Sexual assault
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When It Registers as Sexual Assault, A Delayed Reaction

Here is a question sent in from a listener about sexual assault. Remember the more detail you share with me the more I have to respond to and I will likely change details to protect your identity, even if you don’t request that.

Dear LaidOpen:

I’ve been with my husband for ten years. For nine of those years, we’ve been in an open relationship. We met when I was a single mom of a two-year-old girl and hustling to keep food on the table. He was a successful architect and asked me to marry him only months into dating. He helped me rebuild my self-confidence and my career took off. He’s a beautiful, caring man and an excellent father to our daughter.

Needless to say, I still love him. But we’ve slept in separate rooms for the past six months and haven’t kissed in just as much time. COVID, of course, aggravated the isolation and tension between us.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this disconnect between us began, but I realize I’m partly responsible. He’s a reserved man, and for years, I started outrageous fights—just to get him to stop being so withdrawn.

The idea of that tires me now. But without the sex and that conflict, I question if we know how to bond at all.

I am not sure how much we actually like each other. My capacity to show him even the smallest kindness has faded. I’ve lost control of my filters and say cruel things I wish I could take back. Recently, I told him he was a sorry excuse for a man. He’s depressed and mopey and I’m impatient and harsh.

I fear irreparable damage has been done in our betrayals to each other. Recently, he had sex with a mutual friend of ours without clearing it with me first. I, too, broke our rule about no fluid bonding outside of our marriage by having unprotected sex with another man.

Above all, though, years ago—as in shortly after we met—he had sex with me while I was passed out drunk.

It took me years to even acknowledge it was date rape because I didn’t want to lose him, but anger about it boiled over and eventually ripped through our relationship. It continues to baffle and disturb me. While he would never intentionally hurt me, when it comes to sex, he is not that conscious. The way he touches me, it seems that he isn’t listening to what my body wants—he just uses it for his pleasure. Like he will grab my ass and jiggle it, even though I have said repeatedly I don’t like it. He has childhood sexual trauma, and I think this needs to be addressed before he can comprehend how his actions have affected me.

I want him to be attuned to me and have the desire to look at the part of himself that could do what he’s done. I also want spontaneity, play, freedom, exploration, and evolution in my marriage. Instead, I feel like I’m with someone who would be content with burritos and hand jobs for the rest of his life. I feel trapped, and with someone who no longer really cares. I don’t want to be done with our marriage, but I don’t know if he can meet me where I need him to be. I don’t know what happened to the vibrant man I fell in love with. I keep threatening to leave, but I get back on the ride when he says, “Okay, I don’t want to hurt you; if that’s what you want…”This makes me cling harder. I just can’t let it go.

I am scared to be single. I am scared about disrupting our daughter’s life. While I am no stranger to tears and rage, I feel hollowed out. This is a new level of desperation and doneness. I just don’t have the same energy to go on.


Conflicted in Grief

Dear Conflicted:

Wow, dear one. I can see you are a cherry red, ‘65 Plymouth Belvedere trying to make its way over the Grapevine, and there is steam rising from your radiator and your gas gauge is on empty.

I can hear the choir now, from women and men reading your question across the Bay: “Does love need to be this hard?” To which I would say, love is not always enough of a reason to stay. Often it takes years to gain perspective and see how a relationship has served our evolution; how it has helped us clarify who we are and what we want. How it’s okay to love someone because we have outgrown those original needs. How, maybe, this love has helped us accept a part of ourselves while also unveiling a hidden one, bringing it into the light and airing it out so that it can be woven into the fabric of who we are becoming.

Years ago, I had a boyfriend I lived with—a man I felt I had more of an antagonistic sibling relationship with than a romantic partnership. He would get competitive, start speed walking while we were strolling around the lake, and pick small fights whenever he could. While we had beautiful, connected sex, he knew I didn’t feel a certain chemistry with him outside of those isolated, intimate sessions. He later admitted that inciting conflict was his attempt at creating passion and connection. This is not uncommon, particularly if that is what has been modeled in the homes in which we were raised.

You packed your question full of more emotion and complexity than a Margaret Atwood novel, Conflicted. My heart aches for the woman who didn’t want to lose her new love and simmered at a low heat for years, nursing the hurt and betrayal of having her body taken without her lucid consent. It is probably unbearable and unimaginable that he caused you so much pain. It makes sense that rage brewed before erupting and burning everything in its path. There was a fundamental break in trust which may be at the core of what is broken between you.

These things are so complicated. Even good men are not trained to be dialed into more than their desires. We like to think this is clear-cut—“if someone is passed out, they clearly cannot give consent”—but sometimes people are awake and engaged and still not consenting. Maybe they didn’t say “no” because they were frozen. Maybe in the past, they had shared a fantasy of being “taken,” and this was, well, taken to heart.

Here’s how confusing it can get for people, in either role: Years ago, a new friend offered me a back massage. It’s easy to say no to a limp, mushy massage, but this guy was a drummer and had impressively strong hands. I learned in my mid-20s that if panties come off on a first date, I lose interest. It’s just too fast for me. I kept my panties on and emphasized, “I just want a massage, nothing more.” When he massaged my thighs and glutes, my body responded. I made sounds that inadvertently let him know how good it felt. He went further, and while my hormones took over and my body allowed it, the next day I felt shut down and withdrawn from him. He questioned why I was no longer interested, and I told him I’d set a boundary, and while I’d let him cross it, he knowingly pushed it.

As a woman who has dated a lot, including men from many different cultures, I have heard firsthand that some guys actually believe we are just going through the motions of saying “no” because we are “supposed to” but what we really want is to say “yes.” There is little understanding of what boundaries are and how they function.

Consider, too, how foundational laws inform the unconscious beliefs we hold. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that states started to rectify their laws and change the definition of what constitutes rape. It used to be defined as when a man has forced sexual intercourse with someone who is not his wife. Spousal rape is still treated differently. For example, if a spouse is inebriated and can’t give consent, it is not considered rape. (And we wonder why it’s so hard to prosecute rape cases successfully.)

As for the literal manhandling and frustrating objectification you are fed up with: You are not alone. A husband I worked with would honk his wife’s breasts, which she did not admit she hated for ten long years. (My sense was her husband, even at 38 years old, was still that giddy little boy who would dork out around boobs and could not believe he had 24/7 access to a pair. In one relationship this might be playful, and fun naughty boy play. But for this woman, it was an invasive turn-off. When absorbed in their own pleasure, many men have not been conditioned to listen to the signals a woman gives, that they need to stop or slow down. They are looking for signs of what they want to be true; a green light, a yes. Most women want to be touched with confidence, respect, and sensuality, which is absent in a jiggle or a mash—or a boob honk. The skills of confidence, respect, and sensuality are learned, but as you have noted, your partner needs to be willing and interested in learning them to be present with your pleasure. Not knowing how to do this can bring up shame, which may be why he continues to tune out and disconnect.

I feel your scrappiness through your words and know you want him to fight for this to work rather than give up in defeat. Your relationship, however, has to grow anew from the ash that was left in the wake of what occurred. I hear that he is a caring man and a good father, and you’d like to salvage what you have, but it sounds like you need to rebuild everything from scratch.

This is where it’s tricky. You may want your husband to do something he is not ready for and may never choose to do in this lifetime. Many women think, If he truly loved me, he would…fight for me/stop drinking/stop cheating/be on time/cook dinner/clean up/communicate better/listen/be present. But someone’s capacity or their nervous system’s ability to react in a new, unfamiliar way often doesn’t have anything to do with how much they love you or how much they want to make you happy. Sometimes it is an issue of willingness, a habit they need to unlearn, or an unconscious belief—such as it is not safe or I don’t deserve happiness—that’s operating under the surface. Other times it is a trauma response. A freeze and dissociative reply are very common after childhood sexual abuse, which you have witnessed.

When we fall in love with someone, we are often in our most open and elevated, secure states, not in a place of massive stress or fear, where our fight-flight button is quickly triggered. But later, when threat and/or betrayal occur, we go into survival mode. For you, that looks like big, explosive fights. For him, it seems to be immobility and dissociation—not exactly the spontaneous and playful behaviors you covet. You crave contact, but safety and trust have been compromised for both of you.

It seems that your husband is unable or unwilling to examine how his sexual trauma has shaped him. This makes it difficult for him to acknowledge that his own boundaries being crossed as a child informs his adult actions. As a sex therapist who often works with couples, a history of sexual trauma is common, and it impacts their present-day sexual dynamic substantially. It’s challenging for partners of CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) survivors to wait for their loved one to feel safe enough to confront what they have avoided for ten, twenty, or more years. Look at how many years it took you to register the impact rape had, and you seem like a somewhat-resourced adult, who is, I can tell, inquisitive, zesty, and resilient. I sense that your husband is something of an armadillo. From a tucked-in, hardened, concealed place, it is difficult to open up, especially if there’s a threat continuously coming at you. It does not matter if that threat is real or perceived—if one’s nervous system is hijacked, it feels real.

So, picture him as a kid now, because that’s what he is during these confrontations. I do not say this to excuse his behavior or give him a pass, but being aware of where he’s coming from might work toward mitigating both your impatience and your feeling of being trapped. If you can find your way back to compassion, it is easier to breathe. It’s also a much more spacious place to feel the world from. Compassion toward him might make it easier for the two of you to reconnect. But I’m not at all implying that it creates an obligation for you to stay in a relationship that is no longer right, healthy, or satisfying for you.

I know it is hard to leave. I know it’s scary to step away and have to tolerate having empty and open hands for a while—to not know what’s coming next. I also don’t know anyone who has had kids and gotten divorced who didn’t fear the negative impact it would have on their children. There’s an equal number of adults who would have benefited from their mother or father making the courageous choice to leave and attend to the feelings of their children instead of being in a toxic, reactive dynamic with their spouse. As a mother, and indeed as a woman, you are modeling for your kids how a woman should respect herself and pursue healthy relationships on every level.

Your tank is empty but remember that it can be filled again. The question is, what are you ready to stop engaging in? What do you think you each have the capacity for if you stay?

Sending clarity and love,


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© 2022 By Charna Cassell, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. MFC 51238.

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