There are a number of things that affect how we view relationships, including our own experiences with romance and the dynamics we observed from our parents and caregivers when we were children.
Another factor that can affect our relationships is our experience of trauma. Sexual trauma, in particular, can impact future romantic relationships, especially if it is not healed.
Below, learn about signs of sexual trauma, as well as the ways that sexual trauma recovery can benefit your relationships.
What is sexual trauma?
The term “sexual trauma” refers to the physical and psychological side effects that happen after a person is a victim of sexual assault or sexual abuse.
Sexual trauma can result from child sexual abuse or after an unwelcome sexual advance or forced sexual contact as an adult.
After surviving sexual assault, a person may develop signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so this disorder can be a part of the sexual trauma definition.
5 signs of sexual trauma
Part of understanding sexual trauma is learning about its signs. Below are five sexual trauma symptoms that may appear in survivors.
1. Intrusive thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are common among people living with PTSD from sexual trauma. Intrusive thoughts can include flashbacks of the event, upsetting dreams, or unwanted memories. Sometimes flashbacks can be so intense that a person feels as if they are reliving the incident of sexual violence.
2. Avoiding certain people and places
Avoidance can be a coping mechanism when dealing with sexual trauma. This involves avoiding people, places, or things that remind a person of the traumatic event. If a friend was present during the incident, a person with sexual trauma might avoid that friend.
Sometimes, avoidance can mean blocking out memories of the event or anything that triggers such a memory.
3. Negative self-talk
People who have been through sexual trauma may develop negative beliefs about themselves. They may think that they somehow deserve sexual violence, or they might tell themselves that they are unloved or a bad person.
4. Negative emotions
Negative emotional reactions are also among the signs of sexual trauma.
A person who was once happy and cheerful may have a sudden change in personality and mood. They might have difficulty experiencing positive emotions, and activities they once enjoyed will no longer bring them pleasure.
Other negative emotional reactions, including outbursts of anger, shame, and ongoing fear are also common.
Hypervigilance or always looking for threats or danger is common when someone has sex trauma. People who have been sexually victimized will likely become very aware of their surroundings and may be easily startled.
They may appear to always be on edge and view seemingly harmless behavior or interactions as threatening. Sleep problems are also common because a person fears falling asleep and letting their guard down.
10 ways past sexual trauma affect relationships
If you’re living with signs of sexual trauma, it’s no surprise that it will likely affect your relationships.
Even if the trauma occurred long ago, it might live on in the body, leading you to believe that danger is still present. All of this can make it difficult to develop intimate relationships with others.
Below are ten details of how sexual trauma affects relationships.
While this is not always the case, some people coping with sexual trauma may become hypersexual. Instead of working to heal the trauma, they may have repeated sexual encounters as a means of coping.
In the long run, this prevents survivors from developing meaningful intimate relationships, as they are simply trying to fill a void with sex. This behavior can also lead to failed relationships, as sexual partners may desire emotional connection, but the survivor can only connect sexually.
2. Difficulty trusting
If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault in the past, you may have difficulty developing trust within your relationships.
Sexual violence represents a total violation of trust; if you’ve been violated this way, it makes sense that you might not trust your significant other to treat you safely and respectfully.
3. Avoidance of intimacy
One of the indicators of sexual trauma affecting relationships is total avoidance of intimacy. This doesn’t just mean avoiding sex; it can also mean a lack of emotional connection.
A history of sex trauma may mean you emotionally distance yourself from your partner. You may go through the motions of having an intimate relationship, but you are so fearful of connection that you emotionally withdraw or “put up walls” to protect yourself.
4. Sexual dysfunction
Dealing with sexual trauma can mean that you struggle with sexual functioning in your future relationships. You may lack sexual desire altogether, or you may have a hard time becoming physically aroused during sex.
These problems can arise because of shame, poor body image, or negative views surrounding sex.
5. Outbursts of anger at your partner
Every relationship involves conflict from time to time, but if you have a history of sexual trauma, you may be more prone to conflict with your partner. Because of hypervigilance and mood swings arising from trauma, you may have outbursts of anger in response to seemingly small matters.
These outbursts generally occur because something has triggered a memory of the trauma or led you to feel unsafe.
While the trigger is real for you, your partner may have difficulty understanding where the anger or intense emotional reaction is coming from because it can seem out of proportion to the event that triggered it.
6. Poor boundaries
Being a victim of sexual assault can lead to poor boundaries in future relationships. You may feel you are undeserving of love, or you develop low expectations for your relationships because of your lack of trust.
What ends up happening is that you need better boundaries with your partner. You may be overly giving while expecting little in return from your partner. You might allow them to walk all over you or disrespect your time and needs because you are willing to accept the bare minimum.
7. Inability to have healthy relationships
Coping with the wounds of sexual trauma can make it impossible to have any healthy romantic relationship.
Minor gestures, such as your partner reaching for your hand or placing their hand on your shoulder, can trigger flashbacks of sexual assault, making it almost impossible to form a healthy connection.
8. Codependent behaviors
Sexual trauma symptoms can lead to codependent behaviors. When a person becomes codependent, they neglect their own needs and become excessively focused on the needs of others. This can lead you to believe you must take care of all your partner’s needs while never tending to your own needs.
Within a relationship, codependency may mean that you neglect your self-care and fail to stand up for your own needs and wishes because you are so fixated on pleasing your partner at all times. You may be afraid to say no or to voice an opinion for fear of upsetting them.
Codependency can also lead you to choose unhealthy partners, such as those who are abusive or have problems with addiction, unemployment, or finances. You might convince yourself that you must care for or “fix” your partner.
9. Strained relationships
If you have untreated PTSD symptoms from sex trauma, you might find that your relationship with your significant other is constantly strained. Hypervigilant behaviors, mood swings, outbursts of anger, and emotional withdrawal can all take a toll on relationships.
While these behaviors are symptoms of a legitimate mental health condition, they can be difficult for your significant other to cope with, especially if they don’t understand. Hypervigilance may mean that you accuse your partner of untrustworthy behavior, even when they haven’t done anything to violate your trust, for instance.
Your partner may also desire to emotionally connect with you, but when you withdraw, they may see you as being cold and distant. Understandably, these behaviors can make it difficult to form a healthy bond.
10. Attachment problems
In healthy relationships, we form secure attachments to our partners. This means we form a healthy bond with them in which we are able to be close to them, while also retaining our sense of self.
With a secure attachment, we feel comfortable being close to our partners and safe when they spend time with other people or do things separately from us. We feel confident that they will return and maintain their loyalty to us.
When sexual trauma is unhealed, it can lead to unhealthy attachment patterns. You may avoid attaching altogether or develop an anxious attachment style, in which you are afraid of being abandoned, so you become overly clingy or needy.
5 tips for how to overcome past sexual trauma
While sexual trauma can harm future relationships, the reality is that you can learn how to heal sexual trauma so that you can enjoy healthy relationships. Becoming aware of the symptoms of trauma and signs that it is still impacting your relationships can be the first step in healing.
Once you realize that your behavior in relationships is a symptom of unhealed trauma, you can take steps to recover and make an intentional effort to change behaviors that are no longer serving you.
If unresolved sexual trauma interferes with your happiness in relationships, you can take comfort in knowing that overcoming sexual trauma is possible. The tips below can help you to heal sexual trauma.
1. Seek support from trusted people
Social support is an important part of recovering from sexual trauma. Talking to trusted friends and family members about what has happened and your triggers can be healing.
Having loved ones on your side means they will be more knowledgeable about what you’re experiencing and more understanding of your needs when you are triggered.
If you’re in a relationship, talking about your history of sexual trauma with your partner can also be helpful.
If your partner can understand that some of your behaviors, like emotional withdrawal or outbursts of anger, are a symptom of trauma, they will be better able to support you and less likely to take the behavior personally.
2. Practice mindfulness
One reason for sexual trauma affecting relationships is that we have a hard time recognizing that the trauma is in the past. We remain hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for present threats.
Learning mindfulness helps us to attune to the present moment. Instead of reliving the trauma in the present, we can focus on present thoughts and bodily sensations.
Practicing mindfulness through yoga or meditation can be healing for a survivor of sex trauma. You can find mindfulness videos online or find a local yoga or meditation practitioner.
3. Do some journaling
Journaling can be an excellent way to process your emotions. Getting some of your thoughts on paper is healing. Once you write some of your thoughts, you may realize that they are distorted, and this can be the first step in letting go of these thoughts.
For example, writing about shame or self-blame can help you recognize that these thoughts aren’t necessarily truths.
4. Practice self-care
Learning to take care of your needs is an important part of healing from sexual trauma. Take time to care for yourself with physical activity that brings you joy and hobbies and passions that you find meaningful.
It’s also important to set boundaries around your time and energy and take time for rest as you need it.
5. Seek therapy
Self-help strategies can help you to heal from sexual trauma, but many people benefit from seeking professional intervention. Therapy for sexual trauma can help you explore distorted thinking patterns and unpleasant emotions and develop new, healthier ways to view the situation.
A sexual trauma therapist may use reprocessing techniques to help you overcome symptoms of sexual trauma, or they may help you to develop healthier coping patterns. Reaching out for sexual trauma therapy gives you additional tools for healing.
Learn some helpful coping strategies for sex trauma in the following video:
How does trauma affect intimacy?
No two people will experience trauma the same way, but trauma can negatively affect intimacy for many. You may fear trusting your significant other, which can interfere with emotional intimacy. You may also avoid sexual intimacy, as any sexual contact can trigger trauma symptoms.
Can childhood trauma cause intimacy issues?
Childhood trauma can have lasting effects, including problems with intimacy as an adult. If childhood trauma is unresolved, you can have lingering trust issues that make it difficult for you to be intimate with others.
Sexual trauma threatens a person’s sense of safety and security, which can impact mental health and social functioning. If sexual trauma isn’t treated, it can lead to difficulty forming healthy, intimate relationships.
Fortunately, healing is possible. By reaching out for support, practicing self-care, and seeking professional treatment, you can develop strategies for overcoming the effects of trauma so that you can enjoy meaningful relationships.
If you have a history of sexual trauma, it may be helpful to explore counseling before marriage. A premarital counseling program can be a safe setting for talking about your history of trauma so that you and your partner are on the same page before you say your vows.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.