New relationship affected by former abusive relationship

Dear Alice,

My current girlfriend is still getting over an abusive relationship that she was involved in two years ago. The abuse included repeated rape throughout the two-and-half-year-long relationship. She has never been able to enjoy sex and cannot bring herself to do it again. Despite her feelings for me, she cannot relax enough during sex for it not to hurt her. I have not forced her into having sex she cannot enjoy. We have been together for nearly a year now and the problem does not seem to be getting better for her. She has nightmares and is uncomfortable and afraid in many day-to-day situations. She is worried that going to a counselor will mean she will be in counseling for the rest of her life to get over this. This has become such a hindrance to us being happy that I sometimes wonder if it is best to stay with her to try to help her through this, or whether I am out of my league.

Dear Reader, 

Anytime two people come together in a relationship, they each bring parts of their pasts into the present—as you’ve experienced. It may be important to name that your partner may be experiencing symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the intimate partner violence (IPV) she endured. That being said, only a mental health professional can provide a diagnosis. While these experiences may vary, the National Institute of Mental Health identifies the following common symptoms: 

  • Re-experiencing symptoms: flashbacks, dreams, or nightmares 
  • Avoidance symptoms: not talking about the experience or avoiding locations that remind them of events 
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms: mood swings or constantly feeling nervous ("on edge") 
  • Mood symptoms: feelings of guilt, sadness, or loss of interest 

Reassuring your girlfriend that experiencing some or many of these symptoms following a trauma is common may help her to feel supported. If she’s interested, you may also suggest that she meet with a mental health professional. They can help her talk about these experiences, how they affect her life, and learn how to cope so she can move forward in a healthy way. 

It may also be important to reassure her that seeking support from a mental health professional isn’t a lifelong commitment and that she can always decide to end treatment at any time. A key element of mental health support—whether that's in the form of counseling, therapy, or something else—is working to identify goals and establish boundaries for each session. Additionally, if your partner is comfortable, you may consider going to see a mental health professional together. It could be encouraging for her and might be a way to display your support and interest in better understanding her thoughts and feelings. Many couples find seeing a mental health professional together to be helpful with a variety of relationship challenges. Although, it’s possible that your girlfriend may also want her own space to process these experiences before bringing you into that space—this can also be a common part of the healing process. 

You both might consider visiting the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) website for more information on survival after rape and sexual abuse. RAINN also operates a 24-hour hotline, text service, or chatbot. There are also resources specifically for partners or loved ones to support someone who has experienced IPV—RAINN has a Friends & Family toolkit and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) has resources for friends & family

However, mental health support isn’t the only place that may help your partner find healing. One study found that both informal and formal support can positively impact one’s recovery and sense of safety. Other places to seek support include: 

  • Friends, family, or trusted peers. 
  • Group affinity spaces, including faith-based or identity-based spaces to talk about experiences and support individuals in their process (either in one-on-one sessions or in small group discussions). 
  • If you are students, your school may have resources within their counseling center to support you both together or separately. 
  • Your partner’s primary care provider can be a good option and they may be able to provide referrals to mental health providers. 
  • There are many community-based organizations that support people who have experienced IPV. Consider doing an internet search for trusted organizations near you. 

Healing can take time. Your partner has experienced trauma, and it may be helpful for you to be a supportive presence for her. That said, remember that this is her experience—and it's her experience to process. If you feel that this is having a negative effect on you as a person or on your relationship, consider meeting with a mental health provider or a trusted support person to discuss your feelings. Your personal well-being is important, and you may want to evaluate to what extent you're able to support your partner in this process. Meeting with a mental health professional may help you to untangle these tricky questions, and help you consider your next steps—whether as a partner, friend, or just someone concerned about their well-being. 

In health, 

Last updated Jul 07, 2023
Originally published Jan 24, 1997