Psychologist Robyn Salisbury helps a reader with a relationship dilemma.
QUESTION: I’m a single mum of two young kids and at 33 have had some awful relationships.
I was with my kids’ dad for eight years, married for two years and been divorced for three years. I get a lot of anxiety due to past relationships and being ‘expected’ to have sex regularly. I now experience anxiety attacks whenever I orgasm, and the chances of me even reaching that are about 10 per cent. I rarely get to that point now.
I just cannot relax no matter what I try. I’m in a new relationship and I want to experience that amazing sex life again but I can’t seem to find it.
ANSWER: It is not at all surprising you have come to experience sex and orgasm as anxiety-provoking after abusive relationships. As world trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk says, “the body keeps the score”.
Even when your head is saying, “I am safe now” or “this is a nice man”, the pores of your skin and the muscles in your body are saying “don’t go there again”. The alarm centre in the brain, the amygdala, is likely either constantly switched to on or it switches on with any suggestion of sexual activity or arousal.
Engaging in sexual activity with another is one of the ways in which you are at your most vulnerable. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with this for life. Rather it means that understanding your body’s attempts to keep you safe is a good place to start. This can allow you to be gentle and compassionate with yourself, rather than critical. Abuse seeds shame and shame by its very nature lurks in the shadows, making it difficult to address.
It can be really productive to get professional help to come to terms with past traumatic experiences. If sex was forced on you, you should find you qualify for free counselling. See findsupport.co.nz. Processing your experiences, helping your body’s systems to de-escalate and learning the skills of calming your body will allow you to get on top of the panic attacks.
That work has to come before sexual recovery – sex is the icing on the cake. It sounds like prior to the abuse, you were comfortable in your own sexuality and could enjoy sex. You will be able to reclaim this when you’ve done enough to lay the trauma to rest. Be clear that arousal and orgasm require letting go, particularly after trust has been broken.
Calming your activated body will allow you to stay on top of overwhelm sufficiently to recognise early warning signs inside you and respond to them as hurdles to acknowledge. Brief consideration of whether in fact right at that moment you are safe will allow you to jump the hurdle and continue with pleasure.
Be honest with your new man, at the very least letting him know that you have some abuse in your history, so you need him to be patient and loving with you. As much as you may be keen to leave all that past behind, keeping this a secret from him is unlikely to be a productive way forward.
That could put you in a position where you are forcing yourself to have sex, despite your inner wisdom – a terrible reproducing of what abusive others have done to you.