How does sexual abuse affect relationships

Cheryl Shea, M.Div.
Mars Hill Centre

Jesus wants to heal our relationships!

I was trying to find a biblical way to explain that it wasn’t enough for any of us who have been severely abused or neglected to simply go to see a counsellor, talk and pray through some stuff and say, “I’ve been [emotionally] healed!” I’d talked to many people who could related some mystical experience to me where they believed God had healed them, but to be honest, I couldn’t see the fruit in their lives. If these people had experienced the power of God in their lives, to touch and heal their emotions, why wasn’t the fruit evident.

So, one day I sat down with my Bible and asked God to show me what was up with this. And, of course He did. First , I realized that we should take our model for inner healing or Christian counselling more from the epistles, than the gospels. Inner healing really is a vital part of the discipleship process. The epistles, by and large deal with what it means to work out our salvation…salvation that effects our soul, spirit and body! The epistles also deal with what happens when our sinfulness effects others; in other words they deal with relationships.

Then I was drawn back to the gospels. I looked at all of Jesus’s miracles from the perspective of relationship. And guess what I found! In every situation Jesus not only restored the person’s physical relationship but also restored them to relationship. This is obvious with lepers who were outcast from society; physical healing restored them so that they could be part of community. And, it’s obvious when someone who has been dead is restored to life.

The one puzzling miracle in all these was when Jesus restored to wholeness the withered hand of a beggar (Mark 3: 1-6). Looking into this further, it became very clear that given the emphasis on physical purity in Old Testament laws, there was probably a sense of shame attached to any obvious physical deformity. Not much different than society today, is it? When Jesus’ healed the man with the withered hand, he was no longer pitied and looked down on by those around him. He was able to reenter, without barriers, into community.

Jesus not only wants to heal our hearts, he wants to heal our relationships!

When we have been abused and neglected in our family-of-origin we miss the opportunity to develop healthy ways of relating. Sometimes, in order to merely survive the sinful chaos we begin to develop ways of relating that we believe will protect our souls. However, as we grow to be adults, these styles of relating isolate us from the very relationships we desire.

There are three main styles of relating for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. These categories are not static, rather they may change in different situations, with different individuals. It is not unusual for sexual abuse survivors to have differing styles of relating with men and women, or with people in authority and with peers. However, at some level the abuse has caused us to try to protect ourselves instead of allowing God to teach us how He wants to protect and nurture us.

Briefly, here are three main styles of relating. (See The Wounded Heart, Dr. Dan Allender for further information.)

Be Nice: This is the person who is always trying to do the right thing, the helpful thing, the good thing for everyone but him or herself. These “Good girls” or “Nice Boys” act out of a deep self-hatred. If there’s a problem, it must be them. If they just try harder, do better or meet everyone’s needs they will be safe, and loved. Unfortunately, while they offer everyone their hands for action, no one ever gets close to their heart.

Be Tough: This is the person with walls a mile high and wide. Other people are dangerous and not to be trusted; these “Tough Girls” or “Macho Boys” operate out of a deep hatred and mistrust of others. They reason, “There’s nothing wrong with me, its others who can’t be trusted.” Simply put, if they don’t let people get close, they won’t get hurt. However, since God designed us for relationship, inwardly their are in intense loneliness and emotional pain…whether they admit it or not.

Keep Them Guessing: For this individual, safety in relationships looks like this, “If I’m inconsistent in how I relate they’ll never get close enough to hurt my heart. And, I am great at using guilt and manipulation, to keep everyone around me dancing to my tune.” “Tough Girls” or “Seductive Boys” operated out of a deep hatred of themselves and others. If you listen closely you will hear them put down themselves and someone else in the same sentence.

For sexual abuse victims to begin to partake in the life-giving relationships God desires for them, it should be apparent that two things must happen.

First, deep issues of betrayal, rejection, shame and trauma must be addressed and brought to Jesus for restoration.

Second, victims of sexual abuse must develop relational skills so that they can begin to relate to others in a healthy way. That’s one of the reasons our ministry concentrates on Recovery Groups. For many of our group participants a recovery group is the first place they have felt safe enough to risk their hearts, take down their walls, and release their manipulation.

If you are a victim of sexual abuse, a word of caution. Due to the abuse your “relational radar” is disoriented. Before you risk sharing your story and your heart with others learn how to be a safe person and how to recognize other safe people. (See Boundaries, and Safe People, by Cloud and Townsend.) Joining a support or recovery group can help.

If you are a friend of a victim of sexual abuse or minister to them, be patient and prayerful. This process of healing takes time. If you want someone to open up to you and trust you, count the cost. They need to know that you are a safe person, and that may take some time.

Developing open, caring relationships should be the fruit of our lives as Christians. How healthy is the relational fruit in your life?

Cheryl Shea, M.Div.
Mars Hill Centre

Sexual abuse

  1. What are the myths about sexual abuse?
  2. What is the damage from sexual abuse?
  3. How does sexual abuse affect relationships