In my work with adult survivors of sexual assault, I am beginning to notice a pattern of behavior that I have termed “wounded attachment.” The impact of childhood sexual assault has reverberating effects on almost every facet of survivors’ livelihood, from relationships with family, friends, partners, spouses, and children to their jobs, finances, faith, etc. It is as if sexual assault redefines one’s pattern of and trajectory in life.
Sexual assault is the act of forcing, enticing, intimidating, or coercing another person to engage in a sexual activity, from fondling to coitus, when the other person is unwilling or unable (as is the case of one who is underage, drugged, or unconscious). Imagine yourself as a child, seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and then being introduced to a violent act—an act that serves to not only damage one’s physical body and mental/cognitive mind-set, but also disrupt one’s spiritual being.
This one act for some—repeated acts of violence for others—does untold amounts of damage to one’s psyche. Yet the resilience I’ve witnessed from many who choose to live their lives after the violence is remarkable. Unfortunately, for many the damage is such that many are unaware of how it has skewed their way of looking at the world. This sometimes is displayed in the relationships subsequent to the sexual assault.
Far too often, survivors believe that once the assault ends, it is done and they don’t need to talk about it. Yet the choices made, the decisions not made, and the relationships that come afterward tell a different story. Wounded attachment is an insidious component that I have seen repeatedly in my work with adult survivors of childhood sexual assault. What is wounded attachment? It’s the unconscious way of being attracted or attached to someone or something that reminds the survivor of or reinforces the wound/trauma, or in this case the sexual assault. At its core, it’s the way in which survivors subconsciously seek out relationships that reinforce the wounded aspect of themselves.
As a child, depending on when the assault occurred and the developmental stage in which it occurred, the person seeks to please the adult and gain affection, attention, nurturing, love, trust, etc. A child who has been sexually assaulted blurs that idea of love, nurturing, trust, attention, and affection, and begins to believe that the only way to receive love, attention, etc., is to please the “assaulter.” This remains in effect as the child matures into adulthood.
Although the assault is no longer occurring, if the child did not receive any type of counseling, intervention, or effective treatment to process and repair the damage to the mind, body, and psyche, then this adult is continuing to live out the wounds experienced as a child. As such, the adult becomes caught in a cycle of relationships that reinforce the wounded attachments. Awareness of this plays a crucial role in helping adult survivors of sexual assault move toward recovery, resiliency, and healing.
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