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:
- How can a Christian wife who carries trauma triggers in her body, heart, and mind grow toward a healthy sexual relationship with her husband?
- 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?”
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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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net