Experiencing childhood sexual abuse can have an effect on future relationships, and one or both partners may feel like they are drowning. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
When I was a young man, I nearly drowned a close friend of mine. I’m often reminded of that day when I hear couples talk about their struggles to survive, which they may be having when one or both of the partners experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Fortunately, my friend was a strong swimmer and the chances of her succumbing were pretty slim.
It was never my intention to hurt her.
I took swimming lessons for years as a kid, to no avail. For some reason I was, and still am a non-swimmer. That hot summer day, I’d tagged along with a group of friends on a trip to the river.
I’d planned to stay in the shallow parts, but suddenly found myself in a deep hole, flailing and swallowing water. By grabbing and pushing off the shoulder of my friend, who was treading water nearby, I saved myself. In the process—oblivious to anything but my own survival—I repeatedly pushed her under water. We both made it to shore safely.
I’ve never gotten over the realization that had the distance been greater, or her skill less, there might have been two drowning victims that day. Though I’m grateful for the rescue, I’ve always hoped that had it come to that, she’d have saved herself rather than drown with me.
Males are culturally discouraged from revealing feelings like fear, vulnerability or to ask for help. As a result, when we’ve experienced abuse, we men have a greater tendency to turn to coping strategies that protect us from those feelings, but which may also hurt others in the process. This might include becoming emotionally shut down; isolating ourselves; becoming addicted to work, or exercise, or food, or to other numbing substances like drugs or alcohol; engaging in compulsive sexual behavior or risk-taking; or in some cases, destructive outbursts toward ourselves or others.
None of these survival strategies are helpful in maintaining a long-lived, healthy, intimate relationship. Partners often find themselves in the terrible position of being pushed under by someone they love, who is so paralyzed by shame, or fear, that they can’t even acknowledge that they are flailing.
No trauma history justifies or excuses hurting another. No one should tolerate being emotionally, physically or sexually hurt by a partner or loved one —no matter how much you care about them; no matter how much pain they may have suffered; no matter how deserving they may be of rescue. One of the most difficult realities is that there may come a point, when the best, most loving response a partner can make, is to set a self-protective limit, or ultimately, to just swim away.
When I trained to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), one of the first things they taught us in the rescue section of the training was to beware of drowning swimmers.
“If you’re not careful, they’ll take you down with them,” the instructor said. “If you don’t learn to keep yourself safe, you can’t help anyone else.”
He wasn’t suggesting just letting them drown.
Call for additional help, he told us. Offer a resource to allow them to keep themselves afloat or to enable you to pull them ashore: a branch, an arm (if you’re on shore and able to lie down and safely reach out), the end of a towel, or, if available, a safety ring. Only a trained, strong, swimmer should attempt a water rescue, he stressed, and even then, by keeping the drowning person at a distance.
His advice translates well to intimate relationships: put your own safety first. Get outside help. Offer resources. Find a well-trained professional who can maintain a good boundary. (Sounds like a good therapist to me!)
I wish I could say that I eventually took more swimming lessons, and am now a trained life guard. Truth is, I still just avoid those deep spots.
But what I’ll never know is this. If my friend had had to swim away to save herself that day, might I have found the resources to get out of that sinkhole on my own. Maybe I’d have even discovered that actually, I do know how to swim!
– By Peter Pollard
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.