Research Blog:
Healing from trauma: Communication and romantic relationships for women survivors of sexual assault

by Maria Owen

During our freshman year of college, my friend confided in me about a horrific experience. She had been sexually assaulted by one of her friends. She was in shock (I was too); she couldn’t believe someone she liked and trusted could have done this, and she was afraid to tell anyone what had happened. After weeks of struggling through a lot of sadness and anger my friend felt like she was supposed to put the experience behind her and move forward. She became determined to do this. Soon, she began dating a sweet, respectful guy and all seemed to be going well. She was happy, and whenever she did act emotionally distant or anxious about her assault, her boyfriend and friends all remained supportive. We were there to listen whenever she wanted to revisit her feelings, and would reach out whenever she seemed to be isolating herself. However, after a few months in this new, great relationship, she recognized that she might not have been as over her assault as she had thought. I mean, it had only been a few months. Her boyfriend wanted her to be more communicative with him about sex so that they could navigate what she liked and what her boundaries were in a respectful and comfortable way, but she found herself unable to open up. The idea of talking to him about what she wanted out of their physical relationship made her super uncomfortable. She wondered if the discomfort and fears she was experiencing around her new sexual relationship were being impacted by the violation she had gone through. At some point that year (after a lot of prodding from us friends), she realized it was okay that she wasn’t over the trauma of the assault she had experienced. Even though she really trusted and liked her boyfriend, her sexual assault was affecting her feelings of safety in their relationship. She decided that seeing a therapist might help her process it all and improve her ability to communicate about, and experience, sex in a pleasurable and safe way.

Basically, my friend grew to realize that she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) kinds of symptoms. PTSD is a mental health condition often suffered by those who have experienced a terrifying or dangerous event. Some living with PTSD feel like they are reliving the traumatic event, and/or suffer from paranoia, numbness, and nightmares. This is just one potential lasting effect of sexual assault. And unfortunately, sexual assault is all too common for women: estimates suggest that at least one in five women in the U. S. will experience it at some point in their lives.[1] Knowing how my friend’s traumatic experience followed her into her next relationship made me wonder: How might experiencing sexual assault affect how other women feel in their subsequent romantic relationships with men? This trauma continues to negatively affect women’s sense of comfort, communication and/or sexuality long after the assault is over. Researchers Jennifer DiMauro and Keith D. Renshaw[2] had some answers for me. It turns out they recently conducted a study to examine the connection between PTSD from sexual assault and women’s satisfaction and wellbeing in their heterosexual relationships. They were interested in understanding how sexual assault might negatively affect how happy women were in their relationships, and how comfortable they were with communication. They asked 153 female sexual assault survivors with PTSD to share their experiences and overall relationship satisfaction, as well as to rate their positive and negative communication (listening and constructive conversation v.s. aggressive or hostile conversation), and sexual functions (their ability to enjoy sex safely and pleasurably).

Their findings were surprisingly in line with my friend’s experience. PTSD from sexual assault was not related to women’s overall satisfaction in their relationships, but it was related to communication and sexual satisfaction. So while overall, the women in the study were happy in their relationships, they found that their trauma made it difficult for them to communicate with their partners, both in positive and negative situations. This included taking out negative emotions on one’s partner and communicating poorly. They also weren’t as happy with their sexual experiences. Sexuality and communication were exactly what my friend was also struggling with the most when she was in her new relationship. In her case, she didn’t know how to comfortably communicate her feelings and desires, which resulted in a strained sexual relationship. There was a bright side to their findings though: they found that women who were going to therapy at the time of the survey had more positive results. They felt they were able to communicate more easily and enjoy their sex lives more too. To sum it all up: female sexual assault survivors with PTSD are likely to experience problems with communication and sexual satisfaction in their relationships, but this can be improved through therapy (and a loving and trustworthy partner of course).

Part of the reason why DiMauro and Renshaw conducted this research was because of how little we know about the long-term effects of sexual assault for women’s wellbeing and relationships. Most studies concerning PTSD have been conducted on male combat veterans, whose experiences are of course different than those of female sexual assault survivors. Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD as men,[3] yet the majority of research on PTSD is about men.

In an ideal world, we would all have the option to engage in healthy, intimate relationships, free from social problems like coercion and assault. And we should all be fighting to make that a reality. Unfortunately, in our current world, all too many women experience coercion and sexual violence. And these traumas can follow us in our future relationships long after the actual assault is over.  One of the things my friend learned from her experience is that it’s okay to not be okay. And by being honest with herself, her friends, and her boyfriend about this, we were able to understand and support her. So much of moving past a bad experience is about communicating with others as well as yourself. Sharing your experience allows you to understand how you’re feeling and reminds you that you aren’t alone. The #metoo movement is a great example of communication on a large scale. By sharing their stories of sexual assault, many strong women have created a new community for anyone who can relate to or ally with their experiences. While this is an amazing movement, it doesn’t take sharing your story on a global stage to make an impact. Everyone deals with things in their own way and on their own time, but knowing that it’s okay to talk to those close to you can be really comforting.

[1] Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., … Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf

[2] DiMauro, J., & Renshaw, K. D. (2018). PTSD and relationship satisfaction in female survivors of sexual assault. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000391

[3] Tolin, D. F. & Foa, E. B. (2006). Sex differences in trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A quantitative review of 25 years of research. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 959-992.

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