Relationships After Abuse : Healing From Sexual Abuse
How does sexual abuse affect relationships?
I had a listener of the podcast request I cover a certain topic.
There’s this question: Is it possible to forgive?
And even if it is possible, how does that affect and determine relationships, what does that look like?
I think this can be a really serious issue when it comes to abuse, and it’s something people struggle with. Do you cut all ties? Do you grin and bear it? How can a relationship really exist after someone violates another person’s body, and trust, and human rights?
Miss the last article? Read it here.
Who is it?
I guess the obvious first question to address is, who committed the crime?
If it is a total stranger who just grabs you off the street, as traumatic as it is, there’s not the question of a relationship. You should report them, and hopefully they are caught and given a sentence. You can then focus on yourself and your own healing.
Friend or Family Member
It becomes more complicated if the attacker is a friend, or even harder but unfortunately more common, a family member. There are children born into households that are already a bad environment, but there are also cases where abuse starts unexpectedly.
In these cases, there is an established loving relationship, which makes it hard to really process the abuse.
Whether it’s a spouse or a child, sometimes the victim doesn’t fully or immediately recognize the abuse, because it’s coming from a person they love and trust. Especially if it is more manipulative than it is violent, the abuse can go on for a long time unaddressed.
New York Times Article
With children in particular, they might not understand that what they are experiencing is a crime and that they should tell someone. They are told by the attacker to keep it a secret.
The New York Times recently published an article on this topic, explaining ways parents can equip thier children to recognize sexual abuse. It’s sad to me that we live in a world where we need to teach our children these things, but these issues have been around a lot longer than anyone has really talked about them, and I’m glad to see more people doing something about it.
Now, let’s talk a little more about the relationships involved here. Let’s start with the attacker.
The Attacker’s Relationships
This person, if reported, is facing a prison sentence.
Whether or not this person feels remorse or regret differs from case to case. There are those who are so far gone, and so unfeeling, that it would take a whole lot of work to get them to a good place again, and they may not even want to change. The only place for these kinds of people is prison, somewhere they can’t hurt other people.
But there are others who commit sexual crimes that could be dealing with a slew of their own underlying issues. These issues might include abuse in their own past, addiction to pornography and sex, pressure from ignorant and irresponsible peers, and the list goes on. People in this group may very well have remorse for their actions. They may have a desire to clean up their lives.
Then there are those that are so scared to face up to what they’ve done, who know that they are at fault for serious damage, and in their terror are compelled to deny any liability. They may choose to run, or to try to ignore the consequences of their actions.
There are young people who commit these crimes, and then at trial realize they’ve just thrown their whole life away. Maintaining relationships may seem impossible to these people, because they know they have already broken any trust they had.
The Victim’s Relationships
Then, of course, there is the victim. As established, we’ll be focusing here on those who were attacked by someone close to them.
It can be difficult to report someone you love, even if they are hurting you. Sending a family member to jail feels, for lack of a better word, mean.
We’re all taught to love and support our family, and calling the police on them seems to go against all that we’ve been taught.
Sometimes the hesitation to take action stems from embarrassment and worry about what people will think when they find out.
I’d like to be sensitive and eloquent, because I perfectly understand how difficult these situations can be. Having lived through it myself, I feel the need to say, all of that is a load of crap, and we need to push past it.
Yes, we should love and protect our families, but when someone chooses to harm another person, they forfeit their right to that protection. They choose to become a danger to others, and that fact cannot be ignored.
For victims in this kind of situation, the best thing to do is rely on the relationships you can trust. If you feel you can’t go straight to the authorities on your own, talk to an adult who can help you.
Finding a support system is so important. If you don’t feel like there is anyone in your life you can trust, make it your goal to find someone. Finding help isn’t optional, it’s the most important thing you can do.
Creating and Respecting Boundaries
A really crucial part of healing for victims of abuse is creating boundaries. This is something everyone should be doing.
Certain boundaries, everyone should be expected to respect, like personal well-being and safety. Other boundaries can be created on a case by case basis.
For example, there are things I can talk about with my husband or a good friend that I won’t discuss with other people, because I have boundaries.
There are people and places that really drain me, and make me feel terrible, so I give myself permission to avoid them.
This is one of those gooey, instagrammable sayings, but the truth is that nobody is going to put you first if you don’t put yourself first.
You have a responsibility to take care of yourself, and you will know how to do that better than anyone else.
So with respect to relationships, if it is going to hurt you to continue a relationship, it is better for that relationship to end.
You can leave the door open, in the hope of a prodigal son moment, but waiting and watching at that door is an unhealthy use of time and energy. We were never meant to live in pain, we “are that (we) might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25)
The Atonement and Relationships
I was sent a few quotes, pulled from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s help site for those affected by abuse. Find the site here.
“Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the offense ever occurred or pretending it never happened. It does not mean that you allow the abuse to continue.
It does not mean that it is possible for all relationships to be healed.
And it does not mean the offender will not be held accountable for his or her actions. It means the Savior can help you let go.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught what forgiveness of deep offenses looks like.
He said, “It is … important for some of you living in real anguish to note what [the Savior] did not say. He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’
Nor did He say, ‘In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’
But notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing. That path is the forgiving one walked by Jesus of Nazareth, who calls out to each of us, ‘Come, Follow Me’” (“The Ministry of Reconciliation,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2018).
Christ didn’t suffer so that all that is bad and wrong would disappear.
His gift of the atonement doesn’t take away our rights to agency.
We live in a world where people are going to make bad choices and we’ll have to deal with them. It’s how it is, and Christ’s atonement doesn’t change that.
What His atonement can do for us is allow us to heal. He can allow us to choose to forgive, because we know that because of Him, one day when this mortal journey is over, there will be a perfect justice. A kind of justice that can’t exist in this imperfect world. And if we ever want to be able to move on, we have to trust in that.
Justice and Mercy
Part of that requires us to hold people accountable for their wrongdoings. We can’t just ignore it and hope it goes away. We can’t just pretend it didn’t happen in order to save face. That’s not justice.
I believe in a merciful God. But mercy isn’t ignorance, it’s not a free pass, it doesn’t negate the need for consequences.
Mercy is love despite hurt, it’s allowing space for forgiveness and healing, so that we can all be lifted, and so we can all make better choices. But without justice, mercy is void, it’s absolutely meaningless.
Honoring a God who is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful requires us to embody both mercy and justice. That’s not easy. I don’t think any one of us could get there on our own.
That’s why we have a Savior.
Not to make everything good and happy, but to enable actual and meaningful growth. Our lives here are just a stepping stone to who we have the potential to become in eternity. That is true of every soul, which is what makes it so hard at times to navigate the relationships we do have here. Our time is so short, but souls are forever, so the choices we make in regards to other people really do matter.
My Own Journey
For me, trying to figure all of this out, I really did have to ask myself, what would Jesus do? I knew He loved me, and would want me to heal. And I knew the same was true for my attacker. Healing is a journey, it’s a personal journey, and it’s not dependant upon anyone but one’s self. It requires a series of personal choices.
So, I came to the conclusion that my healing journey is separate from that of my attacker.
I think there’s a misconception in cases like these that, because there is such an emphasis on forgiveness, both parties require something of one another, be that apologies or whatever.
I don’t think that’s true or necessary. The important thing is safety. Before anything else, the abuse has to end, and it has to be reported to the proper parties, because it is a serious crime.
What Christ’s sacrifice created for me, was the power to set boundaries, so that I could determine when and how I could forgive and heal. My Savior provided me with the power of choice.
I was very deeply and seriously affected by the wrong choice of another person, but my choice is my own. I have every right to life and freedom and joy, and so do you.
Thank you for your support.
It means a lot to me when people reach out to tell me their thoughts about this series. If there is a topic or a question you’d like me to discuss, I would really love to hear from you. You can leave a comment here, or find me on Instagram or Facebook @kim.wilkes.blog.
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