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Dissociates When Intimate

Question:

I am a 39 year old, never married female. I have a history of past child sexual abuse (my grandfather) and adult rape. Every time I go out with a man and things start to head toward intimacy, even something as simple has holding my hand, I dissociate. I don’t remember anything more from the date and often “awake” to find myself in bed with the man. Or if I do consciously choose to have sex with him it causes nothing but emotional pain, nightmares and flashbacks. Am I ever going to be able to have a normal relationship? I want and crave intimacy, but the risks outweigh the benefits. What can I do?

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  • ‘Anne’ is the pseudonym for the individual who writes this relationship advice column.
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Answer:

I find myself shuddering at what you must have been through in your lifetime. You are a strong woman and a survivor, if scarred by your experiences. I’m glad that you’ve written and hope I can offer something of value to you. As far as I can tell (and I’ve asked Dr. Dombeck about this), your description about how you dissociate when intimate is consistent with your early history of abuse, and is a normal coping reaction to an abnormal and horrifically invasive past abuse situation. It’s like you learned a way to escape from the pain of being sexually assaulted as a child (by going into yourself where you wouldn’t have to experience that pain), and that coping mechanism served you well while you were being abused. The problem now that you are an adult is that sexuality still seems very frightening to you (even though you are now capable of choosing a partner and having control over your sexuality; conditions that could make sexuality a safe experience to have). You don’t know how to give up the old coping patterns for newer ones. Dr. Dombeck and I both think that you would be best advised to seek psychotherapy with a local therapist who is experienced in treating adult victims of sexual abuse. There almost certainly will be one or more such professionals in your area, as your difficulty is quite widespread and common. You can expect a successful therapy experience to help you to have a better experience of sexuality (and life in general), but don’t think that the horrors you’ve experienced will ever go away completely. It’s just that, with practice and good, safe teachers, you can learn to distinguish better between then and now, and to live more often in the now.

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