I am a lesbian in a long-term relationship with a woman who was sexually abused by her stepfather from an early age (5-15). She is getting therapy, but it is still in the early stages and not yet focused on her abuse. I love her dearly and have tried to be supportive in so many ways, but lately I’ve been having problems coming to terms with her boundary issues. She flirts a lot, and this is not a problem—except she doesn't seem to have an internal compass for knowing when she has gone too far. I have discovered some of her online conversations and found them to be very hurtful, as she says things I consider to be highly inappropriate (including things of a personal and sexual nature). And she has been keeping the nature of her “relationship” with this person secret, even though it is supposed to be innocent. She explained this as not wanting me to get upset and jealous, and tried to find ways to make it acceptable. When I try to talk to her about this, she denies that it is serious and gets so angry it causes a relationship meltdown. She blames the other person for initiating it and says she didn't mean anything by what she said. She has trouble talking about things anyway, but I try to understand that this is who she is. It is not the only thing she oversteps boundaries with, and I realize that survivors of childhood sexual abuse have problems with this, but I am at a loss as to what the best way to handle this is. My questions are: Do I try to get her to admit it and apologize? Not working. Do I ignore it and let it continue? I go into complete meltdown and distrust. She says she loves me and has tried to make amends in other ways by paying me more attention, etc., and has grudgingly admitted that maybe she was wrong. But how do I trust again? Will she ever understand? - Unheard
Thank you so much for writing to GoodTherapy.org about this important and painful relationship issue. I appreciate your courage, your ability to reach out, and your clear and elegant portrayal of the consequences of child abuse.
You write that your partner was sexually abused for 10 years, from ages 5 to 15—I cannot imagine a more destructive atmosphere in which to grow up, unprotected and used by others, left to deal with the unthinkable all alone. I imagine that she must be suffused with feelings of shame, rage, and confusion. How lucky she is to have found you.
I am pleased that she is in treatment; this is a heroic step which not everyone is able to take, and perhaps your encouragement has helped her make it. As you say, treatment takes time, especially in an issue as difficult as this, a long-lasting experience of abuse and betrayal by the very people who were supposed to be most caring—her mother and her stepfather. I include her mother because I don’t imagine it possible that her mother did not at least suspect what was going on. Your partner was raised by people with deep emotional problems, who had no internal compass, sense of ethics, or the ability to perceive and respect boundaries.
Now she has finally found a caring, kind and respectful person—you—and you feel betrayed, too, as she breaks the boundaries of your relationship by acting in ways that imply she may be unfaithful. Now your boundaries are being trampled.
You mention that you became aware of her relationship with another person by discovering her online conversations. I suppose you felt suspicious, wondered what was going on, and went on the lookout to find the truth. Perhaps this extended to examining her private communications—a last resort, and one that probably should not have been taken.
Your suspicions about her infidelity are painful; you want to be reassured that she is faithful, and that she will be faithful. I know that when people grow up in abusive sexual relationships they tend to sexualize everything, since they were sexualized themselves. It’s painful to live in a world where sex rules, as she did when she was little, and sadly where you both find yourselves now.
Your position is very difficult. Your partner won’t apologize. She won’t admit that she is causing you pain, and you can’t make her stop, almost like living with an addict. You cannot control her behavior. The only thing you can do is understand where she is coming from and where you are coming from, too. It may take a very long time until she is able to have the kind of relationship with you that you want.
Confrontation doesn’t work, ignoring the situation doesn’t work, asking her to be faithful doesn’t work—you’ve tried everything. Is it possible to live openly together, each recognizing the life of the other with compassion and without trying to control the other? You each have to ask yourselves what it is that makes this relationship desirable, and if it is worth continuing. If so, can you both live with uncertainty, infidelity, or the appearance of infidelity?
The best way to find the answers to such difficult questions is couples therapy.
Good luck and warm wishes to you both.