My Partner Was Abused and Now Has Boundary Issues. What Do I Do?

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
Dear Unheard,

Thank you so much for writing to 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.

Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • Leave a Comment
  • laurel g

    January 5th, 2013 at 4:18 AM

    Is it absolutely wrong to insist that any partner that I choose for myself have had a healthy upbringing like I did? Ah, I guess that’s a little closed minded. But I would at least like to know that veen if there has been something that happened in the past that I at least have a partner who is willing to work through their issues in therapy and not be one of those people who shuts down and refuses to make any changes because they think that they can handle things themselves. This is not a healthy relationship for either of you if one partner has to watch helplelssly as the other continues to be haunted by events from the past.

  • Don

    January 5th, 2013 at 9:58 PM

    You seem to have expectations that your partner cannot fulfill,at least not yet.SO it would be wise to see if the positives in your relationship are greater than the hurt and the unanswered questions you have.If it is then you have got to talk to her and set a few rules in the relationship.If not then it would be wise to end this now rather than hurting yourself and her more.

  • Blake

    January 6th, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    In any relationship, healthy or not, there will be some baggage. We all have it and we know it. But those who are adults know enough to know that to make the relationship work more than likely they are going to have to work on this before allowing it destroy something that could be good in their lives. I don’t think that it is wrong to suggets to someone that they need treatment, because all of us have been there. Because if this is not something that is persued it can ruin even the best and strongets relationships.

  • Butterflywings

    January 8th, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    Um WOW. Am I the only one who thinks ‘Unheard’ is the one with the issues?
    OK maybe Unheard’s partner has issues too, following her childhood abuse, but it takes 2 to make ANY problem in a relationship.
    Sounds like her partner acknowledges her issues and works on them, and is being scapegoated and blamed for all the problems in the relationship.
    Unheard should never have snooped into her partner’s private online conversations. So she found things ‘of a personal and sexual nature’, um, that’s what people talk to their friends about!
    The partner probably only hid it because they knew Unheard’s jealousy and insecurity would cause her to flip and they didn’t want to deal with that. If you are MAKING people lie to and deceive you because they’re scared of your reaction? YOU have the issues.
    Is there evidence the partner has actually been unfaithful? No. ‘Flirting’ is a matter of perception anyway. Even if Unheard’s partner IS flirting, Unheard needs to grow up and stop being so childishly insecure. Some people are just flirts, and it doesn’t mean anything. If it bothers Unheard she can address it like an adult, instead of snooping around and having meltdowns.
    Perhaps Unheard’s mistrust is what is causing the relationship problems. Having a controlling, suspicious, jealous insecure partner makes anyone go insane. To then blame the partner’s history of sexual abuse is frankly more abuse. I feel for the partner being abused yet again.
    Unheard needs therapy.

  • Britto

    January 10th, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    As a survivor of childhood abuse, I have to say, that I desperately tried to sabotage every good relationship I ever had. I am not a therapist but I am confident in saying this was because chaos and distrust were “normal” to me and if it didn’t exist, then I was going to make it happen; even if I truly and honestly loved my partner. It doesn’t make it alright though and the fact that you are willing to talk to her and seek help is highly commendable. I think it would benefit you both to seek counseling together – you can then determine with a conscious heart & mind whether your partner is just acting out or if perhaps, you aren’t a good “fit”.

  • ms

    January 14th, 2013 at 7:11 PM

    Ummmm. Yea theres alot of people deceiving people.

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