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Wounded Attachment: Relationships of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault

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In my work with adult survivors of sexual assault, I am beginning to notice a pattern of behavior that I have termed “wounded attachment.” The impact of childhood sexual assault has reverberating effects on almost every facet of survivors’ livelihood, from relationships with family, friends, partners, spouses, and children to their jobs, finances, faith, etc. It is as if sexual assault redefines one’s pattern of and trajectory in life.

Sexual assault is the act of forcing, enticing, intimidating, or coercing another person to engage in a sexual activity, from fondling to coitus, when the other person is unwilling or unable (as is the case of one who is underage, drugged, or unconscious). Imagine yourself as a child, seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and then being introduced to a violent act—an act that serves to not only damage one’s physical body and mental/cognitive mind-set, but also disrupt one’s spiritual being.

This one act for some—repeated acts of violence for others—does untold amounts of damage to one’s psyche. Yet the resilience I’ve witnessed from many who choose to live their lives after the violence is remarkable. Unfortunately, for many the damage is such that many are unaware of how it has skewed their way of looking at the world. This sometimes is displayed in the relationships subsequent to the sexual assault.

Far too often, survivors believe that once the assault ends, it is done and they don’t need to talk about it. Yet the choices made, the decisions not made, and the relationships that come afterward tell a different story. Wounded attachment is an insidious component that I have seen repeatedly in my work with adult survivors of childhood sexual assault. What is wounded attachment? It’s the unconscious way of being attracted or attached to someone or something that reminds the survivor of or reinforces the wound/trauma, or in this case the sexual assault. At its core, it’s the way in which survivors subconsciously seek out relationships that reinforce the wounded aspect of themselves.

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Sometimes it is displayed in the choice of employment/work. For example, survivors may find themselves working at a job that belittles them, makes them feel worthless, or where they feel like they have to make everyone else happy at the expense of their own happiness, thereby reinforcing their wounded concept of self. Another example is when a survivor is continually engaged in romantic relationships that serve to reinforce the wounded parts of self.

As a child, depending on when the assault occurred and the developmental stage in which it occurred, the person seeks to please the adult and gain affection, attention, nurturing, love, trust, etc. A child who has been sexually assaulted blurs that idea of love, nurturing, trust, attention, and affection, and begins to believe that the only way to receive love, attention, etc., is to please the “assaulter.” This remains in effect as the child matures into adulthood.

Although the assault is no longer occurring, if the child did not receive any type of counseling, intervention, or effective treatment to process and repair the damage to the mind, body, and psyche, then this adult is continuing to live out the wounds experienced as a child. As such, the adult becomes caught in a cycle of relationships that reinforce the wounded attachments. Awareness of this plays a crucial role in helping adult survivors of sexual assault move toward recovery, resiliency, and healing.

© Copyright 2013 by Valerie Kuykendall-Rogers, MA, LPC-S, therapist in Houston, TX. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Vanessa F June 28th, 2013 at 4:06 AM #1

    When something like this happens to you as a child it is almost a guarantee that you are going to feel like you desrved this for some reason, and I know that there are lots of victims who then go through their lives as adults seeking that conformation that indeed they are not good enough and that they deserved the treatment that they got.

    I hate that too because there are so many good people who struggle with rising above this behavior. They are led to believe that they have no control and no power and therefore they are always seeking ways to have no control and power. Even if this abuse happens to you only once in life the ramifications are endless.

  • Al meggs June 28th, 2013 at 11:53 AM #2

    Please give me the Psych term for the victim of abuse
    In this case it was a boy of about 6 and two dominant siblings of about 13 girl and 14 boy
    Throughout life the younger sibling was used to bolster the older brothers ego
    Continuing to be ridiculed humiliated still threatened and otherwise lowered in his self esteem for the remainder of his life isnt there a term used to apply to the older perpetrator sibling?
    Did he not derive extreme satisfaction from this relationship and could he when threatened of losing his “punching bag” littler brother resort to violence?

  • Valerie Kuykendall-Rogers, MA, LPC-S June 28th, 2013 at 2:55 PM #3

    In reference to Vanessa’s comments, I agree, the ramifications are endless, but NOT hopeless. There is help available and the awareness that it is okay to seek help and things can change is perhaps the first step in moving toward recovery and healing.

    In reference to Al’s comment, it appears here that you are referring to physical and emotional abuse. This article particularly deals with sexual assault. But to try to answer your questions… there are various terms once can use to describe one who has been abused physically and emotionally. Depending on their level of abuse and where they are at in their recovery, one can be referred to as a “survivor of abuse” and the one who is known to do the abuse is typically referred to as a “perpetrator”. It is difficult to answer your last question regarding deriving extreme satisfaction from this relationship…it is possible that the one conducting the abuse also experienced abuse and becomes the “abuser/perpetrator” rather than the “abusee/survivor” to deflect their own insecurities. In any case, I am hopeful that these individuals are receiving or have received counseling to address their behaviors and feelings toward self/others.

  • tiffany June 29th, 2013 at 1:18 AM #4

    would hurt the psyche no doubt.but the second most important thing to do (the first would be prevention of course) would be the immediate actions after such an assault.the guardian adults (most often parents) should accept what the child says.

    soon after seeking help is necessary.it is a compulsory thing to do.the child needs to be told this was not their mistake and that they do not deserve this.what is done thereafter could have an effect on how the child thinks and the child’s entire future life.

  • Kimberly April August 4th, 2013 at 9:33 AM #5

    Speaking from personal experience as an adult survivor, I totally agree with and want to emphasize what has been shared about wounded attachments.
    I especially can identify with the following insights you provided:

    “Sometimes it is displayed in the choice of employment/work. For example, survivors may find themselves working at a job that belittles them, makes them feel worthless, or where they feel like they have to make everyone else happy at the expense of their own happiness, thereby reinforcing their wounded concept of self. Another example is when a survivor is continually engaged in romantic relationships that serve to reinforce the wounded parts of self.”

    I also want to add another dimention to this area of wounded attachment. Those of us who have been abused in a variety of ways, especially spanning ages 2 through 18, have never really had, known, or experienced a safe relationship. We don’t even know what it looks like, feels like, or is. We don’t have any background knowledge or experience of it. What we know well is a betrayal of a very close relationship be it father, mother, siblings, etc. I think sometimes some therapists don’t think about the enormity of what I just shared here. It will effect your therapy for a long time. It will effect establishing safety and trust. It will effect how long it takes for the process of therapy to help bring wholeness.

    I have also experienced that it also effects the termination process as well. I am now coming to the conclusion of my therapy which has lasted for four years. I can’t put into words how difficult this process has been, and I beleive that part of the difficulty is because therapists don’t realize our lack of background knowledge on safe relationships, and take for granted that we know what one is, looks like, and how it feels. Also secondly, that perhaps for the first time in our lives this relationship that has been formed in therapy is built on trust and safety, as well as understanding, respect, and a true caring that we have not experienced before. I believe, and have experienced that this is probably another reason that termination is such a struggle for me. Now I feel like I am in a place where my therapist is not “getting” this, and this is causing me to feel afraid again, and wanting to run away using a myriad of strategies which are not optimal for healiing to take place. I need his help, but he doesn’t “get” it.

  • simply al September 12th, 2013 at 6:09 AM #6

    I completelt agree, my husband was sexually abused at the age of 4yrs onwards by older boys and then a friend of the family – he is british Pakistani…..I married my husband 12 years ago and found out that he has been having affairs, using escorts, prostitutes going on websites etc etc. He told me briefly about the rapes but in no depth and I didn’t push. He started therapy about 4months ago, but has now walked out on me and our 3 children……….I am very confused as to whats going on, and the impact of therapy on our relationship………….

  • Stephanie September 22nd, 2013 at 9:29 PM #7

    Kimberly, I understand where you’re coming from, I was sexually abused by my dad from 2 – 15.. The only reason it ended was because I stopped looking like a little girl. I completely relate to what you’re saying about having no healthy relationships to relate to. It is huge and has been an enormous barrier in believing in my instincts. I question everything, especially in romantic relationships. I grew up deeply stuffing my instincts and my enormous suffering. It’s made romantic relationships extremely confusing. It’s hard for me to know and judge appropriate boundaries, I question all the time if what I feel is acceptable or right. It doesn’t help that during your adult life you accumulate so much more disfunction and trauma. I know I sound bleak, but it made me feel really good and hopeful reading your message, it made me feel less different and disfunctional. I am not understanding what you mean when you say termination? Are you talking about when your done with counseling?

  • Sean October 25th, 2013 at 5:46 PM #8

    I’m looking for advice on how to cope being in love with a sexually abused woman. My partner and I have been in a relationship for nearly 6 years. We have been through some tough times as I recently found out she has been having sex with other guys all the while telling me how much she loves me. I asked her why she did that and I as told that I “forced” her to do that as I was too jealous and expected her to give herself fully to me alone. After a bit of soul-searching and talk, she admitted to me that she was sexually abused by her grandfather from the age of 5 to 15. At the age of 20 her grandfather continued to pester her for sex and she relented having consensual sex with him another 3 occasions that I know of. I met her after all this had happened. When I questioned her why she would consent to having sex with him, she answered that she did it just to stop him nagging her for sex. Her answer staggered me which then became an almighty row during which she said she was happy that he did this to her as he “taught her how to enjoy sex”. Needless to say, our sex life has been affected greatly. I love her and I know she loves me but I don’t think we can sort these issues out by ourselves. Can anyone offer advice?

  • Chris November 9th, 2013 at 11:28 AM #9

    Sean, my wife is a survivor and we are still early in the process of working thru it. The issue you are running into is that as you get closer and more intimate (not just in physical ways) to your GF it will scare her since her Grandpa was someone who was close to her and who did something evil. As a result she subconsciously feels less safe about you as your relationship gets closer. You’re right you can’t get thru this by yourselves. She desperately needs counseling and you will too. Also couples counseling would probably be beneficial. I can’t really tell you how hard the process is to get thru since I am still in the midst. You need to seriously consider if you want to stay in this relationship because it will be tough. I think that you need to set a boundary that if your relationship is going to continue she needs to be in counseling specifically to deal with the abuse. I pray that however things work out you each find happiness.

  • Liz January 12th, 2014 at 2:28 PM #10

    I just wrote a long piece about myself but the CAPTCHA Code wasn’t recognised so I lost everything I wrote :(

    It obviously wasn’t meant to be, my voice to be heard. It’s not a question of if, it’s when do I decide to leave this earth.

  • GT Support January 12th, 2014 at 7:41 PM #11

    Thank you for your comment, Liz. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Tony February 11th, 2014 at 12:56 PM #12

    Liz, please retype it. I’d like to read your story. It would help me and probably others, and it might help you.

    As far as ending it, lookup a story written in the New Yorker a few years back about suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. The people who survived the jump all say virtually the same thing: the second they jumped they knew they wanted a chance to just live, and realize then they didn’t want to die.

    Type your story and post it please.

  • sunya February 14th, 2014 at 1:47 AM #13

    I am a child sex abuse survivor. I am 42 years old married and have a child. But my relationship with my husband or my child was never fine. We are constantly up in arms at each other. I want a happy and peaceful life. Can you please help

  • dee February 22nd, 2014 at 4:17 PM #14

    i am a child abuse survivor,my abuser died last year and nightmare”s is coming back more than i want.i maried and have two childrens but i cant to talk to any one,i feel like i going creisy .i am 45 years old but i feel like little girl again,please help me

  • Ru February 23rd, 2014 at 7:10 AM #15

    what happens when you get into a relationship that reinforces the wound what do you do

  • Lynne Silva-Breen, LMFT February 28th, 2014 at 6:27 PM #16

    Thanks to everyone for sharing your stories. All of you have pointed out the painful, life-altering effects of childhood sexual abuse.

    The best suggestion I have is for survivors to begin a relationship with a good, seasoned, licensed mental health professional. Research and clinical experience proves that a good therapeutic relationship can help to heal those wounds and help you establish new expectations of a close, trusting relationship.

    When you are ready, please reach out for help.

  • Brittanie February 28th, 2014 at 8:06 PM #17

    Hello! I just wanted to post a resource for people that state that they are in need of some support to address their own trauma histories. Firstly, as a therapist for youth, I absolutely recommend therapy at all stages of life for survivors. There is no one way to “deal” with your experiences, and it’s not something you do for a little bit and it’s done as this article states. Coping and healing are life long processes, so therapy at different stages of life is a fabulous way to process and redefine your story as it relates to the new you through your years.

    If you’re not ready to go to therapy yourself, but feel you are stable enough to begin to do some work there is a book: “The Courage to Heal Workbook”. This workbook can be worked on at home in pieces, and directly addresses building supports, coping skills, and dealing with crises when triggered. You can buy it off of amazon.

    Dee this makes me think of what you posted. Your abuser passing is VERY triggering, and it’s very common to begin to relive and experience trauma symptoms even if you have not for years. It would be a good time for you to seek a therapist or support group to process all of the feelings (maybe even mixed feelings), his/her death is allowing to surface.

    Everyone posting about their experience is demonstrating what being a survivor is about, good work and good luck!

  • Phil March 21st, 2014 at 11:59 AM #18

    My wife walked away from therapy 6 times over 22 years of marriage; always finding a reason and never dealing with the problem. She was court ordered into a year long group therapy (California domestic squabble law when an officer is called). She couldn’t walk away.

    Nothing happened for 6 months. In month 7 she opened up. No surprise, it turned out that most of the women in the group had had childhood violation experiences like hers.

    My wife is much better now. I only wish that the year had not come to an end. Another 12 months could have had her deal with even more of need to control, her sexual habitations, her insecurity in social settings.

    Though not perfect, I will accept the the great improvements which did occur.

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