Being sexually abused as a child has left me unable to trust partners

I’m 29 and in many ways successful: I’ve got top degrees, am reliable, have caring friends, a good job and own my own home.

But I was sexually abused for many years as a small child. In my mid-20s, I had therapy, but stopped when I was able to have sex without having panic attacks.

Most of the time, I’m fine. I disconnect from the child that was hurt and don’t feel like a victim. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked to achieve stability. I am still capable of seeing the best in people, and know that other people have far heavier burdens. My problem is with intimate relationships. I’ve had several boyfriends, but I have never been able to let myself trust or rely on them.

Six months ago, I met someone, but when he learned about my history he didn’t feel he had the capacity to deal with it. I acted as if this was fine, but inside it felt like a tsunami of pain had broken loose. Being rejected on the basis of my past has once again made me feel small, damaged and unlovable.

I don’t really understand how what happened 20 years ago still has so much power, or why none of my positive experiences, love or analytical ability can counteract it. I can only assume that because he started abusing me when I was so young and for so long, he corrupted something really central in me. I don’t want to go back to therapy (it was like torture, and put my family under stress). And I don’t want to give up on meeting someone.

You’ve certainly done everything you can to distance yourself from your abuser, but this powerful edifice you’ve built – your life – has vulnerable foundations and we need to look at these.

I consulted two people: Peter Saunders, the founder of Napac (National Association for People Abused in Childhood,, himself an abuse survivor, and Lee Smith, a psychoanalyst (

Smith felt that, although “you have built this phenomenally successful life, your abuser is still behind it and you seem to fear risking the stability you have. Continuing to open yourself up [to hurt in relationships] feels high-risk.” And the higher you’re climbing, the greater the fear of falling.

I know you said therapy was super-painful, but as Smith points out: “It’s not the therapy that’s making it torture, but what happened to you.”

You may not want to hear this, but I think more therapeutic talk is the key here. I’m sorry your family was put under stress, but this is about you and getting the help you need now. Presumably it was someone within your family, or close to it, who abused you, and that can be difficult for survivors to acknowledge. You may feel you want to protect your family; I sense you spend a lot of time thinking of others. “You can’t protect everybody,” Saunders advised.

Smith and Saunders said trust is a huge hurdle for abuse survivors, so it’s no surprise you find it hard to open up to someone. I think you’ve also minimised the effect your most recent boyfriend had on you by not being able to “handle” your history (in your mind, your history = you). But not all men will be like this, I promise; you shouldn’t give up on relationships. Without wanting to minimise what you’re going through, lots of people struggle with intimacy in relationships, even without abuse in their past.

Your past is yours: you don’t have to discuss it with a new partner if you don’t want to, and when you do so is up to you. You’re in control.

I asked Saunders what helped him in his recovery and he said that even now he has regular therapy. I put your core question to him: “Why does this still affect me?” He said, “The simplest way I can describe it is like this: when a child is abused, it’s like someone pulling the wires out of an electrical circuit. You can put the wires back, but there will always be damage underneath. You’ll always get some short-circuiting until the damage is repaired with therapy.”

Perhaps you need to look at getting more help, to reinforce what you’ve worked so hard to build up.

Napac helpline: 0808 801 0331; there is also some beneficial reading material online.

Send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article.


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