Partners of Male Survivors Need Support, Too

Dr. Gary Foster says half the requests he receives for help for male survivors, come from women.

A key learning for me in talking with men who have been sexually abused is that it is important to prioritise support for women, partners and family members. Men are invested in ensuring their partners receive support. Men live and breathe in relationships and like women their lives are enhanced and grow in relationship contexts.  Although it may sound common sense that we should ensure that women, partners and family are provided with quality information and support, I am constantly reminded that there is still work to do.  Too often potential allies in a healing journey are left struggling on the sidelines.

At the service I operate, enquiries in relation to obtaining support for men who have been sexual abused are often initiated by women (nearly 50%).  These women tell an all too familiar story of care and concern, as they struggle with the impact of sexual abuse on their partner, on their relationships and on themselves.  It is typical to hear the following comments:

For the past couple of years I have been struggling to understand what has been going on…I love my husband…I know him as a dear, kind man, yet am watching him distance himself from me and our children…He is working longer and longer hours…He stopped talking to me…he stopped coming to bed…he keeps saying it’s not you, it’s me…if it isn’t me then why am I being punished…when I told him things had to change or I’m leaving, that’s when he told me… he told me about being sexually abused 2 years ago, but he won’t go and get help…I don’t understand…he made me promise not to tell…I know it sounds ungrateful with the hell that he has been through, but I didn’t sign up for this…I don’t know what to do..I feel like I am going under…we need help…It’s tearing our relationship apart…It’s tearing me apart….

The women we speak with are not just wanting to know how best to support the men in their life, they are seeking support for themselves as people whose relationships and life are being ‘torn apart’.

In trying to offer personalised support, I am aware and there is a complex interplay of social and sexual abuse related factors that confront these women.  Young men’s typical ways of managing the effects of sexual abuse, not talking, denial, drink, drugs, casual sex, numbing, risk taking, limited expression of emotions can have them flying under the radar in their teens and twenties.  It’s how young men behave, right. However, when young men start a relationship they are often challenged to change these ways of living life, as partner’s seek relationships based on commitment, trust, love, care and intimacy. What can make this even more difficult is intimate relationships can trigger reminders of the childhood sexual abuse (abuse occurs in interpersonal contexts, involving betrayal of trust).  It is not surprising then that pressure for change often builds in relationships.

Partners are quite often the first person a man will tell of the sexual abuse (on average, men disclose sexual abuse 22 years after the event, some 10 year later than women).  Telling does not mean however that the shame, guilt, fear of people questioning his manhood or sexuality that led him to keep the abuse secret just goes away.   Partners, report pressure to take on and keep the secret.  This has an effect of isolating women from important sources of personal support for them at a time they most need it.

The pressure partners can feel to act as sole supporter is too much to expect of one person. We know that being well connected and supported is important for our health and well being. However, current men’s health research notes men are less likely to access health care and counselling than women, men have smaller social support networks than women and men are unlikely to have a close confidant other than their spouse. This lack of support compounds problems for couples dealing with sexual abuse, leaving both parties struggling to cope.

Lack of community recognition, awareness and support for men who have had unwanted and abusive sexual contact has a significant impact on the lives of men and on the lives of women. My intent in naming some of the challenges that couples face in addressing the impact of sexual abuse has been to both highlight the complexity of factors at play and to encourage greater support for partners and families. There is much I have not mentioned, including the particular challenges that face women who have also experienced sexual abuse, mothers/fathers and same sex couples.

I know from experience that just as relationships can be a place where problems related to sexual abuse can appear, they can also be a place of profound healing. Walking the healing journey together can be hard work and infinitely rewarding. Healthy, happy relationships can be an antidote to sexual abuse.  Relationships can be a place where people learn to feel safe and have their choices respected.  Relationships are a place where individuals can learn self care and offer care, support and encouragement to others, where couples can build trusting, respectful, intimate, sexy, loving relationships.

Dr. Gary Foster established and manages the Living Well Service in Brisbane, Australia. For more information see

—Photo credit: Bordecia34/Flickr

About 1in6

The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. 1in6′s mission also includes serving family members, friends, and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.


  1. I was in a relationship for several years with a man who revealed to me that he’d been molested by a pedophile while on vacation with his family at around age 7. He was missing for an entire day. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened, not even the police who had been searching for him. He made up a story about wandering away from the hotel and getting lost. Actually he’d been at the hotel the whole time in this guy’s room. He could have taken the cops right there. But he was so ashamed, he lied to everyone. This was in the 1960’s but it still shocks me how brazen the perpetrator was.

  2. Bravo for treating men like human beings and focusing on how problems affect MEN.

  3. My ex was abused as a child when he was about 4 or 5 years old at a religious summer camp…I think he said it was the cook who pulled down his pants (who eventually got fired)….But I always wondered if that was the only incident of sexual abuse in his life….The way he behaved toward me was abusive and weird like he was compelled to act on his darkest impulses (reading some of the stories here really makes me question whether he was just reenacting some ancient abuse in his life with me, except that he was the abuser and I was the victim)…

    Great article! Thanks for discussing such a taboo subject….

    • “But I always wondered if that was the only incident of sexual abuse in his life…”

      You have to womder, but then again maybe abuse that early forms you for a lifetime.

      “(reading some of the stories here really makes me question whether he was just reenacting some ancient abuse in his life with me, except that he was the abuser and I was the victim)…’

      You speak in the past tense. I don’t mean to pry, but how did you come to realize you had to get out? Did knowing that he’d been abused ever hold you back from leaving?

  4. 24KAuGuy says:

    As a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape as an adult I can’t tell you how much I agree with this article. In any relationship I have had where I’ve disclosed to my partner I have always been happiest when my partner has an outlet or source of support outside. Someone once said to me “you can’t save someone who’s drowning if you’re drowning too”. That has always stuck with me and comes to mind whenever the topic of secondary survivors comes up.

  5. I know only a tiny bit of what happened to my partner. It’s not something he’s ready to talk about and I make a concious effort not to pry, and to avoid the topic until he’s ready to talk. Having been in a previous relationship w/a man w/many mental health issues, I feel confident that my current partner is dealing w/this as healthfully as possible and in his own way. However, the hard thing for me has been keeping my own assumptions in check. I DO know that 1 in 6 men are sexually abused, but just the other day, I was talking about a sketchy stairway in our apartment and said “I don’t go that way, but you’re a guy, so you’ll be safe”. I felt like an idiot, but decided it was better to just change the subject than mention it again, because it didn’t seem to have triggered any reaction from him. If anyone can offer any suggestions for things I should do in the future to make him feel safe & supported to talk when he’s ready, if he’s ever ready, then please, let me know.

    • 24KAuGuy says:

      I couldn’t read your comment and not respond because your efforts deserve to be noticed and commended. I am a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as rape as an adult. Thank-you for supporting your partner while he heals from his experience(s). I can’t tell you how good it feels as a survivor to know that my partner supports me and I am sure your partner feels the same, whether he says so or not. Don’t beat yourself up over the comment you made to your partner. I’m sure that since he knows you, he knows you probably didn’t mean anything by it. It IS hard not to fall back into gender stereotypes sometimes so mistakes will undoubtedly happen from time to time, even to the best intentioned of us all. As far as suggestions about things you can do to make him feel safe and supported? Everyone is different but I would think that showing you love and support him in other things not related to his past and he’ll understand you will support him with that as well. Just know that no matter how much you support and love him, he may never fully share the horrors of his past with you. Try to be okay with this and understand he may have reasons he keeps everything to himself that have nothing to do with you. Thanks so much for commenting and supporting your partner. Remember to support and take care of yourself too.

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