Doctors’ Note: Today’s column includes a discussion of familial sexual abuse.
I have a situation that I’m not quite sure how to handle. TL;DR: There’s a pretty heavy subject I am contemplating raising with my partner but I’m not sure how to go about it.
To explain, I (he/him) have been seeing my girlfriend since last fall. We’re both in our early 40s. Overall things have been great and we have been very good at communicating with each other. We’ve both been open about the fact that we think our relationship has long-term potential and we made the joint decision, fairly early on, to be exclusive.
About a month into things, she opened up about the fact that she was coping with some pretty significant past trauma issues. She wasn’t specific, and, to be honest, she still hasn’t really directly told me what this past trauma consists of. She’s mentioned a strained relationship with her parents, specifically her mother (I’ve met them both several times, and I get along with them really well); the way she tells it, the strain comes from them 1.) being extremely emotionally distant during her childhood (her words) and 2.) having to bail her out of some past mental health crises and losing patience with her (again, her words).
She also has an older brother (they’re a year apart in age) who lives several hours away (she and her parents live in the same town), and apparently they go through long periods of not speaking (when we started dating, she hadn’t spoken to him in almost 5 years and hadn’t seen him in 8). This is where my question/concern comes in. She’s made a lot of statements about her brother that make me wonder if this trauma is centered around him. For example, we were planning to join her parents on a trip to spend the holidays with him and his family, but at the last second she canceled the whole trip because she couldn’t find an acceptable place to stay in the area. This seemed kind of weird to me, because I’d found several possibilities, but she nixed them all for one reason or another. I could tell the trip was causing a ton of anxiety for her so I just let the whole thing drop and went with what she wanted without making a big deal out of it.
She’s also told me on more than one occasion that she has always been afraid of her brother, that growing up he had a really bad temper, and once she even commented, “When we were kids my brother would lie in wait so he could attack me.” Which… just struck me as a really strange (i.e., concerning) way to talk about their childhood conflicts. Finally, she’s also told me she’s had a recurring nightmare for several years in which her brother is sexually assaulting her.
I suppose you can guess where I’m going with this. I strongly suspect her brother has sexually assaulted her but I’m not sure how to go about asking her about this.
I’m feeling this trauma tension within our sex life. Sometimes after particularly great sex, when I’ve really felt us connect during the act, she becomes really anxious and withdrawn afterwards. This feels so much worse than if the sex was just not good, you know? I have asked her if there is anything I might be doing that makes her feel uncomfortable, or triggered, but she has always denied that, saying she feels very comfortable with me, and that she ”love[s] our sex,” but that past experiences come up sometimes that have nothing to do with me. (She put it as, “I have some issues around sex that I am still processing”).
This has happened a few times, and I’ll be honest, it’s heartbreaking, to see her face go from pleasure to pain like that, and to know that I might be (unintentionally) the cause. I try to take her at her word, but … I still wonder if I actually am a trigger and that she doesn’t know how (or doesn’t want) to tell me.
Doc, I’m not sure how to talk to her about this because I don’t want to trigger a trauma reaction if it’s true (or even if it’s not). I should add that she does have a therapist, as do I. I guess I am just asking for your perspective on how to approach this topic with her. Is this a conversation that should maybe be had in couples counseling, rather than me try to do it on my own? And, though I’m afraid to ask, do you think this situation, if the things I suspect are true, might end up being one of those deal-breaking situations where the relationship has to end because there’s an insurmountable issue that is no one’s fault? (God, I hope not.)
Thanks for any thoughts you might have.