Why Affection is Hard for Sexual Abuse Victims

Mar 24, 2014Find joy today, Heal from the past, Not Marked

I have a picture of my cat Scout here for a reason.

She is a typical feline, aloof, set apart. She can take or leave my affection. (According to the picture, she would rather ponder nature and read the ESV Bible). Her indifference makes me want to pursue and pet her. This creates some funny antics–me chasing, she horrified, running away.

It’s strange that I long to be affectionate with an aloof cat, and yet when it comes to those I love the most, I struggle deeply with showing my love via touch. It’s been a conundrum many years. And I’m deeply ashamed about it. I wish this kind of affection came naturally to me.

When my children were younger, maternal boo-boo kissing and comforting after crying did not automatically spring up from motherland. I didn’t have that instinct the baby books seemed to promise would materialize. I wanted my children so desperately (and I mean desperately) to know I loved them, so I made the choice to become affectionate.

When Sophie skinned her knee, I gave myself a mental talking to. “Mary, bend low, clean and bandage the knee, and then hug it out.

When Aidan hollered from some sort of toddler injustice, I would coach myself, “Mary, he is sad. He needs a hug from his mom. So grab him and hug him.”

When Julia cried and simply wanted to be held, I reminded myself to hold her longer, kiss her head, and let her cry until the tears wept themselves clear.

And with Patrick, I have had to do the same sort of exercise. Making a choice to hold his hand, kiss him when he gets home from work. I know…hardly romantic. That man deserves a congressional medal of honor!

After all this self-coaching, I am getting better. Even more effective than my internal coaching, though, has been asking Jesus to please-please-please heal the broken parts of my affection issue. Because rote obedience to yourself only lasts so long. A true heart change accomplishes much, much more.

My fallback is to chase the aloof. My fear is to pour affection on the people who see all of me, and I run the risk of true rejection from the ones who matter the most.

At least with Scout, I know she’ll not return the favor. She is safe in that way. I can hug her and not expect a feline embrace–every single time.

But to hug my family is to risk. It’s to be as vulnerable as I know how to be. I wish that sexual abuse had nothing to do with this struggle. But it does. Because when you’re abused in the most intimate part of who you are, you start the lifelong battle of fear–fear that it will happen again.

I know none of this makes logical sense. Of course my family won’t harm me in this way. But because the abuse happened when I was so young, my fear of anything smacking of affection cut a deep rut into my natural responses. It’s my very powerful fall back to be afraid that I’ll be used or violated. And retraining something that was so damaged in childhood sometimes feels impossible.

It’s easier to chase the aloof than risk with the loving. (Click to tweet).

And yet, I know the abundant, sweet life Jesus has for me involves risking in relationships, of hugging my spouse and kids, of not being so darned afraid all the time.

All this to say, I am a work in progress. I chase cats and sometimes still have tell myself to be affectionate with the ones I love. Perhaps you’re like me in this regard? If so, we can at least rejoice that we’re not alone in this struggle, right? And I can encourage you that progress does come, maybe not monumentally, but incrementally.

Just ask my frustrated cat. And my kids. And my husband.

signedcopyI wrote an entire book about my journey toward healing in the aftermath of sexual abuse. You can get an autographed copy here. Or order the book a buck cheaper (with cheaper shipping) here. Or if you’d like a PDF or ebook, click here.

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