Sexual trauma in childhood can wreak havoc on adult emotional and sexual relationships. While challenging, traumas of this gravity can be healed. Join sex therapist and author Laurie Watson and couples therapist and author George Faller as they discuss how you can heal childhood sexual trauma.
Laurie Watson: So we’re talking about sexual trauma today and how to heal it.
Laurie Watson: Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay Radio for Couples and Sex Therapy. And I am Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your marriage therapist.
Laurie Watson: We want to take a wide lens on sexuality and talking with you about what we’ve learned as experts in the field on how you bring your body, your mind and your brain to the sexual experience.
George Faller: We want to expand people’s perspective of just talking about sex, that it’s not something to be avoided. It’s actually something to embrace, and to into, with an openness to be changed by what you hear.
Laurie Watson: So last week we talked about a traumatized first responder, and this week we’re going to talk about childhood trauma, certainly a lot of work as a sex therapist, and I’m sure as any kind of therapist. We’re dealing with trauma from childhood, and particularly sexual trauma is so damaging because it opens a child to sexual experiences that they are not ready to have. And they don’t have any place to put that in their brain, and it’s often a betrayal of trust. Most often sexual trauma is a person that is known to the child. I know parents out there are terrified of this and rightfully so. But the biggest thing is almost … You know? Watch your relatives more than worrying about the stranger.
George Faller: Well, it’s so disorganizing for a child when the person responsible for their safety is also the source of the threat. Right? It causes a splitting that happens in a kid’s mind that says, “What do … I need this person, but they’re not safe for me.” I mean it’s such a destructive early informative thing to do to a child’s developing brain.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, exactly. So I’m thinking of a woman who was molested, actually by her older brother. And he was about six years older than she was. And, I mean, just … It was a crazy story, but I think he started molesting her when she was probably about seven and he was … That would have made him, I think, 13, so that’s old enough to know and old enough to be sort of the age of reason. And it started … He would just come into her bedroom and they slept together. And this is what is problematic in systems where this happens, is there’s not enough oversight. Parents are seeing the obvious and they’re not doing anything about it. And in her case, I think her mom came into the bedroom and her underwear was off and her big brother was in her bed. And the mom scolded her, you know, “Put your underwear on. What are you doing?” Doesn’t tell the brother to leave the bedroom, but tells the little girl to put her underwear back on.
George Faller: And what I trust, just to not pathologize the parents, I mean, they’re doing the best they can with the tools they were given. Right? A lot of us don’t know how to express our feelings. We avoid, we put it on other people. Right? So, yeah, but there’s a whole comedy of errors that have to happen for these …
Laurie Watson: System failures, basically.
George Faller: Exactly, yeah.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. I mean, the mother, I’m sure, doesn’t want to even begin to think that her son would be hurting her daughter; doesn’t know, maybe, a seven year old was sleeping without her underwear; doesn’t know what’s happening and is anxious and doesn’t explore it, and then doesn’t set good boundaries. But this went on forever. And they were unsupervised for hours at a time, and then he regularly molested her. And eventually …
George Faller: I just want to jump in with that. I’m trying to hold both truths as a therapist: that I trust parents are doing the best they can, but they also have to accept responsibility for totally failing their kids. Right? So in this situation you’re getting, I’m like … It must have been horrible for mom to have an intuition, but be afraid to act on it given the systemic dilemma that she found herself in. But I also don’t want listeners to think that that is giving permission for a failure to do your job as a parent, which is to protect your child.
Laurie Watson: Exactly. Even when … And, you know, I think about it too systemically. How in the world does a brother molest a sister, right? I mean, that just doesn’t happen out of the blue; there’s been failures for him as well. And I think eventually as the story came forward, an uncle had molested him and so he was acting out his trauma onto his sister. I mean, it is generational.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: You rarely see somebody who is a bad seed, right? that just spontaneously they’re a perpetrator. I mean, they have often been victimized too. That doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to have consequences for even that child and help them, but they need to be healed too. And this whole system was whacked out because of it. And of course by the time she gets to me she is a grown woman, and is shut down sexually, finds herself unable to respond to her partner, and one of the things that is unfortunate is that her pattern of arousal has included her brother.
George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laurie Watson: So when she gets aroused, she has memories of her brother and so she … It’s not that she can’t get aroused; it’s that she doesn’t want the association to her brother so she shuts that down, won’t let herself respond to her husband because then that memory is going to be triggered, that trauma is triggered. And, I mean, this is the perverse thing about childhood molestation. Right? is sometimes it feels good. And we know it’s wrong, and it is wrong, but the body responds to touch regardless sometimes of who’s touching.
George Faller: Touch, attention, affirmation, kindness … I mean, there’s a lot of things that the body is getting in those moments.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. And this little girl idolized her older brother, wanted his attention. And he sort of teases her and disdains her at the dinner table, but then is kind and loving and touching in the bed. And talk about confusion and awfulness. So then sexually with her husband, what does she do with this? She just decides, “I’m not going to be responsive.” I think she had struggled with orgasm, struggled in many ways, just primarily struggled in getting aroused.
Laurie Watson: So eventually … I saw her for some period of time. And of course that included holidays where she was having to go to Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving, where her brother is present, and bring her own children there. And her family doesn’t understand why she won’t let her children be in the same room with her brother. And they’re trying to struggle to have an adult relationship. You know? What do you do about that?
Laurie Watson: And so in essence, the trauma keeps getting retriggered because this is not a person that she can get away from. And her parents never knew, so part of our work was working through breaking the secret. I think with sexual trauma, with any kind of trauma, people have to tell about it. And with sexual trauma, and there’s a trusted person involved, you have to break it to the rest of your family that “This trusted person hurt me,” which is going to be so painful for the rest of the family. And it was so difficult for her to break her mother’s heart to say, “Well your son did this and it was just so painful.” But it had to be done in order for her to stop being the cold, distant sister. Right? I mean, all her family could see at this stage was she wasn’t very nice to her brother, and so she kept being the bad one. So her shame was compounded by not being seen in the first place, not being protected, and then being designated as she was, somehow or another, not really part of the family because she didn’t want to participate as much.
George Faller: Right. So she has certain moves that she needs to survive. And then she’s blamed for those moves, which is so incredibly unfair.
Laurie Watson: It’s so unfair.
George Faller: And as we’re trying to depathologize this experience, right? we need to help trauma survivors recognize that it’s not their fault that the wires in their brain get crossed, right? that when these experiences happen there can be arousal attached to fear, that when your body’s in a similar place years later, these things are going to come up again. And if your strategy is to avoid it, because that means you’re a bad girl and you feel the pain and the fear, then you’re going to have to cut that off. And when you don’t recognize that you’re trying to cut that off, you’re losing your life energy in doing that.
Laurie Watson: Exactly.
George Faller: And then it’s set up to really start to impact … How could it not impact your relationship?
Laurie Watson: Yeah, her family-
George Faller: Then your father gets mad at you for being cold, and inhibited, and … You know? Here we go again. It just … It creates these trauma traps, these feedback loops, that they’re just … It’s so depressing and discouraging.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. She’s bad again not only in her family, but with her husband because she doesn’t want to have sex. And without that vibrancy in the partnership, her children suffer. They feel the static between their parents that is not the good static. It’s the bad static, and she’s numbing out something that could bring her life.
George Faller: So very similar to the last week’s episode of trying to get her to face something she has good reason she wants to avoid, that in that defensiveness, in the problem, is really the solution and the opportunity.
Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: And again, this is where the body of research around the importance of going to the body, that this is where trauma is stored, that if you’re just going to talk to this lady and tell her she shouldn’t feel that way, that’s not actually going to access where it’s stored in the brain. Right? This is a fight or flight response. When there’s fear the amygdala in the brain is firing away, and it’s getting our body to activate; that is where the trauma is stored. So it’s so important that when you are going to be doing this trauma work, that you can get those new experiences in the body. Right? You want to put words to where that fear is, where that pain is. Where does it manifest itself? In the stomach, in the chest, in the throat, you can’t talk, in your hands, throughout your body, in your feet … People experience it all over the place.
Laurie Watson: She experienced it in the stomach; her stomach was tense all the time. She over ate because of the tension, trying to soothe it in a way that seemed like it was going to work. But of course it didn’t work; it just made her gain weight, and it didn’t change the upset stomach.
George Faller: But even that, what a beautiful coping strategy. Your body looked for some relief from this pain, some feeling of aliveness; wouldn’t eating make you feel temporarily better?
Laurie Watson: Eating is so essential.
George Faller: Right. But again, it’s another short term solution that in the longterm starts to reinforce even more of the problem. Now we’re going to throw overweight and overeating into this mix of already not-feeling-safe relationship problems, extended family problems.
Laurie Watson: And talk about body shame problems. You know? If you’re overweight and female, that’s going to be compounded.
George Faller: This work certainly can be depressing at times.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. Exciting, most of the time, because I think we can help. But let’s come back and talk about if you’re not in therapy, or if you know your partner is traumatized, or if you have been traumatized and maybe withdrawn sexually, how can you figure this out with your partner?
Announcer: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson, from Awakening Center for couples and intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson: So an intensive is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. And it’s a way to really make fast progress, compared to weekly therapy. I mean, there’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.
Announcer: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about intensives, and awakening centers, other services, at awakenloveandsex.com.
Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books. And I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stressors into a positive force in your life. And who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing. But George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at georgefaller.com.
Laurie Watson: Okay, so we’re back and talking about sexual trauma and what you do as a couple. In my experience, most partners who hear for the first time that their partner was molested, it’s not a big surprise. They’ve already sensed in their partner’s body something is off, something is wrong. If anything, people suspect it may be too quickly. But when they finally hear this, I’ve mostly seen it answered with compassion and a sense of empathy for what their partner went through as a little person. And that’s so healing when that happens.
Laurie Watson: I think that families, hearing the secret, it’s different because they are at stake. They have responsibility that the partner didn’t have, and so sometimes that’s a more difficult conversation. But partners receive it well.
George Faller: You’re highlighting the most important start of the process, which is the root of the problem is there was nowhere to go with that for a child. The healing is that somebody believes the child and says that it’s not their fault. That compassion is critical.
Laurie Watson: That is shown out for everything. For any kind of sexual trauma, like a rape victim, if she’s reassured it’s not her fault and tenderly walked through the process, there’s better outcomes than a young woman being asked, “Well how short was your skirt?” or anything like that that blames the victim. When we support the victim and we reassure them.
Laurie Watson: Sometimes even, if a child is molested and tells her parent and then the parent acts on it, takes responsibility for it, protects them, and talks them through it, the trauma doesn’t stay in the child’s body. They don’t grow up as a traumatized victim forever. It’s that belief and support that could happen in the moment that changes everything for a person who is victimized in the moment. And that’s what I see in the partners often: it’s the first person who deeply, deeply loves them and says, “That was not your fault. You didn’t ask for that. That shouldn’t have happened to you.” And that kind of message is oftentimes the first time they’ve ever heard it. And coming from a loved person, a person who’s an attachment figure, our spouse or partner, it’s so powerful.
George Faller: We keep working towards that corrective emotional experience, that it’s … Understanding is very helpful for getting there, but the person has to experience something new, to attach to those old memories, to create that new wiring in the brain. So I’m thinking about an example similar to what you were saying earlier. I was working with a wife who was raped earlier by a neighbor for years when she was a teenager.
Laurie Watson: Good lord.
George Faller: Again the cross wiring in her brain, she, to have an orgasm, would actually have to think about this guy raping her. So with her husband, who’s safe and loves her … You know? In those moments when she’d be having an orgasm, she’d close her eyes, she wasn’t with her husband anymore. I mean, she felt so much shame and guilt afterwards that she didn’t want to have orgasms, which would make sense.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. She had to replicate the intensity of that experience.
George Faller: And the husband was supportive of his wife and the pain of what she experienced, but that was a big one.
Laurie Watson: He sees her shut her eyes.
George Faller: Well he didn’t know about that. Right? But in her therapy when that was revealed, that she needs to think about him to orgasm, and that was felt like a betrayal to the husband. Right?
Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: So we had to process that and make sense of it, but the whole idea is doing it differently. So when they had a breakthrough, they described making love and she closed her eyes, and he knew where she was going, but instead of taking it personal because of the work that they did, he said to her, “Babe, it’s okay to close your eyes. It’s not your fault.” Right? And all of a sudden, she comes back real quick to him and she’s now present. And that’s the whole thing with trauma: we live in the past, we’re not in the present moment, we leave our bodies, we dissociate. So having the grace of a husband saying, “It’s okay to do that. This is not your fault,” allows her body to come right back to the moment, to actually feel him stroking her back, and holding her in a loving embrace. Now her body doesn’t have to go down those roads of guilt and shame and pain, it’s a lot easier for her to stay present with her husband.
Laurie Watson: That is beautiful. He reassures her and he says, “I understand why you have to do this.”
George Faller: That’s what love is.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. Yeah.
George Faller: I mean, it’s amazing what it could … Love is stronger than fear. I get fear is strong, but love is bigger than it.
Laurie Watson: That is good. Some of the research is about how if we’re in terrible situations and experience trauma, if we come from secure backgrounds we don’t suffer as much, and I think what you’re saying is that can be retroactive as well. In the secure partnership with our partner loving us, it works backwards as well. We can now heal the trauma that happened through the security of the partnership.
George Faller: Right. What you’re describing sounds a lot like posttraumatic growth. A lot of people don’t know about it. They know about posttraumatic stress, but the same amount of people after an adverse challenge actually reprioritize their life for the better. I mean, I can see this for me, after 9/11: my relationship became more important, my values became more important, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, I became less selfish. And so there are some really classic things that happen in people that experience posttraumatic growth.
Laurie Watson: Right. It’s a reevaluation of their life, the trauma event. And for some people they use it to the good, to help others. I mean, certainly, and-
George Faller: Yeah. They talk about five things specifically: a greater appreciation for life; an importance of relationships really, so much more important-
Laurie Watson: Heightens.
George Faller: … Heightens; there are new possibilities that you saw that you didn’t see prior to the trauma; that there’s a personal strength that you start to recognize how resilient you are, right? and how much more you can do; and as there’s a spiritual sense of people that are engaged in a posttraumatic growth.
Laurie Watson: I listen to country music. Does that surprise you? And there’s this song, Tim McGraw, he sings like, “What would you do if you get the diagnosis?” You know? You’d go off, you’d ride the bowl, you’d parachute. It’s essentially confronting the most awful thing and moving through it. You grab life further. You grab hold of life. And I think that’s what you’re talking about. And I think this is the possibility that we want for our listeners, for ourselves. It’s like there is a possibility after trauma that is greater if we can move through it with the help of a partner, with the help of a loved one. I mean, often as a therapist where that first person who hears.
George Faller: Yes.
Laurie Watson: But our partner can be that as well, that moves people beyond the crippled, anxious, uptight part, and moves them into this wonderful place where life is more precious. And they take more risks. They’re more vulnerable.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: Sex is better.
George Faller: And we don’t want to limit it just to the partner or the therapist. Right? A lot of times the person who needs the most forgiveness is the trauma victim, themselves. Right? Because they learn to internalize some negative messages, that anytime there’s trauma gets triggered in them, they get mad at themselves and play those same tapes that people have said, “I don’t believe you. I can’t believe you. You’re saying this again. What’s wrong with you? You’re a loser. You’re ugly.” All these tapes, right? So much of the work, too, is trying to find compassion for yourself.
Laurie Watson: Kind of a merciful stance-
George Faller: A merciful stance.
Laurie Watson: … Toward the self that says, “I was a child. Yes, my body responded because that’s what bodies do,” or, “No, I didn’t tell my parents because I thought they would break up,” or, “I didn’t tell my mom that stepdaddy was doing this because she was economically dependent.” It’s that mercy in terms of seeing the child part of themselves and the binds that the child lives in, versus the adult looking back and saying, “Well why just didn’t you say something?” It’s really being and looking at the child again, and that mercy is very healing to the self.
George Faller: I often use the word “grace” very similar to “mercy,” and how … I mean, if you just imagine that lady you’re working with, as she gets triggered, she just shakes her head in contempt, saying, “I can’t believe I let this come up. I thought I had this all figured out, and I can’t believe what a loser I am.” Right? Even that, literally, shaking her head, you can see where that’s stored. How helpful would it be if you were able to say, “Notice what you’re doing for good reasons. This is what you just learned. But it’s not your fault, so instead of shaking your head ‘no,’ what would it be like to shake your head ‘yes,’ and to tell yourself it’s okay? This is what happens to trauma brains; they get triggered. It doesn’t know time. It comes up again. You’re not wrong and you’re not bad because it came up again. It’s okay. Can you say that to yourself, “It’s okay,” and shake your head, ‘yes’”? Think of how that starts to retrain the body instead of just the words.
Laurie Watson: The self compassion.
George Faller: The self compassion.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
George Faller: I mean, I think so much of what we’re trying to keep highlighting over and over, that this is not survival of the fittest. It’s not survival of the strongest. It’s survival of the most nurtured.
Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: Right? We are made to be in relationship, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Right? We’re heading in that direction. And so often what trauma does is it isolates us.
Laurie Watson: Separates us.
George Faller: It separates us.
Laurie Watson: And the healing after separation, the need of the trauma … The separate isolation is the reconnection. Right?
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: The nurture that we need both to give to ourselves and to receive and to let ourselves receive from our partners, from our friends, from the people who love us.
George Faller: Right? And for a lot of people, they invite God into that space too.
Laurie Watson: Absolutely.
George Faller: I think that the more that we can have love surround us in places where we’re feeling dark and broken, the better and richer our lives are going to be.
Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative. As I do the research on breast cancer, they show that patients who have a relationship with God, who believe in God, they fare better: they have less pain, they have less trauma. I mean it, that sense of attachment essentially is how people view spirituality. You know? It’s healing.
George Faller: Right. And what’s so tragic with so many of these trauma survivors is they’re isolated and cut off not only from their partners, from God, but from themselves. That’s not a great space to spend a lot of time in.
Laurie Watson: And if we’re cut off from ourselves, we’re cut off from our bodies. And of course with sexual trauma, that includes being cut off from the joyful sexual experience where our body provides pleasure, connection with our partner. One of the most primary healing pathways is cut off from us. And again, the research shows, actually sexual satisfaction helps healing of PTSD and that includes childhood PTSD.
George Faller: Well that’s the good news, that there is healing in trauma for those brave enough to head towards the trauma and a vulnerability, and next time we’re going to go a little bit deeper and head into the shame.
Laurie Watson: Okay. Thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio.
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