Emotional and Physical Intimacy After Trauma

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post contains the subjects of sexual assault and rape. These posts include excerpts from my non-fiction essays and memoirs written for past college courses. My work is intended to help others understand, cultivate awareness about trauma. 

“I looked at the shrine of dusty magazines, as I tried to bury the surfacing feelings in my sheets. I had left my body because the pain is too high of a price to pay for a fleeting moment of pleasure. I looked over at his dresser. Typical. Like one of those windup toys, we both followed through with the fixed motions we’ve been set to. I dipped my toes back into my skin to get a sense of it. It was risk to bring myself back to the rhythms of the room.

This isn’t awful. 
Does he notice? Quick, do something so he knows you’re alive. 
I arched my back to look at the clock that hung over his bed frame. 
I want to go home.
I kind of hate him. 
Maybe he hates me too. 

I wondered if he noticed my distance after I departed. After he walked throughout all the corners of my body, luckily avoiding the trap doors, my heart fell silent. I bent my toes and fingers, bringing back awareness into my limbs.

I pulled myself up out of his bed and picked my clothes. It was difficult to hear what he was saying over the fog of silence that stood stagnant in the room. My ears picked up mumblings of his voice as my head nodded off in agreement. And who the hell knows what I was even agreeing to. The man could’ve asked me to marry him or told me he never wanted to see me again. 

Over my body, I threw on my light baggy sweater and walked towards the door. I didn’t look back before I closed it behind me. Onwards I went, tiptoeing down the narrow, iron staircase. At the front of the screen door, I collected my flip flops and drawstring bag. I pushed open the screen door, as a breath of wind brushed my hair. I walked through the tuffs of grass on the front lawn. The humid air, thickened by the essence of oak leaves and cut grass, warmed my body to the core of my bones. The pavement began to cool off as the summer heat faded up into the starry night’s pool. I wondered how the earth continued to live when the pavement laid itself down on the earth.

Did it halt her breathing? It certainly stopped her from blooming in certain places. Yet. still, there were areas of her land that continued to flourish.

Maybe she’d trust us more.

It was like this sticky tar that we slid on top of her, without permission whatsoever. It’s too messy to clean off. Slowly, over time it hardened into asphalt.

Perhaps she’s not suffocating underneath, I thought, but left those parts abandoned. She doesn’t feel when people walk over her anymore because of the hardened pavement.

-Excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh.

Credit to the original photographer

You see, after abuse happens, especially at a young age, it’s common for (not in all, but many cases) survivors to compartmentalize physical intimacy and emotional intimacy into two different boxes, OR they will seek out physical intimacy as a way to earn or feel a sense of emotional intimacy. Walls are built to feel protected emotionally and physically. Yet oftentimes, when these walls are built, they often cause us to disconnect from ourselves. Common ways this can show up are: people-pleasing, putting other’s needs over our emotional and physical needs, or totally disengaging from your body and heart.

Ask yourself the question, “Why do I have sex?” If that is too much of a broad question and feels too overwhelming to answer, then here are some things to ask yourself to understand where you are at:

  • Is it easier to be physically intimate instead of emotionally?
  • Do I use physical intimacy as a way to feel closeness, to avoid emotional intimacy/vulnerability?
  • Do I abandon myself to please my partner? And am I aware of what I really want?
  • Do I engage in sex because I believe I will feel validation?
  • Do I struggle with asking for help or expressing my feelings? Am I more aware of my partner’s feelings than my own?
  • Do I use sex as a way to connect to people instead of being open emotionally?
  • Do I have a deep desire for connection, yet fear it at the same time?
  • Do I know what makes me feel good? Do I even know that sex is supposed to and allowed to feel good?
  • Do I believe I need to have sex to receive love, feel desired, or feel worthy?
  • Do I have a difficult time saying no to physical intimacy? Do I give into sex even when I don’t want to? Am I often sexually compliant?
  • Do I value my partner’s pleasure over mine? Do I even feel pleasure?
  • Is it difficult to express what I want?

These questions are here to create awareness. Sometimes we get caught up in the cycle of life and continue to experience the same type of pain, without understanding why. These questions above helped me see which beliefs created this pain. The first step to breaking a cycle is to understand it. Yet, instead of viewing your beliefs critically, try analyzing them from an observant perspective.

Credit to the original photographer

Here’s the thing: there is physical intimacy, then there is emotional intimacy. They are two different things. You can experience both of them with a partner, and you can also experience one. If you were a survivor of sexual or emotional abuse, it can feel scary to share both types with a partner, because it means there are now two ways you are being vulnerable and trusting them. And for someone who survived abuse, that can feel overwhelming. Here are some ways to break down beliefs that people can’t be trusted.

  1. Learning what you desire, what feels good, what you will and won’t tolerate.
  2. Promising yourself to never abandon yourself for someone else’s needs. Becoming your own superhero.
  3. Once you are more in tune with yourself, practice communicating with your partner your desires or if something doesn’t feel right. This takes time.
  4. After you have a practice of communicating, you will start to build trust with yourself.

I cannot express enough how important it is to build back trust with yourself. When you don’t trust yourself to communicate boundaries and needs, it’s easy to create detachment during sex as a way to subconsciously protect yourself from being totally vulnerable. I want you to know that it is possible to build that bridge between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy. Even if you saw sex as a way to escape, numb out, or avoid emotional vulnerability, I promise that it is possible to rewrite your story and learn that it can be an incredible experience with someone you love. There are good people out there that will love you and will be patient, compassionate, and understanding. I promise.

Credit to the original photographer

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