Trapped by the past

When we carry trauma into our marriages, we are likely to experience difficulty in the marriage bed.

I have been grappling with these two questions recently:

  1. How can a Christian wife who carries trauma triggers in her body, heart, and mind grow toward a healthy sexual relationship with her husband?
  2. How can she work on this without the added burden of guilt about whether she is depriving her husband on top of all else she carries?

This is the first of several posts about healing from sexual trauma. This post discusses triggers. (Note: I do list several triggers in this post, and I describe one of my own. Approach this prayerfully as needed.) Other posts will address feelings of shame and guilt, deciding to begin healing, and how healing can happen.

I do not claim any expertise other than my heart. I am not a Biblical scholar, nor am I a counselor. I am speaking here as I would to a woman in my real life who came to me and said, “I had this awful thing happen to me, and I don’t know how to make things better now. My husband is suffering, and I’m miserable and scared. What can I do?”

 ~ ~ ~

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse, child abuse, rape, and more can carry memories, emotions, and body memories. Even if we aren’t fully aware of all we carry, it may still create challenges that we have to figure out how to respond to.

What role does past trauma play in developing a healthy marital sexual relationship?

For a woman who carries deep trauma, the words “refusal” and “gate-keeping” to describe the restrictions she places on her marriage bed can be difficult ones to hear. They sound like her approach to the marriage bed is intended to be hurtful toward her husband.

While that may be the situation in some cases, for a woman with a traumatic past, so much is going on internally that she might not even be able to think about what her husband is experiencing. Or, it may be her way of keeping that mess out of her marriage so she doesn’t unload on her husband.

It is hard for me to say that a wife who has carried trauma is refusing or gate-keeping. Mostly, I think she is protecting herself from pain—at least, at first.

However, saying “no” and limiting sexual acts do negatively affect the marriage bed. It might be tempting to minimize these effects and deny a husband his right to feel hurt—a temptation that may be directly connected to the past abuse.

Pain from the past might also lead a woman to diminish the importance of sex in marriage or rarely consent to sex because the situation seems similar to past experiences that were traumatic.

It isn’t fair at all. It isn’t fair to us to have to deal with something because of someone else’s horrific sins against us. It isn’t fair to husbands who face the effects of our trauma.

It isn’t fair to our marriages, either.

Sex is important in marriage.

As wives, we need to do our share in building a healthy marriage bed. No one else can do our healing for us. That means that if we have brought in trauma, we are the ones who need to take responsibility to do that healing. It is not fair at all, but healing our hearts, minds, and bodies is ours to do.

One of the terms we run into in books and articles about sexual abuse and assault is “trigger.” A trigger is something that suddenly brings up a memory of the traumatic experience. Sights, sounds, touches and sensations, tastes, and smells can all be triggers. (You can find an overview of triggers here.)

A trigger can bring back not only the memory of the experience, it can also bring back many of the physical, mental, and emotional experiences of an event. A trigger might bring back those experiences even if the actual memory itself is blocked. What that means is that we may experience a physical, visceral feeling of disgust or panic without even knowing why.

I don’t carry the really tough stuff.  My childhood issues are not related to abuse, and my premarital sexual choices were my own. I allowed these thing to affect my view of my sexuality and sex for a long time, but when I decided to work on them, though the work was hard, the process was fairly simple.

As a rape survivor, however, I do carry within me an experience from which I continue to try to heal, even all these years later. After passing out drunk at a college party, I woke up to find that I was being raped.

I have one trigger in particular. It is a body memory of discovering that something was happening against my will.

Early in our marriage, my husband got frisky in the middle of the night. He woke up with an erection, and I was lying naked in bed with him. He was not fully awake himself, and he began to have sex with me.

I awoke out of a sound sleep and punched him.

I didn’t do it on purpose. My body recognized the experience of being assaulted, and my body reacted without thinking. As my body was throwing that punch, my mind was back in a place I would prefer not to think about at all.

My husband didn’t wake me up that way again.

That memory had a hold on me, and I hated that it still had any power over my life and my marriage.

My trigger is something my husband and I have worked on throughout our marriage. I am now at the point where my husband can ask me ahead of time (before we fall asleep) if he can wake me up that way during the night. With the foreknowledge that it might happen, when I wake up I have only an instant of panic and then my body and mind relax and I can have an enjoyable sexual experience with my husband.

It has taken effort and intention, and it is empowering for me to see progress. That memory is losing its power over me—as is the person who assaulted me.

A woman who carries deeper trauma than I do—childhood sexual abuse or a sexual assault that was particularly painful or violent—faces far more triggers than I can imagine. The triggers may be more subtle—a look in her husband’s eyes, a gesture, a phrase, her body’s sexual response—and greater in number.

Triggers might be something that are obviously sexual—or maybe not:

  • The sound of a belt being removed.
  • Being unable to move your head.
  • Being pinned against the counter.
  • The angle of light coming through the bedroom window.
  • The sound of a baseball game on TV.
  • Complete darkness.
  • A beard.
  • Someone glancing down at your chest.

It is bad enough that we had the experiences that these sensations trigger. When we avoid the possibility of encountering these triggers or choose not to work on them, we give those experiences the power to continue to run our lives. We allow ourselves to be trapped by triggers.

A wife who faces trauma triggers may feel she is in a difficult place. To an extent, she is. Due to absolutely no fault of her own, she is stuck trying to undo damage that was done by someone else’s sin against her.

A good marriage is worth every ounce of courage, effort, and will. It IS work—but it can be done.

Waiting for you is great victory, with pleasure and delight in sex and a strong marriage to boot.

Image courtesy of sakhorn38 at

Other posts in this series

Shame, Guilt, and the Gift of Sexuality
‘Tis the Season
Beautiful in Its Time

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8 Thoughts on “Trapped by Trauma

  1. Heavy Heart on September 25, 2014 at 1:20 pm said:

    Wow this is going to be great to work through. There are times when I ask why did God allow me to be abused by several different men and boys growing up as young child? But just as the blind man, it’s to show God’s Glory! Holding onto triggers or flashbacks gives the devil a foothold. It’s holding onto everything that goes against Philippians 4:8
    I too would experience things out of the blue but its a decision to hold and think on things that are pure. Renewing daily. I have run that into my mind alot why me? It’s not fair! Thanks for opening up about these struggles for a lot of women. I find that some Christians have the haughty eye when they know I didn’t grow up in a Christian home or got saved later in life( not in teenage years) it’s like they don’t have compassion in that area of sexual abuse. Thank you! For bringing this into the light!
    Praying for you too

    • Sexual abuse does so much damage. There has been a lot of research into how porn rewires the brain in adult males. How much more damaging it is when it is sexual abuse, in a child whose mind is still developing and whose spirit is still so fragile?

      This is hard to talk about, but I believe it is so important to bring it into the light. It isn’t just about sex and sexuality. This is a matter of throwing off the shackles that, as you say, give the devil a foothold.

      Learning to accept God’s love when we’ve experienced deep hurt can be so hard–but it is such a wonderful thing to get to a point when we can feel His great arms wrapped around us and feel safe in our hearts.

  2. If a woman can share her past trauma with her husband early on, it can make a big difference. He understands the why, and he can feel sympathy. He will also be motivated to avoid her triggers.
    All to often it is years into the marriage before the wife shares. By that time the husband is usually so frustrated he does not care why she is doing it. Sure, he feels bad for her, but he now has his own trauma over sex, making it hard for him to do what he knows he should.

    • I think you’re right. Early knowledge allows a husband to more fully support her healing without experiencing a deeper frustration himself. Sadly, many women struggle with trust so much that telling even a small piece of the story can be hard.

      Early in our dating relationship, I told my husband everything about my sexual past–not details, but the fact that certain things happened and what I understood at the time about how those things affected me. When I punched him, he was able to understand why it had happened.

      • landschooner on September 30, 2014 at 2:17 pm said:

        “When I punched him, he was able to understand why it had happened.”

        Was just skimming the comments. You lost me with that last line. Is that a typo?

        • No, it isn’t a typo. I punched my husband. (It’s explained in the post.) It was my body’s response to a trauma trigger. I don’t throw much of a punch, fortunately.

  3. landschooner on September 30, 2014 at 2:40 pm said:

    Oh Im sorry. I had read that a few days ago; just forgot. Me being the ditz that I am 🙂

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