“Can I enjoy marriage or sex after I’ve suffered sexual abuse?”
“How do I trust someone with my body after domestic violence?”
“What if sex triggers me?”
“What if I’m unable to please my spouse sexually?”
“What if I’m too damaged to have a relationship?”
These are practical questions and real concerns from abuse survivors. Some of us were married to our abuser. Others were abused by a parent, teacher, pastor, or sibling. Whatever the case, the distortions of love and sexuality – the lies that constrict our hearts and minds – leave echoes of fear and shadows of insecurity long after we’ve broken free. We may desire a romantic relationship, yet fear our past will sabotage our future.
Because every abuse survivor is different—different personalities, different experiences, and different triggers—it’s impossible to write a one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, while I encourage you to speak with a counselor about your unique situation, I will give you a general response and pray it sets you on the right path.
God Made Sex
When I was a kid, I felt like walking cancer. I thought I was a trigger for the sins of my father. Like a spiritual Typhoid Mary, I feared I was infecting men with sexual perversion wherever I went. People I loved, even my own dad, were falling sick with sin because of me. I was afraid to get too close to Godly men, like my pastor or elders, because I feared causing them to stumble.
But one Sunday, our pastor preached a sermon about sex. It was one of those services where they send out all the kids, and warn adults to grab their smelling salts because things are about to get awkward.
Rather than daunt me, these warnings made me curious. I sat in on that sermon and I listened well. I learned that when God made Adam and Eve, he told them to, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” Genesis 1:28. After God created man and woman, he said, “It is very good,” Genesis 1:31. Because of this, we know that sex is good. Sex was invented, designed, and purposed by God for good.
Adam and Eve were intended to have a loving, physical, marital relationship; one man and one woman, faithful and affectionate. Had they not become sinful, their marriage could have lasted forever. But sex existed before the Fall; before sin entered the world.
While sinful people may use sex in sinful ways, sex itself is not sinful or anything to be ashamed of. It is only when sex occurs outside marriage and without love that someone has sinned.
That sermon threw a wrench in my abuser’s mind games. The lies my father shouted and that Satan whispered began to unravel. I started to realize that my dad’s perversion was entirely his own creation. It was nobody fault but his. Not mine. Not God’s. Not maleness as a gender. Not even Satan’s. My abuser’s sin was totally my abuser’s fault.
End the Guilt-Trip
Abusers often try to convince us that all sexuality, even loving sex within the bounds of marriage, is shameful or evil. Transversely, they may claim that all sex—even violent or nonconsensual sex—is acceptable within the bounds of marriage. My father taught me both these lies simultaneously, and the effect was confusion and despair.
Abusers may claim that our anger at their evil is just as sinful as their violence. They may misrepresent our justifiable fear, revulsion, or indignation, by accusing us of being unforgiving, disrespectful, self-righteous, or unsubmissive. They minimize their own sin, while piling shame on us. They may hope we’ll feel too embarrassed or guilty to seek help or report them.
Understanding this pattern—that evil people falsely accuse to maintain control over us—is vital. Seeing through their lies is like ripping off a blindfold. Rejecting their patterns of thought is like severing the fetters which chain us to misery.
We may feel confused because we found our abusive spouse attractive. But of course we found them attractive! It’s not sinful to be attracted to your spouse. On the contrary, it’s good and healthy. At some point, we loved our violent or perverted husband.
But love is not a sin, nor does it make us complicit in theirs.
We may have felt flattered by a parent’s inappropriate attention, but it is not wrong for a child to want to please their father or mother, or desire to impress a teacher, pastor, or family “friend.” Children are supposed to trust adults.
Innocence is not a sin, nor does it make us complicit in theirs.
Love is Not Lust, Truth Is Not Shameful
And hope is not weakness. As survivors, we have to redefine concepts our abusers have wrongly defined. We need to reorient our perspective on fundamental concepts like romance, sexuality, masculinity, and marriage. Slowly but surely, we need to learn to differentiate our natural instincts and wholesome desires from sinful choices and evil intent.
For example, lust is inappropriate thoughts which a person meditates on, obsesses over, and develops. Lust may start as a small idea, but it’s fed over time until it grows into fantasies and obsessions. Eventually, lust can impede our ability to think pure thoughts or feel wholesome love. It affects how we treat others.
To lust is to choose and chase temptation. Simply finding someone attractive, or sexually desiring a spouse, is not the same thing.
Attraction is a natural feeling that happens to healthy adults. We know this because, like sex, God made it. The chemicals he incorporated into our bodies react to stimuli resulting in emotional and sometimes physical responses. For example, if an attractive person smiles at you, you may blush. That doesn’t make you evil. It makes you human.
But unlike abusers, when we see an attractive person, rather than lusting, we recognize them as God’s creation. Meaning, we treat them with honor and dignity. We don’t fantasize about them, take advantage of them, try to seduce them, or intentionally make them feel awkward. Basic emotions and chemical reactions are not sin in and of themselves. It’s how we act upon them (both in our imaginations and in real life) that may be sinful. That’s why one of the fruits of the Spirit is “self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
Nevertheless, the guilt-tripping and trauma from past abuse can inhibit godly and loving Christians who desire a wholesome sexual relationship, yet fear sin.
If this is you, consider reading through the Song of Solomon. Remember, these words were inspired and ordained by God himself. They are not just good, they are holy. They are the divine ideal for how a loving groom romances his bride, and an honorable wife flirts with her husband. It’s OK.
There’s no shame in expressing the feelings and desires God designed you to enjoy. Your sexuality is not “dirty” or anything to be afraid of. Rather, it is a gift from God intended that you may glorify him through your love, life, and marriage.
Identify Your Triggers and Create Anti-Triggers
Many survivors fear that sex or flirtation may trigger their anxiety or PTSD. Triggers are strange things. They may be the layout of a room, the scent of a particular aftershave, a song, or a particular pick-up line. Work on narrowing down what exactly triggers you. Often, you’ll find it’s not sex in general, but something much more specific. A hand on your shoulder from behind. A particular room in the house. The act of getting undressed in front of someone.
Once you recognize your triggers, you can hopefully avoid them, work around them, or at least mentally prepare yourself for them. Tell your spouse what they are, so they can avoid them too.
Decorate your home so it looks nothing like the place where you were abused. Use scented candles, laundry detergent, and other fragrances that are different than what you might have smelled where you were abused. Create a new environment for your new relationship that won’t reminded of your old relationship, even subconsciously.
One trigger of mine was the smell of freshly mown grass. Obviously, I couldn’t expect our neighbors to let their yards run wild, and I couldn’t cloister myself indoors to avoid such a common scent. So, I came up with an anti-trigger. I selected a good memory—the day my mom gifted me rose perfume—and leveraged it to combat my PTSD. I bought a small rose-scented candle and kept it in my purse. Whenever I began to feel depressed or anxious, I pulled it out and smelled my memory. It took me back to that happy moment; that feeling of being loved and safe.
While triggers create panic, anti-triggers bring calm. Think back to your own happy memories; a time when you felt safe, cared for, and at peace. It doesn’t have to be monumental, just sentimental. Now think of a little thing (a song, smell, activity, or item) that you could use to create an anti-trigger. Use that anti-trigger to relax yourself when you feel stressed. You may have to try several before you find one that works well, but don’t give up. When this technique works, it’s a gamechanger.
Look for Jesus in Your Loved One
Like all people, abuse survivors understand the world based on what we know. We see people and situations through the lens of our experiences, many of which were negative. Past events have informed our expectations and perception of others. But our fear is a learned behavior.
Abusers taught us to fear abuse. To fear sex. To fear trust. The good news is, if you could be taught to feel afraid, then you can also be taught to feel loved and safe. And you can teach yourself.
So, in closing, I’d like to encourage you to practice thinking about your godly spouse—not through that learned lens of abuse, but through the lens of Jesus. At first, it may feel awkward or unnatural, but after a while, equating your loved one with God’s love will begin to happen instinctually.
Is your loved one great with kids? Meditate on how Jesus loved the little children and blessed them (Matthew 19:13-15).
Do they help with housework? Recall how Jesus washed the disciple’s feet (John 13).
Are they the life of the party? Jesus was quite popular at that wedding in Cana! (John 2).
By doing this, you’re replacing painful triggers with new and positive emotional triggers. You’re turning your spouse into an anti-trigger.
So, practice emotionally linking your spouse with Jesus. The goal is to slowly unravel negative thought patterns and reknit your mind in patterns of grace and joy. We’re throwing out those old relationship blueprints of fear and shame, and replacing them with blueprints drafted by God himself.
It’s a process, but eventually, your new method of thinking will become ingrained. I had to make intentional repeated efforts to equate my husband with Jesus to avoid being subconsciously reminded of my abuser.
It took years, and I still work on it, but the result is ongoing spiritual growth and an increase in love, trust, and a feeling of safety.
I pray that this article, albeit a brief overview, encourages you as you grow and progress away from the mindset of abuse and into the mindset of God’s love. He created you. He created your spouse. He loves marriage and affection and family.
You are not defined by what others have done to you. In fact, you’re not defined even by what you yourself have done.
If you place your faith in Jesus, you are defined by the perfect and holy love of God.
Jennifer Greenberg was abused by her church-going father. Yet she is still a Christian. In her courageous, compelling book Not Forsaken, she reflects on how God brought life and hope in the darkest of situations. Jenn shows how the gospel enables survivors to navigate issues of guilt, forgiveness, love, and value. And she challenges church leaders to protect the vulnerable among their congregations. Her reflections offer Biblical truths and gospel hope that can help survivors of abuse as well as those who walk alongside them.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Kyle-bearden