In Bed, My Fiancé Wants Me to Re-Enact Abuse He Suffered As a Child

Dear GoodTherapy.org,
My fiancé recently confided in me that he was sexually abused as a child. He's had a lot of issues with trust and intimacy all along, but he says he's only recently remembering some of the abuse he suffered. My question is that during sex, he wants me to say and do certain things which are more or less a re-enactment of the abuse he went through as a child. While I want to be supportive of him, and don't want him to feel that I just want him to sweep his memories under the carpet, I wonder if this is a healthy way of dealing with his issues. I have trouble even considering engaging in something like that because the thought of someone abusing him only brings me sadness. If you could offer me some advice on how to handle this situation, I would be very grateful. I really don't want to ruin the progress that he's made in finally talking about his abuse. —Conflicted
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Dear Conflicted,

Thanks for writing in, and for the excellent question. I’d first like to congratulate you for having what appears to be an unusually expansive empathy, in that you are trying to do right by your fiancé in terms of your mutual sex life, his issues and sensitivity around trauma, and, of course, your own feelings about all this. Obviously, this is a complex question, which accounts for the long-ish answer you’re about to get.

The first thing that comes to mind here is: There’s something not sexy about this for you; sex is a little like humor in the sense that it tickles us or it doesn’t. Your fiancé’s request to carry out what sounds like a role-play scenario doesn’t seem to hit the eros chord for you, and nothing’s more of a turn-off than forcing yourself to do something too edgy or discomforting.

Part of the uneasy factor is that the requested scenario seems to parallel your fiancé’s sexual abuse, which is still fresh for you (just having heard about it). Let me say here that what defines “healthy sexuality” could—and has—filled volumes upon volumes. It is a never-ending debate in my field. My own guidelines for “healthy” sex would mean, first and foremost, that the sex is consensual and safe for all parties. Other than that, the spectrum is infinitely broad. I know heterosexual men who like wearing stockings, and gay men who act brutish and tough in the bedroom. Working with sexuality means you’re dealing with the unconscious, and 10 different therapists would give you 10 different interpretations of what your partner’s sexual preferences are “really about.” As indicated, however, I get the impression from your letter that something about this feels uncomfortable, perhaps a bit unsafe, and I think that is at the core of what needs to be dealt with between you.

My clinical experience has shown me that a dynamic sexuality often includes a sense of experimentation, emotional expression, and spontaneity. There’s nothing at all wrong with role playing, though when the “play” part becomes rigidified, with an endlessly repeated “script,” to the point where mutual expression seems muzzled, where the sex has to be a certain way or someone will be unhappy, then it’s time to take a step back and see how things can be loosened up. Playfulness and humor, too, can be a way of masking or deflecting emotion, but if sex becomes too serious or heavy, it becomes stifling. Just as important here is the fact that what happens in the bedroom so often mirrors what is happening, emotionally and relationally, in the relationship itself. Sexuality is another spoke in the wheel of relating, not a separate wheel unto itself, though we often think of it that way. This leads me to wonder if you ever feel kept at a distance or put in a position of power in your emotional lives together.

I’m not exactly sure how dark or heavy a “flavor” we’re talking about here, though it sounds like (I’m assuming) you would be in the “perpetrator” role; if I assume that these scenarios have a sadomasochistic tinge, perhaps your fiancé is asking you to take the “S” role in a way you’d rather not. I’m imagining it might be painful to play a role in which you are hurting your beloved in a way parallel to earlier, horrifying experiences.

Whether these scenarios are healthy for a person to enact really depends on context and their psychological history (and is a source of intense debate among therapists). I believe that, for some people, allowing scenarios derived from trauma to emerge in a sexual context might actually give a person control and power over a previously painful narrative; they are able to “make use” of the trauma in a way they can control and derive pleasure from, a way of telling their story their own way, which now offers pleasure and not just pain. Ironically, allowing trauma memories to mingle with consciousness, even under the cloak of sexual fantasy, is a step forward for some who have completely dissociated or disconnected from such awful memories. For other people, such enactments can take on a compulsive flavor, where satisfaction can be found only by acting out one’s feelings and experiences this way, which inevitably makes their actual sexual partners feel distant and/or controlled. Where one draws the line between playful expression of one’s sensibilities and a darker, more destructive and harmful behavior is up for debate and highly dependent on specifics.

I think the only way to resolve this, since it so directly involves so many facets of your relationship, is to handle it relationally—that is, with your fiancé. This isn’t something you can figure out on your own. Dialogue is essential. I’d first decide what you are and aren’t willing to try in bed. Would you be up for trying a “light” version of his scenario, or exploring it, to see if there are aspects of it that can be treated as a kind of game, where play and spontaneity are included? Could it be seen as a kind of foreplay, where (again, not knowing the specifics) you could employ a little spanking or tying up or a scenario that is sexy to both of you and not too edgy or overwhelming? Or is it all just a big turn-off and not your “thing” at all?

I’d then sit down and relate as honestly as you can. You obviously care about him a great deal, want to please him but have concerns about his request. I’d try to stick to your own feelings. Saying, “I’m not sure this is a good way to resolve your issues” sounds a little therapisty; you might try saying, “The idea of this makes me (uneasy, uncomfortable, etc.).” Can a compromise be reached? Can the two of you let your sexual imaginations come up with something you both find desirable?

Try not to think too hard about what will help your fiancé resolve his trauma. Frankly, just having an open conversation wherein you are honest about your feelings, while empathic toward his, will likely be a healing experience for both of you. I honestly do not think any partner’s job is to help the other resolve any issues; that’s what therapists are for. Honest relating and working through things respectfully and lovingly is itself healing.  You can support him in his therapy work, of course, but you, too, are on a journey, and one person’s trauma does not “cancel out” the other’s desires or wishes to feel heard, respected, and safe—sexually and otherwise.

Thanks again for writing. Hope that helped.
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • chaosX4

    September 6th, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    I think that you are pretty brave to be with a guy with this kind of past and I think that he is pretty brave to be this open with you. With that being out in the open this could potentially cause a lot of damage to the relationship but I think that it is at least a positive that the two of you are at least trying to talk about it and he is trying to start working through it. I know that this must feel like it is an obstacle that can’t be overcome but I think that for the right couple it can be. I wish both of you the best.

  • Peyton

    September 7th, 2013 at 4:38 AM

    I understand that ‘normal’ is such a relative term and what works for one couple may or may not work for another.

    But I have to say that this would not work for me. I know that there are far better trained professionals out there who could help someone with issues like this in a way that I could not and who could accept these things in a way that I couldn’t.

    I think that for him to even ask this of you is kind of unacceptable if you want to know the truth. You are not equipped to be his counselor nor should you feel like you should have to be that. This just gets into to too many things all tied up together and I think that if it were me I would rather leave our sex life separate from his therapy.

  • connie b

    September 9th, 2013 at 3:44 AM

    this can’t be healthy right?
    i mean this goes against everything that i think that sex with someone i love and who loves me should be

  • Chrystal

    December 18th, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    To answer conni b’s question: Peyton has a point in saying that what works for one couple may not work for another. I think the main point here is that the partner is unaware of Conflicted’s feelings. Obviously the partner cares for and trusts Conflicted, or else he wouldn’t have shared that part of his past, but in this particular instance he is again, ignorant of Conflicted’s feelings in the matter. Whether it is healthy or not is really dependent on if it helps the partner comes to terms with his past. This obviously does won’t come from role-playing alone, but it may be a starting step.

    And it seems to me (though I may be wrong) that your definition of sex may be different from the couple’s in question. Again, not everyone is into the same thing. It is obvious that Conflicted feels at least slightly uncomfortable with the situation, and so has asked the great Goodtherapy.org people to help.

    I hope this comment clears some things up. Have a nice day! =)

  • sarah

    October 31st, 2016 at 4:31 AM

    i know through my own trauma that reliving the story through talking about it over and over again in some way helped me to get my head around it. I would almost soothe myself through the trauma by familiarising myself with it. perhaps this is want the partner is doing without realising it. When we re-experience these things as adults we can understand them more and are therefor able to process traumas. He must trust her but it could create an energy in the relationship that may become an unwelcome memory..

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