is usually just before a trigger hits.

I frequently can't say what's wrong-or anything at all. When I am triggered I shut down. But knowing that silence is a sign-Maca can react appropriately to help me back out of that place & avoid making things worse on accident.
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Old 06-18-2014, 06:34 AM
Seekingadvice Seekingadvice is offline
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I think the asking for verbal permission before ANY contact is a good idea.

Communication has always been the issue between us. She has serious anger management issues that make things difficult. They do stem from fear though, rather than malice so I try to be forgiving.

She describes it as being an overactive 'fight or flight' instinct. I describe it by saying that conflict terrifies her so as soon as she thinks it's coming she shuts off everything around her, removing her ability to listen, and then attacks as aggressively as she can against what she expects me to say.

By attacking what she expects me to say (or at least the worst case scenario thereof) she negates the possibility of any surprises. But it does also mean that most of our arguments don't even involve me, they certainly don't involve my thoughts/opinions/reasoning etc... yet I'm the one that gets the full blame for everything because that's the way she deals with it.

Thank you for all your responses - they have helped hugely
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Old 06-18-2014, 02:51 PM
kalahari kalahari is offline
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When she talks about fight or flight, she is probably talking about emotional flooding, which is a really good concept to know about if you're in any kind of intimate relationship, but especially if with person dealing with trauma

http://portlandrelationshipinstitute...l_Floodin.html

The main take home point is that, once a person is emotionally flooded, you cannot have a constructive conversation until they have calmed down fully.

I have tried to talk to my early girlfriend about this concept, asking if she could pay attention to her symptoms and stop a situation if she was flooding, but, to be honest, she found it confusing, too much responsibility, and generally did not respond well. What I've found more useful is that, once I became acquainted with the concept and started paying attention to myself and other people, especially during heated discussions, I quickly became able to notice signs of flooding in myself and others.

Then you can say, "let's take a 10-minute break and reconvene", or "you seem a bit agitated, would you like us to stop for a minute"? If you can stop a situation from escalating early on, you have avoided doing much damage. If you can create an agreement that time-outs are taken, with the full trust that you will return to this heated question, that it won't just get swept under the carpet, you will have a useful mechanism for defusing horrible situations.
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