Relationship challenges


Relationships, where one or both partners has experienced childhood sexual abuse, can like all relationships be both challenging and rewarding.  This page addresses some common challenges that can confront couples, along with some ways of responding.  Topics include: 

  • Open and clear communication 
  • Trust and becoming trustworthy 
  • Honest and transparent – not keeping secrets 
  • Prioritising safety  
  • Managing emotions  
  • Managing difficulties and conflict 
  • Intimacy and sexual intimacy 
  • Accessing support  
  • Hope, building on the positives and enhancing resilience 

Becoming informed 

We encourage you to check out the companion pages on the SAMSN website, designed to assist in managing difficulties and enhancing personal and relational wellbeing.   

Open and clear communication 

Communication is a core component of any relationship. Through communication we let people know what we are thinking and feeling and we hear from them about where they are at, what their interests and concerns are.  Some challenges are:   

  • Male survivors can find it difficult to talk about what is going on for them.   
  • Closeness in relationships is increased through disclosing inner thoughts and personal information, which can be difficult and anxiety provoking for survivors   
  • Growing up, he may have been taught to limit discussion of his internal world and expression of emotions, being encouraged to be independent, stoic, strong, silent type who sorts difficulties our on his own.  
  • He may not be a big talker 
  • He may never have told anyone about what happened to him as a child and may become distressed just thinking about it 
  • He may worry about upsetting a loved one, that talking about difficulties will distress them and make things worse   
  • He may find communicating about external, practical stuff and planning activities, much easier than talking about feelings or personal struggles.    
  • He may prefer to forget about the past and move on, to just enjoy the relationship  


Inevitably one topic that survivors of abuse struggle to talk with their partner and anyone about is the experience of abuse.  There are many barriers to disclosure and many men can be unsure what to say and loved ones can be unsure how to respond.   

For more information see: 

Keep communicating and connecting  

Whether someone has disclosed abuse or not, all relationships benefit from clear communication, where each person feels listened to, heard, understood and supported.   

It is useful for all couples to: 

  • Make time for individual and relationship ‘check ins’,  
  • Create a safe and non-judgmental space for you both to express yourselves.  
  • Talk and listen to each other, be it over dinner, when going for a walk together or just doing stuff together.   
  • Practice active listening, listen to understand, acknowledge feelings and struggles without trying to problem solve, sometimes people just want to talk things through.  
  • Pay attention to the tone and non-verbal communication cues, as well as the content.  
  • Let the person know that you are there and let the person know when you are tired or need a break. 
  • Make use of texts and Apps to keep communication going and to connect around everyday routines, fun and enjoyable stuff. 
  • Communicate with care, kindness, empathy and compassion 

Trust and becoming trustworthy  

Trust is another building block of life and relationships.  Trust is something that ideally we learn about and experience in growing up. Trust provides us with a sense of safety and certainty about the world and is a cornerstone of relationships.  As we get to know people over time, we learn whether they are trustworthy or not.   

For anyone who has experienced abuse and harm, trust can become both highly valued and a challenge, as:    

  • Abuse involves a betrayal of trust  
  • Betrayal of trust occurs in a relationship context  
  • The betrayal of trust is often by a previously trusted person and makes you wonder whether other people who appear trustworthy will also betray and hurt you,   
  • Survivors can struggle to trust anyone, including loved ones, and are particularly suspicious of anyone who says ‘You can trust me’ 
  • Not trusting anyone makes it difficult to relax (leading to hypervigilance and hyperarousal)  
  • While not trusting can be about trying to keep safe, only trusting yourself: not trusting anyone is isolating and gets in the way of establishing relationships 
  • People can feel hurt and rejected if attempts to connect or support a loved one are repeatedly met with scepticism, suspicion, withdrawal and distrust. 

Building trust 

While establishing trust after abuse and betrayal can be challenging: 

  • Some men speak of learning over time to trust certain people with certain information and that trust need not be all or nothing. 
  • Some loved ones speak of being met initially with distrust and slowly, overtime developing a trusting relationship.  
  • Some loved ones speak of learning how the betrayal of trust, was shattering of his trust of others and of his own confidence in his own judgement. 
  • Some men speak of finding it useful to see trust as something within their control that can be extended or withdrawn by them and others.   
  • Some men speak of making the active choice to extend trust, because it contributes to them living a more engaged and expansive life.   
  • Some men speak of how their painful experience of betrayal of trust, highlights the importance for them of being someone who respects trust and is trustworthy. 

In her research, Brené Brown highlights how trust can be expressed and extended in relationships, identifying ‘seven elements of trusting relationships’: 

  • Boundaries You respect my boundaries  
  • Reliability You do what you say you are going to do  
  • Accountability You own your mistakes, apologise and make amends 
  • Vault You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share 
  • Integrity You choose courage over comfort 
  • Nonjudgement I can ask for what I need and you can ask for what you need 
  • Generosity You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

Honesty and transparency – not keeping secrets  

Honest and transparent communication helps people get to know each other, to develop an understanding and appreciation of another person’s interests, needs and preferences.  Honest and transparent communication helps to build trusting, supportive relationships.   

The flipside of honesty is secrecy.   

Sexual abuse is perpetrated through secrecy and secrecy is destructive to relationships.    

Those who abuse, groom children and adults to maintain secrecy.  

People who commit offences invest time and energy in handing over responsibility for keeping the secret to the child being abused (out of fear, shame and more). This can produce a legacy of secretiveness and suspicion that others are not being honest.    

Some survivors can develop a habit of keeping personal information close to their chest, worried that people will manipulate and misuse what they say.   

Some secrecy and evasiveness by survivors are connected to concerns that if someone found out what happened, they will be judged, unsupported and rejected.   

Some survivors hold back information because they do not wish to upset or distress their partner.  

Care and kindness

Honesty and transparency expressed with care and kindness in a respectful relationship, can help to counter a legacy of manipulation, secrecy and dishonesty.  

In seeking greater honesty in relationships, a challenge is to establish an environment where both parties feel that if they speak honestly they will be listened to and treated with respect  

Where one or both partners has experiences childhood sexual abuse, being honest with each other does not mean seeking or having to hear the details of what happened or all distressing thoughts (some content is best discussed with a qualified health care professional) 

Honest conversation about what is going on, spoken with care and kindness, can create greater connection and strengthen and enhance relationships.   

Prioritising safety   

A sense of physical and psychological safety allows us to relax, to talk freely, build trusting relationships and to work collaboratively to resolve difficulties.  The safer and more secure we feel in a relationship the better able we are to talk about difficulties to acknowledge and express our vulnerabilities.   

It is in the interests of both partners to create a safe, supportive, caring relationship.  

A challenge is that people who perpetrate abuse often work to create the illusion of a safe, supportive, caring relationship. 

Awareness of triggers 

One way of prioritising safety is to talk with a partner and understand what contributes to their feeling of safety.  It is worth expanding the conversations to discuss both physical and psychological safety.  Men who have experienced abuse may be aware of a number of triggers, people, places, contexts that make them feel unsafe. It is worth both talking about how men might react when they are feeling unsafe and what helps to ground thems and get back them back on track? 

A preoccupation with safety 

After an experience of abuse, understandably, some men can become preoccupied with safety and being protective, particularly of loved ones.  Some people can become hyper vigilant, always scanning for danger, suspicious or reluctant to engage with certain people or places.   

A man might express concern when children are not at home or they ask to go for a sleepover, on camps, join sports clubs, particularly if these are places similar where the man himself was harmed.   This makes perfect sense, given that he knows first-hand what it is like to be unsafe.   

Helping others feel safe 

Building a safe relationship, is about taking responsibility for acting and speaking in ways that help other people to feel safe and supported.  It is about checking in with them about what supports their safety.  It is about being aware that if we act erratically, are unpredictable, express anger and frustration in aggressive ways, then it can lead to people feeling not only worried about us, but feel unsafe around us.   

Confronting suicidal thoughts  

It is a reality that many men who have experienced abuse live with suicidal thoughts that can make them feel unsafe.  Taking these thoughts seriously and acting to ensure safety by calling emergency services can be necessary sometimes.  

Access support 

If you or your partner is feeling unsafe or concerned about safety we encourage you to seek professional assistance. 

Managing emotions  

Developing emotional awareness and an ability to regulate our emotional responses are core life and relationship skills.   If we possess skills that assist us in calming our nervous system and managing our emotions, we are better able to deal with distressing and stressful situations when they inevitably do appear.    

Challenges for men who have experienced abuse and loved ones can be fourfold.    

First: typically men have grown up in a culture where an emphasis has been on containing and repressing emotional expression, particularly limiting expression of vulnerability, fear, pain and emotional distress. 

Second: emotions associated with abuse can be intense and overwhelm many people’s resources.  

Third: Partners can find it challenging to know how to respond to men’s emotional distress, resulting in both feeling overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless.   

Fourth: When people become overwhelmed by struggles with emotions, they can start to negatively judge themselves, to become disillusioned and question their ability to overcome personal and relationship challenges. 

In seeking to contain and manage responses, it is useful for couples to be aware of ‘flight, fight, freeze’ responses to trauma and how these can manifest at stressful times.   

  • Fight: arguing, defending, verbally attacking, firing up, as if their life depended upon it.   
  • Flight: withdrawing, absenting themselves, avoiding conversations 
  • Freeze: shutting down, being unresponsive, going silent, looking like a ‘rabbit in the headlights’. 

Building capacity and becoming emotionally engaged 

It is helpful for everyone, whether they have experienced abuse or not, to continue to build their capacity to ground themselves and manage intense and distressing feelings.   

It is helpful for partners to develop an awareness of triggers and ways to assist when someone is becoming emotionally distressed, while acknowledging, respecting and enhancing the survivor’s own capacity and resources. 

Learning about emotions is not all about control and regulation: it involves expanding our emotional vocabulary in order to live more emotionally engaged lives and relationships.  It is about valuing and seeking out and sharing emotional experiences and living an emotionally active and rich life.  

It is useful to actively seek out and build a bank of individual and shared positive emotional experiences that can be drawn up and can sustain couples through difficult times.    

In recognition of the centrality of our emotional wellbeing in enhancing our individual and relational wellbeing, we encourage you to check out our companion pages on:

Managing difficulties and conflict  

All couples and relationships experience difficulties and benefit from developing skills to manage conflict.   

As we grow up in different households and communities, we learn different ways of expressing ourselves, managing difficulties and resolving conflict.  Some people might prefer to talk things through, while some people like to think carefully before saying anything (professionals identify these different styles as ‘external’ and ‘internal’ processors).  

Resolving difficulties in relationships 

Whatever someone’s background, previous relationship experience or personal style, all relationships benefit from establishing a way to respectfully resolve difficulties in their relationship. Disagreeing with a partner is not like arguing with someone in the street, who you will never see again.  It is about finding a way to resolve difficulties together, in way where both parties feel respected and listened to and ideally supportive of both the process and outcome of any disagreement.   

A challenge for survivors of abuse and their loved one is that conflict, particularly with someone you care for, can be highly stressful and result in a fight, flight, freeze response kicking in.  In trying to deal with the current difficulty or conflict, people can be flooded with feelings and memories associated with the experience of abuse.  It can throw up concerns of abandonment, intense anxiety, negative self-talk and feed into unhelpful patterns of thinking like catastrophising, all or nothing thinking (check out Unhelpful thinking patterns).

Before starting any potentially stressful conversation it can be useful:  

  • Physically calm yourself, breathe, make use of grounding exercises 
  • Commit yourself to listening and understanding your partner’s perspective 
  • Be conscious of your own biases, limitations, possible trauma responses 
  • Establish a shared understanding of the purpose of the conversation and a commitment in finding a positive outcome 
  • Keep focus on the problem to be resolved, don’t make the person the problem, and be respectful in language and tone 
  • Don’t increase pressure, watch out for triggers and trauma responses: it is better to back off and take ‘time out’ and then come back to talk again.   
  • Be aware that If resentment and agitation are held onto and foregrounded, this will negatively impacts both our relationships and our own physical and mental wellbeing 

A skill to develop in a relationship is to learn how to disagree and resolve difficulties agreeably. The Gottman institute has identified ‘Six Tips for the Six Skills of Managing Conflict’ that we can be useful when seeking to manage relationship conflict:   

  • Soften the start of your conversation,  
  • Complain but don’t blame,  
  • Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You”, 
  • Describe what is happening, but don’t judge,   
  • Be polite and appreciative. 
  • Don’t store things up. 

Gottman institute Six Tips for the Six Skills of Managing Conflict

If you are struggling with relationship difficulties and conflict we encourage you to check out the online booklet ‘Renovate your relationship’

Intimacy and sexual intimacy 

Our health and wellbeing is enhanced by our engagement in intimate relationships, both within and outside of couple relationships.  Often if we mention intimacy, people think only of sexual intimacy.  However, while sexual intimacy may be an important aspect of an intimate partner relationship, there may be other people in our lives, with whom we can share: 

  • Intimate moments 
  • Emotional intimacy 
  • Physical intimacy 

These intimate moments and relationships can bring joy into our lives and sustain us during difficult times.  A challenge that can confront some straight couples is that while women often have a circle of close friends and a long term confident with whom they share and experience intimacy, men do not. For many men therefore it is only in the intimate partner, couple relationship that they express and experience intimacy, which can on occasions increase pressure on the female partner and couple relationship.  We encourage you to check out our companion page on Developing Intimacy in Relationships.      

Sexual Intimacy  

Sexual intimacy is something that can bring great joy and pleasure in relationships and be experienced as an ultimate expression of deep love and connection.   

If someone has been sexually abused in childhood, it does not automatically mean that intimacy, sexual intimacy and sex will be difficult. Many couples, where one or both partners have experienced abuse have found ways to enjoy fulfilling, intimate and sexually intimate relationships. Sometimes, however, survivors can confront:  

  • Being triggered by any form of physical closeness or touch 
  • Struggling with feelings of intimacy (especially if they were emotionally groomed and manipulated) leading to  
  • Confusion during sexual intimacy 
  • Discomfort with certain sexual activities/positions or touch 
  • Being triggered, flooded with memories, freezing during sex 
  • Pressure and stereotypes that as men they should always be interested and ready to perform 
  • Being ok with ‘doing sex’, but struggling with the accompanying emotions 
  • Seeking comfort, reassurance, personal value and validation through sex  
  • Difficulties: relaxing; becoming aroused; feeling vulnerable and exposed,  
  • Feeling distress, shame or guilt about a sexual response, interest or pleasure. 

All couples, whether one or both partners has experienced sexual abuse, can experience challenges in seeking greater intimacy and sexual intimacy in relationships: challenges that with support can be overcome.  We encourage you to check our companion page Partners and sexual intimacy  

Accessing support 

We all benefit from support at different times in our lives.  Reading this and other pages on the SAMSN website, may be a step that assists in navigating and addressing current challenges.  You may also benefit from accessing support from a service or qualified professional. 

Everyone deserves support 

In seeking to develop a strong loving, caring relationship it is important that both partners feel supported within and outside the relationship.  Each person is their own person and is much more than the label of survivor or supporter.    

Each will have their own histories, pressures, preferences, desires, interests, challenges, hopes and aspirations.  We can all be confronted with difficulties at times and benefit from accessing the support to navigate and address challenges.   

Gender appropriate services 

In accessing support to address difficulties, it can be useful to recognise that not all individual and relationship challenges may be related to an experience of childhood sexual abuse.  In our culture, gender shapes our lives.  Men in general:  

  • feel pressure to manage, cope and overcome difficulties on their own 
  • may worry about what other men might think of them, if they say they are struggling.   
  • are less likely to access GP, health and mental health services 
  • have lower mental health literacy and are more likely to mask difficulties.  
  • have higher consumption of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.   
  • are less likely to attend counselling or willingly to reveal the extent of childhood trauma to others. 

Assisting survivors and partners can sometimes involve identifying and disentangling problems that are related to the abuse from other life and relationship challenges, like those listed above.  Having read this list and page, you may consider making small changes, to search online and identify support options (You can call SAMSN) or maybe book in with a local GP for a general check up.      

Partners as active supporters and advocates 

Sometimes a partner can feel exhausted by their loved one’s reluctance to access support, by negative self-talk and apparent self-destructive behaviours.  Partners can feel overwhelmed, angry and frustrated in identifying how the abuse has impacted their relationship.  As one partner said:  

“I want to be his partner and lover, not his therapist.” 

For some partners overcoming challenges is about  

  • actively encouraging and supporting male survivors to access support.   
  • being open and honest about concerns and doing so with an emphasis on kindness 
  • ‘together’, acknowledging individual and relationship strengths and difficulties and ‘together’ identifying a course of action 
  • researching and gathering information to help plan a way forward 
  • linking in, going individually and/or together to a GP or health care professional  
  • modelling healthy help seeking, acknowledging that sometimes we all need and benefit from support.  

Support for partners and loved ones 

Being there and offering support to someone who has experienced trauma and abuse can have ripple effects in our own lives.  It is important therefore that partners are supported to prioritise their wellbeing, stay connected, engage in everyday routines, activities and relaxation exercises which help to recharge their battery – plus, access support that they deserve. 

Perhaps you are reminded of your own experiences 

If you have been subjected to trauma and abuse as a child yourself, then hearing about his experience may be triggering and distressing.  As someone who has also experienced trauma, you may be uniquely placed to assist your partner or loved one, however, it is equally important that you are appropriately supported and access the assistance you deserve.   

Remember the stronger, better connected and supported each of you are, the more able you are to address difficulties and support and encourage each other.    

Hope, building on the positives, and enhancing resilience 

As stated at the outset, relationships can be a place of support and encouragement that positively shape and improve our lives.  While experiences of abuse can produce profound challenges, we must not lose sight of individual and relationship resilience, hope and recovery.  

Many men and women who have been sexually abused in childhood have established healthy, successful, emotionally connected, rewarding and fulfilling relationships and lives.   

Realistic hope 

In seeking to address challenges, it helps to be realistic, positive and hopeful.  In being honest about challenges, we recognise that change requires focus, determination and perseverance.   

By recognising individual and joint strengths and investing in creating a positive, supportive relationship, we put ourselves in a better place to address challenges.   

Hope and commitment when combined with honesty expressed with kindness, empathy, care and compassion can produce real change, sustain us and keep us moving forward during the most challenging of times.   

Being realistic, means recognising that people who have experienced abuse and trauma can overcome challenges and make a positive contribution as a partner, parent and community member.  

Traumatic growth and vicarious resilience  

In more recent years, research has identified that post a traumatic event/s, personal and relational growth can occur leading to:   

  • Greater appreciation and valuing of life,  
  • Closer, stronger, more intimate relationships,  
  • Increased personal resilience and sense of strength,  
  • Increased empathy, compassion and altruism 
  • Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths 
  • Re-evaluation of life priorities and possibilities. 
  • Creative growth.  

Tedeschi ‘Growth After Trauma’ 2020. 

In noting the positive contribution and growth people who have experienced trauma can make, no-one is suggesting that the abuse and trauma was a good thing in someone’s life.  As Toby, a survivor of child sexual abuse, says: 

“Taking a negative experience and trying to do something with that, that either improves your life or the lives of others you know or both, if possible, I think growth can come from that mindset.”

Lewis, Kiemle, Lowe and Balfour 2021 ‘Men’s Health across the lifespan: PTG and gender role in male survivors of child sexual abuse.. International journal of men’s social and community health’. 

People who have lived and worked with survivors of abuse and trauma have as well as being confronted by challenges have reported experiencing vicarious resilience in their own lives in the form of: 

  • Deeper understanding of the world, suffering and humanity’s capacity to overcome adversity  
  • Greater sense of meaning 
  • Greater value and appreciation of relationships  
  • Greater degree of compassion   
  • Greater understanding of various cultures  
  • Greater sense of fulfilment, purpose or pleasure  

(Barrington & Shakespeare-Finch, 2013; Gibbons, Murphy, & Joseph, 2011; Splevins, Cohen, Joseph, Murray, & Bowley, 2010 in When compassion hurts; an introduction to vicarious trauma and resilience Dr Angela Dixon Senior Clinical Psychologist Psychological Medicine Children’s Hospital Westmead. 2019) 

Final thoughts 

In reading this page you might reflect individually or as a couple  

  • What do you value and appreciate most about your relationship? 
  • What are some challenges that you are confronting? 
  • What has helped you in the past in overcoming difficulties?  
  • What sustains you individually and as a couple? 
  • If difficulties were to diminish or disappear, what would you want to be doing more of and how can you make that happen now?  
  • What activities do you do every day that support your overall wellbeing? 
  • Where might you access more information and support? 

Like all relationships, being in a relationship with someone who has survived childhood sexual abuse can involve challenges and rewards. A healthy relationship is not about having no difficulties; it is about building a strong base and developing the skills to work through challenges and grow together.  While child sexual abuse can profoundly impact people’s lives and relationships, with support and encouragement, empathy and compassion, it is possible to recover and build a supportive, caring, resilient relationships