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PTSD Support for Spouses: Is my loved one a survivor of sexual abuse?

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Do you suspect your loved one might be struggling with PTSD? Many survivors keep their trauma a secret…even from the ones they love most.
Photo credit: Idea Go/

Your girlfriend tells you that she was abused as a child, but that it doesn’t bother her now. You think differently. Or maybe your boyfriend shares a startling and disturbing story about his past, and you’re quick to brush it off as irrelevant to your relationship. Think again. On the other hand, maybe you’ve been married for a number of years but recently, your spouse has been distant, emotional and spaced out. You suspect it has something to do with the past, but can’t be sure.

It doesn’t matter what kind of trauma your loved one experienced. Lovers, spouses, intimate friends, family members or any other person in a relationship with a survivor can be affected by the survivor’s feelings and actions, according to Ken Graber’s book, Ghosts in the Bedroom. Typically a survivor is not aware of how far reaching the impact of the traumatic event is or how difficult the recovery process can be for themselves and the people who love them. The key for people supporting a loved one in the healing process is to practice detachment with a healthy dose of love for the survivor.

As a spouse or significant other, the best thing you can do is to prepare yourself for your loved one’s recovery process by creating your own support system, as well as educating yourself about PTSD and the healing journey. You can begin by looking within to identify your own patterns of destructive or limiting behavior and taking responsibility for your own issues. This is an important part of being in relationship with a survivor, since the survivor’s recovery process can and will trigger your own issues. Your courage to take on your own core issues will be an encouraging example to the survivor you love.

However, being the intimate partner of someone struggling with PTSD as a result of sexual abuse comes with an additional, healthy dose of trust issues. For this reason alone, you need to feel confident about what you’re dealing with. Below I’ve provided a brief quiz to get you on the right track. Use these questions to build up your confidence that what you’re experiencing with your partner is real. Then, take the next step and begin educating yourself.

Am I the partner of a sexual abuse survivor? Is someone I care about wrestling with PTSD and the aftermath of sexual trauma? Remember, entering into recovery must be the survivor’s decision and in the survivor’s timing. However, the questions below will help you identify the possibility of whether or not someone you love might be carrying the weight of a PTSD struggle as a result of childhood sexual abuse. For more information about survivors of other forms of trauma, check out the book I Can’t Get Over It! A Handbook for Trauma Survivors by Aphrodite Matsakis, Ph.D.

Answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following questions:

  1. Was my partner raised in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional family?
  2. Is my partner in an Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics recovery program?
  3. Does my partner have an eating disorder such as overeating, anorexia or bulimia?
  4. Is my partner moody or someone who cries easily and frequently or suffers from prolonged depression?
  5. Does my partner frequently space out or lose track of a conversation for no apparent reason?
  6. Is my partner often accident prone during unremembered time periods?
  7. Is my partner afraid to have children? Or children of a particular sex?
  8. Is my partner uneasy about being around adults of a particular gender?
  9. Does my partner frequently wear inappropriately tight or revealing clothing?
  10. Does my partner frequently wear loose clothing or excessive layer of clothing?
  11. Does my partner compulsively have sex or love relationships?
  12. Does my partner almost exclusively use sex to get money, control or affection?
  13. Does my partner have siblings who were victims of incest or sexual abuse?
  14. Has my partner engaged in self-mutilation, self-tattooing or threatened suicide?

If you answered Yes to three or more of these 14 questions, you are likely the partner of a sexual abuse survivor who may be struggling with PTSD. However, keep in mind that only a qualified, PTSD informed mental health professional can make a diagnosis. Check out the article PTSD Support for Spouses: Wrapping Your Mind Around Healing to find out more about loving someone in the PTSD healing process.

Join your loved one on the journey! Subscribe, so you won’t miss out on upcoming articles about how to be a positive member of your loved one’s Healing Team (handy button at the top/side of this page). It’s free! So, let the adventure begin! Also, feel free to ask questions, let me know what you think about the series, or just see what I’m up to! Here’s how to connect:


9 responses »

  1. Thanks for your article. I took the test for myself and scored 6 out of the 14. Is this always a pointer for someone who has been sexually abused or just a pointer to a potential PTSD problem? I have no recollection of sexual abuse in my past…

    • Excellent question! For the purpose of this article, the quiz is intended to alert spouses to the possibility of a sexually traumatic incident in their loved one’s past and how that might show up in everyday life. Does that mean PTSD will be a result? Not in every case. Does that mean for sure their loved one was sexually abused? Maybe. It’s important to understand that any age inappropriate sexual acts and/or acts with sexual overtones imposed on a child by someone they view having authority over them CAN be a traumatic enough event to warrant a future PTSD diagnosis. I hope this helps. I’ll be posting “What is Sexual Abuse Anyway?” soon. Keep an eye out 🙂 And thanks for your question. Feel free to email me anytime!

  2. Pingback: PTSD Support for spouses and families: Healthy boundaries « PTSD Relief

  3. I can really use this blog.Sometimes, I am not sure how to get through another day with my wife. I have also been in individual therapy at the request of my spouse (jungian) and I am afraid that has backfired.I discovered that I have put others needs ahead of my own my whole life. Now that I am aware of how that has cost me, I don’t want to do it anymore. That includes my wife’s needs as she deal with PTSD from emotional abuse. As you can tell, our needs are in direct conflict with each other and I am at my wits end.

    • Whew! I get what you’re saying. It’s not uncommon for this kind of conflict to occur between spouses once PTSD becomes part of the picture. If you haven’t already, be sure to take a look at the previous posts I have written for survivors trying to get their spouses on board. I believe they may shed more light on what you’re up against, what your role could be during her healing journey, and authentic suggestions about her role as well. As you can guess, there are two options: stay or go; unfortunately, staying without participating in her healing journey is the same as “going.” Help is on the way! I’ll send you a section from my yet-to-be-released book, PTSD Self Help: A Practical Guide for Personal Transformation, that will help you make this very important decision. Hang in there, if you can. There’s an amazing relationship waiting for you on the other side 🙂

      • Thanks so much for replying. Participating has been hard. Her discovery process has led to her wondering if she has ever known what love is. She says, “I now realize we have never had a connection”. As result. she has not said she loves me in over a year (married for 11yrs). No hug for over a year. Now, I am aware of my needs and WILL NOT IGNORE them any longer, yet I still feel the pull of wanting to be an understanding committed husband. Is staying in the marriage like a beaten spouse who doesn’t leave or am I just devoted? Who will she be when she comes out the end of this process? When will that happen? Will that include me, once again? She spends more time and energy talking to her girlfriend than me, even though I make an effort to discuss her feelings and therapy. I thought I would be a team member in the process. Now, I feel like a potential casualty. It is like a deer standing in the road wondering if that light coming at me is a truck or god. Why would I risk my life when I feel zero love coming from her, an admission that she thinks we would never married if she was more conscious. I look forward to the section of your book. Needless to say, I could use it.

      • I hope you received the marriage section of my book I sent awhile back and that it shed some light. Most spouses of PTSD survivors have many more questions than answers throughout the survivor’s healing process. You are to be commended for staying in the relationship thus far and being engaged enough to even have questions. One thing is for sure, when people help others recover from trauma, it can stir up a lot of things for the helper and helping is not something to be taken lightly, since the survivor’s healing process WILL impact the helper negatively, unless the helper creates a support system of their own. Much like caring for someone who is sick with a virus, you are being exposed to strong psychological distress and risk “catching” your own case of anxiety, insecurity and/or lack of confidence. I think I remember you saying that you’re seeing someone you can talk to about these things and that’s not only a good idea, it’s absolutely necessary for your own wellbeing. Keep it up.

        I’ll try to answer your questions based on my own experience; however, a great book for you would be, “Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child,” by Laura Davis. First, the pull to be understanding and committed tells me you either still feel love for your spouse or don’t want to be seen as the bad guy, if you decide this isn’t what you signed up for. Only you can dig deep and know the truth of that. Second, if you are able to still see the woman you fell in love with and/or even a glimmer of the whole, healed woman she could become, can you love her enough to put all your wants, needs and desires on hold for as long as it takes without any certainty that she will choose to stay in the marriage? Do you love her enough as a person to simply want her to be healed and happy with or without you? Tough questions, I know. Unfair, yes. But realistic. It is THAT kind of love that will bring her through to the end of the healing journey and become a solid foundation for the two of you to begin rebuilding your marriage upon.

        Be sure you are not allowing yourself to be abused in the relationship. The saying, “hurt people, (end up) hurt(ing) people,” is true, although many don’t do so intentionally. The best way to know for sure is to talk with your mental health professional.

        Who will she be…Provided she has ethical, non-biased people speaking into her life, she will still be the woman you first fell in love with, only better! She’ll be stronger, more confident, certain of what she wants and needs and not dependent upon anyone but herself to fulfill those things (which could be a relief for you!). She’ll be with you because she really wants to and not because her fears and PTSD issues have tricked her into doing so. She’ll be a more authentic communicator and after having suffered so much pain, be more compassionate, caring and genuine in her love for others.

        When? No one knows for sure, not even your spouse. However, like recovering from a broken leg, it can take awhile to move from intensive care, to rehabilitation, to being okay except on a rainy day or when she’s overdone it. Pushing too hard, too fast can undo a lot of hard work. Nevertheless, you both should see progress of some kind throughout the healing journey. Progress looks like this: PTSD Self Help – What is a success story (

        Will the outcome include you? This will be like starting over, gently dating her, wooing her, courting her. The truth is that she may decide not to be with you at the end…or she may melt at the thought of how unselfish, committed and patient you were, waiting for her to find her footing again, and fall desperately in love with you for entirely different reasons this second time around. It’s true, most people choose partners to shore up their own weaknesses. So, what happens when those weaknesses turn into strengths? Sometimes, people grow apart, having personalities and characteristics that are now so different, the best they can do is redefine their relationship from marriage to friendship and move on. Sometimes, the act of growing and healing individually, while staying in the marriage, causes a new dimension to open up in their love for one another, and they build something entirely new upon that.

        Talking to her girlfriend…It’s not a surprise that she is relying on a woman for support. There are a number of reasons why, possibly the biggest being her trust level with men. It could also be that, if you only want to discuss HER feelings and HER therapy and HER issues, that it’s making her feel like “the problem” in your relationship. Try doing some sharing of your own about your feelings, ‘ah, ha’ moments, vulnerabilities, personal discoveries and victories in a way that asks her for her opinion and expertise. That way she’ll feel more secure knowing you’re taking care of your own business and she’ll not feel like such a burden by having something to offer you.

        Love is sometimes a one-way street. What are you really risking by staying in the game? If you’re not being abused and are taking care of your own mental house, you’re only risking time. If she’s going to leave you, it’ll be today or (you fill in the blank) years from now. If you leave on the other hand, you’re risking never really knowing for sure if the two of you could have made it through. Either way, you’ll be fine. Your life will go on with or without her. What matters most is you being able to sleep at night knowing you’re doing the best you can with what you have to work with. It is my sincere hope that your spouse will own her fair share of responsibility and be authentic about her vision for the future of your marriage, when she is able to clearly see it. I wish you, and the millions of other spouses of survivors out there, every good thing and blessing under the sun. You deserve it!

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