Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship? Part 3: The Code of Silence

This is the third and final piece of the series Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship. Its important to discuss yet another (and perhaps the most damaging) concern for survivors of trauma—the code of silence.

We’ve already discussed how your past experience of trauma or sexual abuse can make it difficult for you to trust your partner (or anyone for that matter) and how your body’s conditioned anxiety response can cause you to “check out” when something stressful is happening. Now it’s time to talk about how the code of silence surrounding trauma and abuse can affect your relationship.

For survivors of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma the code of silence all starts with the messages received by abusers and others in our immediate circle.

First, it’s important to remember that abusers or perpetrators of trauma and sexual abuse are anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person to satisfy their own personal need for power and control over another human. The focus on power and control is key here because it is where the code of silence starts. An abuser gains a sense of power and control over their victim by manipulating, threatening, or pleading with you not to tell. Additionally, they often attempt to shift blame from where it belongs by trying to convince you that the abuse is your fault, that you have somehow caused them to abuse you, or that you deserve to be abused.

As a survivor, you then become frightened of what might happen if you were to tell someone. Common fears that prevent survivors from disclosing include:

  • It will ruin my family
  • I will be blamed for it
  • People won’t understand
  • I’ll get in trouble for telling OR for not telling sooner
  • Maybe this isn’t as bad as I think it is and I’m making something out of nothing
  • My abuser will hurt someone I care about
  • The abuse will get worse if I tell
  • Then I’ll never be able to forget it or move past it
  • Everyone will find out, everyone will know
  • People will look at me differently, like I’m damaged or broken
  • My abuser will never forgive me or won’t love me anymore (*this fear is common for those who are abused by someone close to them and have been groomed to feel a sense of obligation or affection for the person hurting them)
abuse survivor silence
Many of these fears are more common than you might realize and work together to create a powerful fear of telling anyone what is happening or has happened to you—including your partner.

The other main contributors to the code of silence are the rest of us. Society has a tendency to WRONGFULLY blame the victim in some circumstances. This is a topic for a whole different article, but it’s worth mentioning because this is perhaps a stronger factor than the messages you receive from an abuser. For many of my clients who have been through traumatic abuse, the decision to disclose to someone was both the most difficult and the most liberating decision they could have made. Unfortunately for many, they are met with reactions (often from family) that don’t typically support recovery. Family then has the potential to cause more damage with their reaction on top of the damage already caused by the abuse. Damaging reactions from family include:

  • Not believing it when a victim reports abuse
  • Blaming the victim
  • Getting angry with the victim for “ruining the family”
  • Getting angry with the victim (particularly if the abuser is a primary bread winner) for creating financial problems by removing the income of the abuser from the household
  • Getting angry with the victim for breaking up a relationship one parent has with the abuser (if the abuser is a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse)
  • Putting the responsibility on the victim to “keep quiet so that no one has to go to jail, the family gets to stay together, and everything can go on as usual”
  • Being jealous of the victim because of the MISTAKEN belief that they somehow caused the abuse by flirting or even wanted the abuse to happen
  • Ignoring it or pretending it never happened
  • Telling the victim that these types of things happen to everyone they need to just accept it and move on
Contrary to what you might think, in my work with survivors, these damaging messages from family can cause as much long-term struggle for survivors as the abuse itself. These messages only serve to reinforce feelings of guilt and shame for survivors and may encourage them to return to the code of silence indefinitely. Counseling can provide a safe and non-judgmental space where you can talk about your past, about what’s happened to you, and find only support and compassion. Often times, just the experience of disclosing the abuse in counseling can help to heal some of the fear about carrying this secret alone and can bring a sense of relief that there is finally somewhere it’s safe to talk about it.

Given all these messages to the contrary from abusers and others around us, however, it’s not really surprising then that survivors rarely tell anyone, even their partners about their traumatic past.

As a result, there can be yet another sense of “distance” in your relationship if your partner is unaware of your abuse history. An average of 3 out of every 4 individuals have a sexual related secret from their partner. Of these, childhood sexual abuse and a history of sexual assault or rape are both in the top 10 most commonly secrets kept in a relationship. Keeping a secret of this magnitude can lead you to feel isolated, especially if your partner does not understand your reactions in certain situations, and can also lead to conflicts in the relationship.

Finally, feelings of shame resulting from sexual abuse or assaults can have some of the most long-lasting effects as you carry the shame with you from one relationship to the next. Shame develops as a result of the Code of Silence created by the messages you receive from abusers and from others. In a relationship, feelings of shame can lead to hiding the “unacceptable and unlovable” parts of yourself from your partner. Unfortunately, over time this often leads to feelings of isolation, feeling as if your partner doesn’t really know you, denies them the chance to know and accept these parts of you, and can ultimately result in low self-esteem and depression. Essentially, you expect your partner’s reaction to be the same as you expected your family’s to be—to blame you, be angry with you, not believe you, or to leave you. These beliefs can create a sense of fear in your relationship that can come between you and your partner.

If you are struggling with feelings and reactions like these, please know that you are not alone and you’re not crazy. These are common reactions for survivors, but you don’t have to be stuck with this secret forever. Because of the code of silence, many survivors I work with have never shared about their past with anyone prior to coming into counseling. Therapy can help you through processing your traumatic past with Cognitive Processing Therapy and help you work through feelings of self-blame, guilt, and anger that may be directed toward yourself or close family members other than your abuser. Through therapy, you can explore how the silence itself has affected you and begin taking steps to see yourself differently. It can also be helpful to have your partner join you in therapy for a session or two so that you can process your feelings about sharing your past with them or discuss ways in which they can support you through the therapy process and in the future.

If you believe that your relationship or that of someone close to you may be suffering because of a history of sexual abuse, it is important to address these issues with the help of a trained mental health professional. For more information on cognitive processing therapy in Orlando, or to make an appointment to begin working through your traumatic past, please give us a call at (407) 603-6132.

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