Boyhood experiences echo in adult relationships in many ways – especially if those experiences were unwanted or abusive. Add these to the relationship issues that all men have to deal with, and things can get confusing and seem too complicated.
So if you have lots of questions about relationships, that’s no surprise.
Keep in mind that other childhood experiences may contribute to relationship challenges and troubles. These can include harsh disciplining by parents; emotional or physical abuse; death of a parent or other close person; and various other experiences of neglect or betrayal by important people in one’s life. See An Introduction to Potential Effects of Male Sexual Abuse.
Children: Dependent, Trusting, and Vulnerable
We all grow up having no choice but to trust in others. As infants and young children we are totally dependent on others to meet our most basic needs.
Getting the attention and care they need gives babies and young children a sense of trust in the world – and in themselves. It provides predictability and safety in one’s most important relationships, which are the bedrock of feeling safe, secure, and confident in life.
Violations of trust are betrayals that have lasting effects.
Unwanted or abusive sexual experiences happen to children who are dependent on adults to care for them and protect them from harm.
Children depend on adults because they’re learning everything about life – how to physically do things (like swim, or throw and catch), how to think things through, and how to respond emotionally to situations in helpful ways.
For these reasons, children cannot help but trust in others – especially parents and people in roles of authority – to care for them and to look out for their best interests.
Their dependency and need to trust also makes children vulnerable to manipulation, exploitation and abuse by adults, teenagers, and other children.
Betrayal of Trust and Its Consequences
When children are subjected to unwanted or abusive sexual experiences by adults or older children, they experience betrayal, the violation and destruction of trust.
This is also true when adults fail to play protective roles toward children, or otherwise fail to meet a child’s needs: it’s a betrayal.
And so, after such experiences, difficulty trusting others may go very deep.
Boys learn that important people in their lives cannot be trusted to have their best interests at heart. They may be told, “You want this,” or “This is the way to show love,” or “You don’t deserve to be treated any better than this.”
Such messages deeply harm the ability to trust. It may feel impossible to trust others enough to let down your guard.
And then there’s the flip side: wanting so badly to find someone worthy of trust that you are easily fooled by untrustworthy people, and end up being betrayed over and over again.
Trust can be undermined even more if a child tries to speak up but is not listened to, or not believed.
Difficulties Trusting Oneself
Tragically, experiences of betrayal and abuse can also make it difficult to trust oneself.
You can learn who to trust, when and how, including yourself.
If you were young when it happened, you may not have understood what was happening and believed it was your fault.
Or maybe it happened with someone who pretended it was something you wanted, who said it was something good, who said one thing while doing another, or otherwise undermined your ability to trust your own perceptions and instincts.
Finally, some children respond to unwanted or abusive sexual experiences by ‘spacing out’ or disconnecting from what is happening. Cutting off from your body and feelings like this can begin to happen automatically, with all intense experiences – even good ones, like doing fun things with friends or being sexual with someone you love.
This can leave you feeling disconnect from yourself, or from reality, undermining your trust in you own experiences and memories. It can affect your understanding of the past and what it means now. In short, it can cause you to distrust yourself.
Learning to Trust
If you’re struggling with trust in these ways, you are not alone. Major goals of healing are learning how to trust yourself, and how to find people who are worthy of your trust.
Figuring out who can be trusted – in which roles, with which kinds of information, under which conditions – can be big focus of learning.
And it can be liberating: You can avoid the extremes of telling others almost nothing about yourself or saying too much. You can know when it’s safe to tell more to a close friend or partner. If you’re in therapy, you can finally get to things that you really need help with but have feared would provoke rejection and betrayal.
Choosing who and when to trust – and getting positive responses and support from those who really matter to you – will rebuild your sense of trust, in other people, in the world in general, and in your self.
Telling Someone About What Happened
A Lot at Stake
Telling someone about something you’ve held a secret for a long time is a big deal.
You may have good reasons to fear a bad response. You may be putting an important relationship and yourself at risk: Will she reject me? Will he shame me? Say it can’t be true? Say I’m just making excuses?
Planning and preparation are essential.
Maybe you have fears that don’t actually reflect what the other person will think, feel or say. After all, how can you know for sure? At the same time, you may have more control than you think over how it will go and what the results will be.
We understand. And we’ve got some good information and advice to help you decide and, should you choose to tell, maximize the odds of success. (See also, Should I Tell My Partner?)
Ways of Telling
For men who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences as children or teenagers, telling someone else may happen right away, but often it’s not until years later.
Whenever telling someone else happens, it fits into one of these types:
Forced: You have no intention of telling but it comes out in some other way. For example, a perpetrator of sexual abuse is arrested for abusing another child and he or she confesses to abusing you. Or a sibling or other child abused says you were abused by the same person who abused her or him.
Accidental: Again, you have no intention of telling anyone but someone discovers evidence that reveals what happened. For example, someone reads a journal or diary that mentions it. Or someone suspects it based on your writings, artwork or behaviors, and questions you about it.
Impulsive: You suddenly tell someone without having intended to. For example, you blurt it out something when triggers the memories while you’re drunk. or a parent says about how you were as a teenager, or asks why you did something, and you suddenly feel the only way to explain is to say you were dealing with the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
Planned: You decide that you want to tell a particular person and (at least to some extent) you think through when, where, how you will do it.
From here on we focus on the planned telling of another person, because to maximize the odds of good outcomes and minimize the odds of bad ones, you really need to think it through in advance.
Planning: Reasons and Goals
Most importantly, there should be good reasons and realistic goals for telling.
Thinking through one’s reasons for telling, and the goals one hopes to accomplish, is a critical first step in the planning process.
Here are the most common reasons and goals:
Validation and moral support. The goal is acknowledgment and support from significant others. It may help your healing to know that you are believed by someone, that what happened to you is understood and appreciated by someone important to you. For some, one aspect of validation is confirmation from the other person, if they are in a position to provide it, that memories of yours are probably or definitely true. For example, you might tell another family member who confirms that he or she had similar experiences, or even witnessed some of what happened to you.
Explain past or present behaviors. The goal is to give others a better understanding of why you may have certain problems, such as problems with sexual performance, trusting people, depression, or seemingly irrational fears. This doesn’t mean you have no responsibility for dealing with those problems now, but that there’s a good reason you have them and that they aren’t easy to overcome.
Sympathy. The goal here is different than explaining past behaviors. Though one might not be fully aware of it, the goal is to “justify” or “excuse” one’s failures to do certain things. It may also be about creating a “victim identity.” A man who tells everyone about his abuse may be doing it to get sympathy.
Protecting others. The goal is to let someone know that his or her children may not be safe around the person who used or abused you.
Revenge. The goal is, basically, to make the person who used or abused you suffer, as in, “You made me suffer, now it’s your turn.”
“Getting it out.” The goals are breaking the secret and the burden of keeping it, and reducing shame. For many men, these words of Richard Gartner ring true: “Telling what happened, putting the unutterable into words, is a large part of healing. As you tell other people, you’re also telling yourself. You’re putting together the full story of your life. The most important person who needs to know that story is you” (Beyond Betrayal, p. 168).
Preparation for a confrontation. The goal is to tell key people who will be available for support, should you decide on a planned confrontation – with the person who used or abused you, or someone who allowed it to happen or didn’t protect you.
There are other reasons, some positive and others possibly self-defeating, for telling others about unwanted boyhood sexual experiences. Unless it’s done to protect children from an unrevealed perpetrator, it should be for the benefit of the person who is doing the telling.
Think it through: Who? Where? When? How? Why?
It should never be done to promote someone else’s agenda (including a therapist who is pushing a client to tell or confront.) Any decision to tell, and to whom, should be made by the person whose experiences are being revealed.
And it’s worth repeating that telling someone else is most successful when the man has good reasons to do so.
Some men consider telling an important person in their lives for many years before doing so. Others may have not given it much thought, or just blurted it out.
It’s critical to weigh the pros and cons of telling before you do it.
For example, it’s not a good idea to announce to everyone at a family reunion that Uncle Bill sexually abused you 30 years ago. And telling someone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is generally a bad idea (although some people do find that they can only say emotionally charged things with help from substances).
Who you tell, where and when you say it, how you bring it up, as well as why you are doing so – all are important planning considerations.
Thinking very carefully about these things will give your plan a much greater chance of success.
Who Do You Want to Tell?
Choose someone who is most likely to believe and support you, even if that means waiting until later to tell them.
For example, if you need to tell your mother that your father abused you, and you are unsure of her reaction, then telling a partner, friend or relative may provide you with support before addressing the issue with your mother.
As Richard Gartner cautions, ‘Be selective… You’ll know in your gut who [is most likely to be supportive]. Even so, be prepared for letdowns. Not everyone can handle what you have to say. For example, if they… suffered from childhood abuse and haven’t dealt with it, they may not be as receptive as you had hoped’ (Beyond Betrayal, p. 167).
When it comes to telling family members, Mic Hunter is even more cautionary: ‘Be prepared to be punished if you tell the secret. It is not fair, but it often happens. This is one reason why having a strong support network is so important: so that if you are rejected by your family, you will have supportive people to turn to… If you are planning to tell your siblings or other family members about what happened and what you are doing about it, remember how difficult it was for you to accept [what happened] and its impact – your family [could] have at least as much denial.’ (Abused Boys, p.117).
Where Are You Going to Tell?
As a general rule, private places are better than public places. But if you fear a negative or perhaps threatening or dangerous reaction, a public place will probably be safer.
When Are You Going to Tell?
You will want the person’s full attention, and time to process the news. When the person is heading out the door to work, or intoxicated, or about to go to sleep, are not good times to tell.
How Are You Going to Tell?
It can be face-to-face, over the phone, or in a letter. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages.
Some feel that breaking serious news needs to be done face-to-face. However, in some situations, particularly where there might be a negative reaction, or the person may take you away from the direction you are trying to go, a phone call or letter may be better.
A letter may be a good choice if you have difficulty expressing yourself with words while feeling under pressure, or if the person being told has a tendency to interrupt or side-track conversations.The letter format, or writing out what you want to say ahead of time, can really help with saying clearly and precisely what needs to be said.
Also, something in writing can be revised, many times, until it expresses just what you want to say. Writing it out ahead of time may also allow it to be read, whether face-to-face or over the phone, without interruption.
Why Do You Want to Tell?
This is about identifying your goal(s) for telling. Why are you telling this particular person? And why now?
Sometimes a person tells many others at the same time. When a celebrity tells the media of being abused as a child, it may be to bring public attention to the problem. If you are considering telling multiple people or ‘broadcasting’ it in some way, you might want to consult with several other people about why you’re considering this approach and what the results might be.
The Benefits of Planning It Well
Once you’ve gone through this process – of thinking through the goals and various aspects of your plan – you can tell someone with confidence that you’re likely to be successful.
Of course there are no guarantees, because we can never control how other people respond to what we tell them. But good planning greatly increases the odds of good outcomes.
When telling someone is successful, it brings healing to you, including increasing your sense of personal power and your knowledge that your experiences really matter and your needs can be met.
Even if you don’t tell anyone in your family, it can be very helpful to you. It can bring more support and understanding from friends and other important people in your life.
Finally, it can be very helpful to discuss your goals and plans with a therapist who has lots of experience in this area, especially one who knows you well and who you really trust. Therapists can help not only with sorting through your goals and plans, but with practicing and providing support if it doesn’t go well or has unintended and challenging consequences.
This page is adapted from an online article by Ken Singer, LCSW.
Repeating Unhealthy Relationship Patterns
What’s Learned from Unwanted Sexual Experiences
Men who had such experiences as boys have learned some unhealthy relationship patterns.
They experienced betrayal by the person who used them sexually. Often their needs were neglected or ignored by those who could have protected them, or helped them stop what was going on, or helped them deal with what happened.
Many patterns involve roles of “victim” and “perpetrator.”
Often they have also experienced physical and emotional neglect and/or abuse. People responsible for caring for them may have turned on them in fits of rage, or repeatedly and harshly criticized them in ways that made them feel bad and ashamed. They may have witnessed very unhealthy ways of relating between parents, siblings, mother and her boyfriends, etc.
The Roles People Play
Victim and Perpetrator
Unhealthy relationship patterns often revolve around roles of “victim” and “perpetrator.”
There are many versions of those roles, and they can be quite subtle. You might treat other people as objects to be “used” to achieve your own goals. Or you may let yourself get walked all over by others.
Even people who never think of themselves as ‘victims’ often respond as if others were trying to make them victims – and end up victimizing others, in small and sometimes large ways, all the while feeling like it’s ‘just self defense.’
For example, when parents and caregivers are abusive, they almost always believe (even if they don’t think about it) that their actions are justifiable responses to being victims of a child’s “disobedience,” “disrespect,” etc. Or they may feel like victims in another way that they believe entitles them to, for example, use a child for sexual gratification (“my husband is pathetic and can’t satisfy me”).
Whenever we feel like some “deserved” a nasty or attacking comment we just made, we’ve rapidly and automatically gone from feeling like a victim of that person to victimizing them. The point here isn’t to condemn ourselves, just to recognize how common these roles are, even in those small little battles of everyday life.
Replaying the bystander’s role can be very destructive too. For example, you may look the other way as someone you know exploits or abuses another person. You may do nothing to protect a child from abuse or neglect that you know is happening.
There are so many ways that people can find themselves repeating painful relationship patterns from childhood – if they pay attention and reflect on their relationships. It’s so easy to fall into the roles of victim and perpetrator, and flip back and forth between them, without even realizing it.
Other Common Roles and Repetitions
There are other roles besides victim, perpetrator and bystander that people repeat from childhood.
Some people keep neglecting their own needs and taking care of others, even when others aren’t asking for it, in ways that lead to resentment and feeling neglected themselves.
Some try to control others with guilt or shame.
Some hide their emotional needs from others, then feel ignored and abandoned. Others make extreme emotional demands, or alternative between being needy and distant.
Also, many unhealthy relationship patterns are rooted in a lack of trust – that anyone can really care, understand them, be honest, etc. This lack of trust is usually rooted in childhood relationships with untrustworthy abusers, parents, or other important adults.
It could be with your second wife, your tenth girlfriend, or your twentieth boss. If you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll see that you’ve mostly been having the same basic relationship conflicts over the years.
And if you truly investigate, you’ll find that they’re almost always rooted in early childhood relationship patterns, especially those involving vulnerability and getting hurt.
Change is Possible and Therapy Can Help
It is possible to understand and overcome such patterns.
Fortunately, it really is possible to understand and overcome such deeply ingrained patterns.
Any safe and healthy relationship will give you opportunities to overcome the ways you repeat unhealthy relationship patterns.
But for many men, it’s going to require some extra help, not just from a patient and loving partner, but from someone whose job includes providing such help, that is, a therapist or counselor.
In fact, one of the most healing things about a good therapy relationship is the following process:
- Developing a safe and trusting relationship, which allows you, with the therapist’s help, to…
- Observe yourself repeating old unhealthy relationship patterns, with people in your life and with the therapist, which gives you the chance to…
- Explore the related memories, feelings, and beliefs about yourself, others and relationships, which finally enables you to…
- Discover and practice new and much healthier ways of relating, especially when your buttons get pushed.
This is one of the main purposes of a therapy relationship, especially when the therapist includes interpersonal or psychodynamic approaches.
Many men have found that they can overcome old patterns much more quickly, and experience a lot less conflict and pain at work and at home, when they make use of therapy.
Finally, please keep in mind that other childhood experiences may contribute to relationship challenges and troubles. These can include harsh disciplining by parents, emotional or physical abuse, death of a parent or other close person, and various other experiences of neglect or betrayal by important people in one’s life. See Caution: It’s Not All About the Sexual Experiences.