Flashbacks during Sex

Dealing With Flashbacks During Sexual Intimacy

Dear Dr. Gil:
My lover reads Moving Forward and I happened to see that you were accepting questions from those of us who are partners of survivors. My question is this: Sometimes when we are making love, she remembers her abuse. She doesn’t always stop, but she tells me afterwards. It makes me feel really bad, and like I’ve been part of something bad. Is there something that I am doing that causes her to remember? Should we stop making love? Can I help in any way? I hope that you can answer this letter
in me of your columns.

Dear S.L.:

Thank you for your letter — it shows a great deal of caring and concern for your lover. First of all, know that you are not alone. I have talked with many spouses and partners who find that their sexual relationships develop difficult patterns. One of the most common is the occurrence of “flashbacks” during lovemaking.

The reasons for this are complex and more easily understood in the context of a childhood history of abuse. Drawing on the learning theory, we find that individuals associate events and experiences with the emotions elicited by the situation. For example, if a young child is brutally attacked by a dog, it stands to reason that the child will associate dogs with danger. This association will be stronger for a young child who has not had a positive or neutral experience with a dog, and who is limited in his or her abilities to reason abstractly about whether attacks by dogs are likely to reoccur.

When young children are sexually abused, they learn toassociate sex with emotions such as terror, confusion, helplessness, and/or hopelessness. Young children can’t fight back or escape physically; they
often protect themselves by using emotions such as denial or by pretending it’s happening to someone else. This is further complicated by the fact that they are being exposed to sexual feelings and stimulation that are unknown to them because of their age. In other words, sexual development in children happens like any other type of development — physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual; it happens gradually over time. When children are sexually abused, they must face situations that they are not ready to understand. Sometimes, children are confused by the feelings they have in their bodies: “I like that Daddy hugs me and lets me fall asleep in his arms… but I don’t like that he does bad things to me ….” Realizing that children will sometimes feel sexual arousal when they are stimulated sexually is a far cry from assuming that children enjoy being abused! Adult survivors’ earliest feelings of sexual arousal were experienced during abuse, so arousal first occurs in the context of negative emotions. When adult survivors make love, feeling turned on may immediately remind them of negative feelings and the abuse. Some survivors have told me that they only feel turned on when they think about the abuse — they feel a great deal of shame and guilt for needing to think about the abuse to feel turned on. And yet, that happens because sexuality and abuse became associated when the abuse occurred.

Likewise, survivors may make love with someone they love and feel very safe with, and become frustrated, surprised, or frightened when they think of the abuse in the middle of their lovemaking. This only means that the lessons of abuse were very strong, and arousal immediately triggers unwanted responses and memories.

You are not doing anything wrong. Your partner is not telling you that she doesn’t love you. Rather, her reaction is the result of a complicated set of responses to frightening childhood experiences. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be a permanent situation. As a partner, you can be of help by first having the courage to bring up the situation so it can be acknowledged. Make sure that you bring it up in a positive, non-accusatory way. For example, “I notice that sometimes when we make love, you seem to get a faraway look. Is everything all right? Is there anything I can do to help? I want to make sure everything is good for you.”

If your partner shares this information with you, as yours did, then be supportive and tell her that you understand and will do anything you can to help. It’s important for you to avoid feeling responsible, because you are not. Also, avoid getting defensive. Your partner needs to know that you understand and will not become inpatient or demanding.

You don’t need to stop having sex. You do need to discuss together what might be helpful for you to do when your partner has a ‘flashback” or memory of the abuse. Some couples, for example, have established a way to signal each other and have given themselves permission to say, “Stop.” Some couples have figured out ways to reassure each other by saying things like, ‘I’m remembering the abuse right now. I have to stop.” Then they make emotional contact with each other. A partner can say, “It’s you and me, now. The abuse is something someone else did. I will not hurt you. You are safe with me. I win stop if you want me to, and I will show you my love and respect when you’re ready.”

So, thank you for bringing up this subject because it is a very difficult one in relationships. Remember, try not to feel responsible, because the only one responsible is the abuser. Lend your partner all the support you can, and remember to take care of yourself at the same time. You can feel rejected or worried. You can even get mad that your partner “confuses” you with her abuser. The confusion is not about you. The confusion is about the situation, which she learned to see as potentially dangerous. With time and understanding, even this complex problem can be overcome. If possible, find others to turn to when you become confused or upset and feel your partner needs a little space. But remember that a problem in your sexual relationship is not unusual, and the best way to deal with it is to work on it together in an atmosphere of respect, caring, and understanding.

Eliana Gil, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage, family, and child
counselor and the author of several books, including Outgrowing the Pain
Together. A Book for Spouses and Partners of Abuse Survivors.

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3 Responses to Flashbacks during Sex

  1. AvatarKaren says:

    I am a victim of molestation, when I was 9. My mothers boyfriend did stuff to me for a long time until he died and it all ended. When my husband and I make love there are times that he touches me a certain way and I have a “Flashback”. It sucks! There have been times that I just start crying and other times like tonight that I try so hard to stop thinking and just cover my face so he can’t see me. I can’t stand that certain touches or an arousal can take me back to then. How can I control this? How can I stop this? It’s not fair to either of us. I don’t like telling him because he takes it personal. He feels like he did something wrong and no matter how many times I try to tell him he hasn’t, he just doesn’t get it. I’ve tried to tell him what things trigger it but when we are in the moment it’s kinda hard to think about what not to do to make sure I don’t feel that disgust or sick feeling in my tummy. This shouldn’t be an issue for us. What that jerk did to me 32 years ago should not be affecting my life now! Our marriage of 16 years shouldn’t be affected by this. It’s not fair!

    • AvatarCherryblossoms95 says:

      Hi Karen.

      I was abused by a family friend for nearly five years. I too get flashbacks during intamacy.

      I was in a relationship with a similar situation, the guy felt responsible for my physical reaction to negative stimuli/triggers. It took much discussion and talking to get him to understand that even if it was his touch that was in me in a certain way. That my memory could not distinguish between the two, because I had been conditioned that certain touch/words meant that I was unsafe. Try explaining that it’s a muscle memory/sentation that has subconsciously become a negative stimuli. I find that if intimate with a man and I react, we stop and I get him to just hold/cuddle me without moving or talking. The smell and feel of the person help centre me back to time and place and things either heat up again or not. It makes me angry as well that I react and it frustrating. But at the end of the day I get round it with a bit of black humour and lots of gesturing, because what else can you do? Hope this helps!

  2. AvatarMadeline McHugh says:

    I was sexually abused by at least 5 different men in my life some count as young adult rape when i was 19 and others were more complex grooming when i was younger but the thought of sex gives me flashbacks and i feel disgusted and enraged. I pray i could stop this it isnt healthy in any way.

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