Dealing with relationship challenges after a partner’s experience of sexual abuse

At Tautoko Tāne we recognise that there is not a lot of information and support out there for partners of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, particularly in relation to the impact on couple relationships. Whilst relationships can be a place where difficulties with trust, intimacy and sex can appear, they also provide an opportunity for issues to be worked through and resolved.

If your loved one or partner was sexually abused or sexually assaulted, this page details some of the relationship challenges you may be facing, and some ways of responding. While the language in this article often refers to couple relationships, this information can apply to any form of relationship or loved one — a son, brother, father, relative, or friend.

All relationships require work

Before discussing some of the ways sexual abuse can impact men and their relationships, it is important to acknowledge that all relationships require time, effort and commitment – from both parties – to be successful. A relationship can be a place of intense joy and pleasure, and at times can produce considerable heartache and distress. Relationships where one or both parties have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault are no different. They benefit from partners talking, sharing interests and working together to address difficulties as they arise. A healthy relationship is therefore not about having no difficulties; it is about having the skills, time and energy to work things out and grow together. Whether you or your partner was sexually abused or not, this will always be the case.

The impact of sexual abuse on relationships

There is no prescribed way that an experience of sexual abuse will impact on a man or on his relationships. Everyone is different. A man will often try to find his own way to deal with the experience of sexual abuse and will work hard to limit its impact on his life and relationships. Although hearing that a man has been sexually abused is distressing, sometimes this information can help a partner make sense of some of the behaviours they have been observing. It can then provide a starting place for positive change.

Men and their partners have identified a number of ways that the experience of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault has impacted on them and their relationships.

  • Avoidance of some people, places or situations. He may leave the room when some things come on television. He may change the subject when some things are talked about. There may be certain types of people that he stays away from, or there may be parts of his past that he avoids talking about. These are common ways that people try to keep themselves safe and try to keep distressing memories at bay.
  • Bad dreams, being preoccupied and spacing out. At times he may seem to be in “another world,” and appear to be disconnected or vague. Sometimes, after a traumatic experience, people can experience flashbacks to an event or series of events, to the point where they are re-living the past in the present moment. Memories of sexual assault for some men can “pop in” uninvited at any time of the day or night, even while asleep in the form of nightmares, and this can be very exhausting. See our pages on Dealing with flashbacks and Dealing with nightmares for more information about this.
  • Being jumpy, easily startled and preoccupied by safety issues. He may seem overly concerned with checking doors, windows, or not visiting crowded places. He might be uncomfortable on public transport or be extremely nervous when you or the children are not at home. Again, this makes perfect sense in terms of his desire to keep himself and his loved ones safe, as he knows first-hand what it is like to be unsafe.
  • Having difficulty trusting people, even you at times. When somebody has been hurt by a person, they are supposed to be able to trust, it can be extremely difficult to take trust for granted in later relationships. Another possibility is that he may trust you, but nobody else.
  • Mood swings. It is common for people who have experienced sexual abuse and or assault to find that they can swing from feeling okay, to angry, to sad, or to other strong feelings. This can happen quite quickly and without much warning. These strong feelings might not make much sense on the outside, as there might appear to be no external cause for them. However, they are usually connected to a thought or memory that has come uninvited, and that brings with it some of the distressing feelings of the original event.
  • Behaviours that don’t make sense. Sometimes people who have experienced sexual abuse and assault develop behaviours that seem to be self-defeating. This might include problematic use of alcohol or other drugs, gambling, workaholism, over-exercising, overspending, overeating or consuming very little food, or having complex rituals around the quantity and timings of meals. Others might be more directly involved in self-harming or obsessing about the appearance of their bodies in various ways. Many of these behaviours are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves. In fact, some, like exercising and hard work, are admirable; as a society we approve of men who are active in these ways. These activities and behaviours are self-soothing, calming, offer a sense of control, and have an internal logic that can take the person away from difficult thoughts and feelings. But they can become problematic when they are used to the extent that the person is not able to incorporate or to manage other aspects of daily life in balanced ways.

The behaviours listed above might have developed as a direct result of being sexually abused, or in an effort to manage the trauma. They should not be seen as evidence of a damaged person. It can be useful to talk and understand how this behaviour developed, the reason behind it and how it has become a habit. Some behaviours that may have worked for a while or in particular circumstances can overstay their welcome. They can become unmanageable, unwelcome for the man and for you. With enough support, it is possible to develop alternative, more sustainable and more life-giving ways of coping. Read more about how solutions can become problems on the page Dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse.

For a long time, until I could talk about it all and find some other ways of getting by, I just tried whatever was available. Some of those things took the edge off things for a while and that’s probably why I kept doing them.

Negotiating difficulties and improving the relationship

It is really important to avoid seeing everything that happens in a relationship through the prism of sexual assault. Relationships don’t come with a rule book. Couple relationships often involve two people muddling their way through, negotiating and sorting things out, trying to ultimately build satisfying and supportive lives. Many of the ways you have used to get through difficult times together will continue to be helpful in overcoming problems related to sexual abuse or sexual assault. You probably already have most of the tools you need.

Partners and men who have been sexually abused have identified a number of themes that can appear in their relationships. Some of these are below.

Closeness / Distance

The closeness-distance dynamic is one of the common relationship challenges following sexual abuse, in which you might experience a seesawing in your relationship. Your partner might at times seek out re-assurance and assistance, and at other times distance himself, wanting to work it out on his own. Some men try to manage feeling moody, withdrawn, uncertain and uncommunicative by taking himself off and keeping himself to himself.

He might do this with the idea that this will help stop things from getting worse, or that it might help keep his partner safe.

What can you do? Understand that in all relationships there are times for togetherness and there are times where a little space is welcome. It is good to regularly check in with a partner to see how they are travelling. Try to keep each other up to date as to how the relationship is going for each of you, but without increasing pressure to have stuff resolved right now. It is also good to remind yourself that, although you are impacted by his behaviour, it is not all about you. One of the best things you can do is to keep respectful communication flowing. Remember to take time out if it gets too intense, and then to return to the topic and talk about the important stuff when you have had a breather.

Unhelpful behaviours

If your partner was sexually abused, some of the ways he has learned to cope or to keep the thoughts and memories of the abuse at a distance, may be “playing themselves out” in your relationship with him. This may include self-soothing by use of alcohol, overwork, excessive interest in sex or pornography, etc.

What can you do? You do not have to accept or approve of behaviours that are not working for you or your relationship; nor is it your job to fix them. It is worth encouraging him to access support that helps him develop more life-affirming patterns and ways of dealing with stress and distress. Also, try to make sure that you are properly supported, informed about ways of looking after yourself, and dealing with the impact of sexual abuse. Sometimes, it is only when things aren’t playing out the way that you hoped for that you identify what you most value and appreciate about relationships and what you want from a partner. This then provides an opportunity to talk and confirm there is a shared vision that you can both work towards (see our page on Men and intimacy).

I always thought that if he loved me enough, he would stop doing those things – now I can see that it was his way of switching off and although I still don’t like it and want him to change, at least I can see it for what it is.


A man’s, and possibly even your own, sense of shame around what happened, the effects, and fear of other people’s reactions or judgments. These feelings can make it extremely difficult to talk to each other.

What can you do? We know that shame – just like a mushroom – grows best in the dark. Remember, your partner has probably had a lifetime of messages about what it means to be a man. This includes things like being strong, tough, capable and bullet-proof.

He therefore may be struggling with his own masculinity, and this will reinforce his feelings of shame. Men’s sense of shame is often made worse by society’s negativity towards male-on-male sexual relations (to the extent that the focus is more on the fact that it was male on male sexual contact than that the contact was abusive!). It is useful therefore to access quality information, to not deny or ignore a man’s sense of shame or your own struggles, but to talk it through and firmly place the sense of shame back with the person who committed the sexual abuse or assault.

Sometimes, rather than working overtime on this sense of shame and trying to evaluate whether you or your partner needs to feel ashamed (for either the abuse or some actions taken since then) it can be useful to check in with yourself. “How is holding on to this sense of shame working for me, for my life and for my relationship?” If it is not providing some demonstrable benefit, decide to try putting it down for a while.

Heaps of the things he has always done which seemed a bit strange suddenly started to make sense. I also realised that it wasn’t down to me to change it all – in fact, it isn’t all bad. He’s always wanted to be around me and the kids a lot in everything we do and that’s actually really nice – some of my friends wish their husbands could get a bit more involved.”

Understand the way trauma can “act itself out” in a relationship

Many of the ways that people react to traumatic events, such as avoidance, not trusting some people or situations, fear for the safety of loved ones, and being their own harshest judge, can act themselves out in a romantic relationship. As a result of childhood trauma, some men can become extremely protective of partners and children, to the point where his behaviour can feel ‘overprotective,’ even controlling.

What can you do? Knowing that these behaviours have an internal logic and might be a response to trauma can both give you perspective and provide a picture of what might help in making things better. When some behaviours are spoken about, and become understood in their historical context, it can provide a platform for change. By talking about what is happening in a safe, supportive environment, individuals and couples can find solutions.

Just as behaviour is learnt and becomes habit over time, alternative ways of doing things can be developed, encouraged and supported. Like in all couple relationships, relationships work best when each partner takes responsibility for themselves, for managing and looking after themselves, and working together to support and encourage each other in building a caring respectful future.