[Two Pronged] Helping my partner heal from trauma

Trigger warning: Sexual abuse

Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer,

I am sad because of my new partner.

He is my second boyfriend, and our sex drives don’t match. In the beginning, he was still eager to make love, but when we became a couple, he no longer was.

He said it isn’t important to have sex often. Even if we have sex just once a month, it’s ok. But I am aggressive, with high libido. We are both gay men.

I found out he experienced trauma when he was young. He was sexually abused by someone in his family. Up 'till now, the memories haunt him. He told me he gets frightened when I hold him.

When we last made love, he was top, I was bottom. He cried while he was doing it. I am sad that our sex drives don’t match.

What can I do to help him? How can I communicate to him that I also want to be on top sometimes? He says he wants to give me that experience, but he gets too frightened; but at the same time, I can feel that I do not trigger him.

Always,

Al

Dear Al,

While it is quite common for sexual ardor to diminish as a relationship develops over time, this mismatch in your sex drives is a different issue.

Many couples face this problem (of unequal sex drives) and find a variety of solutions: for example, some just learn to accept the imbalance while others turn a blind eye to the activities of the more highly sexed partner and allow them to stray. For someone who wants an exclusive and well balanced relationship however, neither of these options is ideal.

Your situation is complicated by the fact that your partner (let’s call him Leo) suffered abuse in the past. This seems to have left him traumatized and it is therefore unreasonable to expect him to be able to handle these issues easily. He needs the expert help of a suitably qualified mental health professional so that he can be released from the burden of his abuse.

Your support during this process will be invaluable to him but you should be prepared for a painful journey, though obviously not nearly as painful as his may be. 

Bear in mind too that therapy is a process of change and your relationship may also change, for good or for ill.

Best of luck,

JAF Baer

Dear Al,

Thank you very much for your letter. I will respond to your issues first, since you wrote us and not Leo; but I would be remiss if I did not write about the trauma Leo experienced. This is not something one can  just “get over” and move on from.   

But first, let’s get back to you.

For you, sex is exciting and compelling; you want to enjoy it to the hilt, and that includes being on top, as well as the bottom, in your encounters.  Fair enough and, in fact, very understandable.  

However, this is not something you can ask of Leo at the moment.  

In fact, could you find it in yourself to tell Leo that, while you miss having sex with him and don’t really know how you can best help him, you prefer not pushing for, or even expect it? Do you think you could, Al? Because in my opinion, this is one of THE best ways to help him at the moment.

Dr van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma writes: “We all want to move beyond trauma but the part of our brain that ensures our survival is not very good at denial.    Long after our traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete  massive amounts of stress hormones.”

Does any of this feel familiar, Al?  If not to you, maybe to Leo?    

Because childhood trauma can be intolerable – especially if, as Leo has taught us – it keeps affecting one’s life. From the little that I know of your relationship, I agree that nothing about you per se upsets him.  Is it possible, therefore, that your growing closeness and vulnerability is what frightens him? Is it possible that his abuser was someone he trusted and felt close to, only to be grossly betrayed by him? That is usually a core issue in childhood trauma: the very people supposed to love and care for you don’t. They become the ogres and brutes they were supposed to protect you from.  

Whatever the answers to the above questions, what is important is that Leo sees a trauma expert when he is ready. 

Not many people are aware that trauma produces actual physiological changes,  increases stress hormones like cortisol that can affect hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and ratchets up the brain’s alarm system. Trauma compromises that part of the brain that had to do with love, sex, and connection

There is a new book out by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry, M.D. and Ph.D.  The title says it all: What Happened to You: Conversations on Healing, Resilience and Healing.  

To me, it is a masterpiece showing how changing the fundamental question from: “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”  

In other words from asking Leo, “But why? Why can’t you let me be top for once?” to “Omigod, Leo. I am so, so sorry, What happened to you? How can I help (as you so eloquently asked, Al) how can I make you feel safe? How can I reassure you that, whatever happened to you, need not happen ever EVER again.   

All the best to you and Leo,

MG Holmes

– Rappler.com

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