3 Ways to Help Couples Build Sexual Safety after Trauma
Blog entry by Daniel McMillan, M.Ed., R. Psych
Couples run into sexual issues for a vast array of reasons that include physical, emotional and psychological issues. Sexual trauma often complicates sex for couples. While this is not meant as an exhaustive list, here are 3 fairly straightforward strategies couples can employ when they are building a sense of sexual safety in their current relationship, one partner having survived a historical sexual trauma.
1. Separate affection from sex with an overt ask
Oftentimes, partners ask for sex in subtle, physical ways. While this can feel natural and less awkward, an unfortunate conditioning can occur for survivors that pairs intercourse with non-sexual physical affection, like hugs, kisses, cuddles, and hand holding. Survivors may withdraw from affection as well as sex, because sex feels scary and threatening much of the time. This strategy enables them to protect themselves, and avoid rejecting the perceived sexual advances of their partner. This behaviour is driven by the survivor’s need to be safe, but often results in further depletion of their physical connection. By separating sex from affection with an over ask (vocalizing an ask to move into sex), safety in shared affection can be built for the survivor partner.
2. Celebrate an authentic "No," particularly in the bedroom
Rejection hurts. We register it in the same part of our brain that we code physical pain. Human beings hate it. So, a no isn’t always easy for either partner. Instead of despairing when a no comes up, particularly in a vulnerable moment like during or right before sex, try celebrating it. Make it a good thing to be safe and set a boundary. As hard as it is, take the no with grace and even a “thank you for being honest with me.” Someday, you will be glad you did.
3. Take time-outs if you notice one of you is disconnecting during sex
Someone may be disconnecting if they seem off, if you notice you go into your head, something doesn’t feel right, you start worrying about your performance, or anything else that moves you away from your body. Take a break. Call a time-out for a moment and reconnect. I think we should encourage, even teach, that this is normal in sex. Being in the moment one minute doesn’t guarantee you are for the next 10 minutes, so normalize the taking of breaks in the middle of sex to reconnect. Take a pause to cuddle, talk, kiss, then see how you feel. If you return to your body, great. If you don’t, that is fine too. Orgasm does not have to be the goal of all intercourse.
A bonus strategy: Yes, No, Maybe-Let's see
If you are able to consistently apply the above, try adding this bonus strategy: Yes, no, maybe-let’s see. Most people are not always a raring “YES” let’s do it to have sex. However, they are not always a “no” either. The fear that you can’t change your mind and say no or take a break mid-sex often hinders people in exploring the maybe-let’s see. By celebrating the no and making time-outs normal together during sex, couples can explore together when they are a maybe in their state of arousal.
I hope this helps those who might need to hear it. It is not meant as an exhaustive list, only some tips that I have found useful in my office as a couple’s therapist. If you are having sexual issues, I encourage you to reach out to an informed professional in your area.