People often think unwanted sexual behaviors happen with strangers. But the reality is there are many marriages and committed relationships where unwanted sexual behaviors occur despite the insistence by the other party for them to stop.
Unwanted sexual behaviors can include the following (but not limited to):
- Criticism of partner’s sexuality
- Unwanted touching
- Demanding frequent sex
- Name-calling (i.e., whore, frigid)
- Sexual humiliation
- Forced viewing of pornographic materials
- Forced sex with others or with an audience
- Sex after or together with violence
- Sex with weapons
- Unwanted sex with sex toys
What’s challenging for the victims in these relationships is they may feel powerless to do anything because of their relationship status. In other words, women may think because they’re married or in a committed relationship, being sexually subservient is permissible. It’s unfortunate how many partners buy into this lie.
How does this happen? Part of it is due to their partner’s over-reliance on sex as a means of love. They may have misinterpreted sexual intimacy as the strongest means to emotional closeness thus are wedded to the notion that sex is an absolute in healthy, functioning relationships. It may start off as a joke or indirect jab at “not feeling loved” and escalate to more forceful groping or requests for sexual behaviors the other party is not comfortable with. But because the victim doesn’t feel comfortable verbalizing their experience and enforcing the boundaries, the abuser thinks their behaviors are acceptable or at the very least tolerable.
It may take years, but once the realization occurs that the victim has been sexually violated, they begin the journey of recovery and empowerment. Some relationships will reconcile when the abusers acknowledge the violations that have occurred but others will end due to the abuser’s denial, minimization, and blaming of the impacted partner.
In the end, unwanted sexual behaviors are sometimes difficult to acknowledge (on either side) but they are essentially a form of power and control that falls under the definition of domestic abuse, as they’re a violation of a person’s sexual boundaries.
Sam Louie is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in multicultural issues, sexual compulsivity, trauma, addictions, and domestic violence.
Ryan Chambers is a NWFL affiliate therapist. His clients often include people struggling with stress, depression, traumatic experiences and anxiety. He speaks to us here about therapy as a place to be seen in order to find options for change.
You’ve said that how we make sense of the world influences how we experience it; that our stories inform our patterns. Can you tell us more?
Oh, this is such a great topic. I developed my clinical mind at a graduate school that bridges psychology and theology. I made that choice because I think how we make meaning is hugely important to the patterns we develop and the limitations we face. As a therapist, I’m not in the business of shaping people’s beliefs but I think it’s hugely important to connect with threads of meaning woven through their lives. For example, the process of being seen is important to me. It shaped my previous work. And if I look back across my life I can see how that need that I faced outward speaks about an internal need I was trying to work with.
How does your work as a photographer dovetail with therapy?
Great question… I spent about a decade really focused on visual language and the power of bearing witness. The medium of photography relies on this process of taking the time to see: people, space, light, etc. And as I spent more time working with portraiture, the process of bearing witness started taking on an almost spiritual dimension. I think the process of being seen is, itself, healing. I realized therapy could be a way of moving more directly into that space. At the core of our work is a hope that if we sit with our clients, they’ll teach us who they’re becoming. It’s a process of unfolding.
You’ve said that you can’t really intervene or change something before someone feels seen. Can you talk about this, in the context of therapy and with children?
Ha! This is a great lesson my toddler’s been working with me on! The work of connecting with people is really one of being with them where they are even if it doesn’t make logical or emotional sense. And my son’s been driving home the point in a multitude of creative ways, mostly dealing with food or how I put his clothes on. He’s teaching me to find language for his experience first, wait for the connection, and then look for options. Dan Siegel talks about it with the shorthand of “connect and redirect.” This has been the same process my clients have been teaching me too, I need to see them first. When they feel felt options for change open up.
Talk to us about health as an integration between the mind and body of an individual and of other people.
With integration, I’m thinking within the context of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). IPNB offers me a really grounding framework of the mind being a relationship between body, brain and others. And it looks at health as a flexible exchange of energy and information between the parts. The really amazing thing is that who we connect with and how we connect with others is actually part of our mind, not just our mind connecting to another mind. It’s an actual neurological patterning. With this framework depression isn’t just a psychological problem and trauma isn’t necessarily an individual problem. So my work is about looking for areas where the flow of energy or information gets rigid or chaotic, understanding how that process is meeting an important need for the people I work with, and then looking for ways to honor that need better.
You mentioned that the WA state dept of health came out with a study on the mental health impact of Covid and that the risk right now is depression from loneliness and disconnection.
Yeah. The Washington Department of Health came out with predictions of the impact of COVID on the general population. And while trauma was my first thought they actually think depression is the most likely result. The level of psychic and bodily isolation that we’re experiencing is pretty amazing. We’re pack animals and connecting to others involves all of our senses along with our big fancy brains. Technology allows me to reach across space to connect with my family and clients. But the creature of me doesn’t feel the same sense of belonging. So it can be helpful to think about what that creature needs: maybe participating in an old hobby, eat food that smells like home, maybe looking at family pictures or listening to music from a time when life was full of expectation.
One of the “stabilization tools” I use in EMDR is peaceful place or safe space imagery. And we go through the senses in the environment the person is creating. While working with a client in my general practice we realized we could use the same technique with remembering people… creating space to go through what it feels like to be with them and connecting to each of the senses. It allowed my client to enhance their feeling of connection with others through drawing on the latent memories of connecting. I imagine there’s some potential there for developing a more secure attachment as well.
You incorporate EMDR into your work. Would you explain briefly what this is, in lay terms if possible please?
Yeah, I remember first hearing EMDR and thinking there’s no way I can guess what that means. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Helpful right :D?!? Basically, we learned that when there’s quick eye movement back and forth it seems to initiate a process that’s akin to REM sleep. And that process has the effect of reducing the intensity of feelings, desensitizing. So it’s used a lot with PTSD and severe anxiety. But it can also be used with addiction and problematic arousal. The goal is to reduce the severity of emotions when a certain part of us gets activated and then link that part of us with a better-resourced part of ourselves, reprocessing. My favorite description I’ve heard is that like a zipper we want to zip this more scared part of ourselves with a more capable, integrate part of ourselves. So when the scared part gets activated again we can access these other faculties. It’s kind of magical. But certainly doesn’t replace therapy because often there’s little internal structure in the areas of our lives that were filled with intense fear.
How can parenting be a chance to re-parent oneself?
Oh man. So when we interact with the brain of another, especially in distress, our brain fires as if it were in the same situation. And then, if we can’t reshape our experience, we recreate it. So through each of my kids’ ages, I’m coming into contact with these young parts of myself. And my default is to recreate the experience I had for my kids. My work as a parent is to slow down this process and make choices at those critical junctions so that I can both shape my child’s experience differently and, because memories change when we recall them, I also change my own.
It sounds pretty tidy when I type it out but it’s actually a pretty painful experience. I lost my dad when I was pretty young so there’s this kind of voidy abyss that I’ve been working with. And parenting my kids is bring me ever closer to the edges of those experiences. Moving towards change and healing can sure involve a lot of pain.
Talk to us about stress response systems overdeveloping, as in the case of trauma.
There’s a lot of different ways we can speak about trauma. I’ve liked hearing it talked about as an overdevelopment of the stress response system. Some life circumstances required us to be stronger than we should be and these muscles overdeveloped. The effects can be debilitating but it’s actually our body’s best effort to keep us safe. And my goal working with my clients is to help develop the other internal muscles to match the strengths they already have: the ability to acutely monitor their internal state, the ability to shift their mood, the ability to grieve, the ability to reliably connect with others…
How do we calm our distress systems when they are activated?
What an important question. Polyvagal Theory has been really helpful in shaping how I work with the symptoms of distress system activation and how I conceptualize healing since it really focuses on the body response. In really general terms, our system is telling us it feels unsafe. First, we honor that and look for immediate danger. Assuming there isn’t immediate danger, we want to communicate to our body that it’s safe. The urge is normally to solve problems with our minds. But the issue is that the alarm is too sensitive or going off too intensely. Trying to use thoughts to solve the problem can often enhance the distress. Instead, we want to focus on turning off the signal. There are different routes for that and everyone will have their preferences: getting a hug, exerting physical energy, taking a bath, crying. But ideally the actions we take communicate to the creature of us that we’re safe. There’s a lot more to it but hopefully this offers a frame.
Would you speak to some of the ways that people get prepped for domestic violence?
For many of my clients, we often discover that DV relationships echo or link up with other relationships. And we often discover there were ways they were prepped for the DV relationship. I haven’t discovered a tidy way to say exactly how. For some, it seems to be feeling overly responsible for others or finding an external voice to echo an internal negative self-perception, for others it’s the sense that they aren’t allowed to have a mind that’s different from those they love. So working through a DV relationship often involves grieving deeper wounds. Therapy is a place to bring curiosity and care to these parts of our story. And the rewards of the work are greater resiliency, connection with others and belief in yourself. It’s a hugely hopefully process and one I’m often in awe of.
Davia was a NWFL Affiliate who specialized in working with children and adolescents from a psychoanalytic perspective and was based in Bellingham. Davia tended to use a Jungian approach often utilizing art and image-based methods including dream work with her clients, young and old. We chatted with her here about different ways to process feelings.
How do you work with kids when they don’t have language for what they are feeling?
I find in the case of working with kids who have limited language for what they are feeling, taking things to an imaginal realm helps. If you ask a kid to tell or draw you a story, their feelings will be in there, with more space for complexity (the feeling has a specific face, perhaps character, in a specific context that wouldn’t be able to surface if we stuck to the literal). If I do have to ask about things directly, I’ll have more body-based inquiries. “How did your tummy feel when mom said….” etc.
Talk to us about the importance of letting kids feel the breadth of their emotions.
When kids (and adults!) can experience the full breadth of emotions, they are less likely to narrow in on one emotion or thought in repetition. An example would be lumping entire experiences into only sadness or anger, or distraction from feelings that can’t be related to at all which can look like hyperactivity, forgetfulness, compulsion and fear. If one can learn to value that full range of feeling, the default assessments won’t rule the roost!
Talk to us about this idea of trauma ‘hiding’ when the brain isn’t able to compute what is happening.
I think of trauma as another word for an experience we don’t have capacity to fully feel. Often trauma is worked with by a person in ways that aren’t exactly recognized as thoughts or feelings. It falls outside of a thinkable or recognizable realm by definition, but it isn’t lost. It goes somewhere.
Does trauma always look like one huge event? Could you give us an example of a ‘smaller’ trauma?
In this way, smaller traumas happen all the time. Any time your mind has to attempt to put something off in order to continue because it doesn’t know how to experience it, that’s trauma.
So, everyone experiences trauma. Trauma is built into human development. Our mind grows to a point where it doesn’t recognize itself and gets organized using the tools available – largely other people’s example.
Talk about validating emotions like anger, especially in the context of domestic violence.
We learn what certain emotions feel like by seeing them on another’s face, and learn what to do about them through others’ actions too. So, if someone has only seen violent anger, connecting with their genuine feeling and affect could be difficult, but necessary work. It would be really important for such a person to find a safe place to experience strong emotion and get familiar with how it feels to them particularly.
In my work with children especially, though certainly with adults as well, I will meet folks who deny experiencing anger if they’ve seen it predominately violently, or will recognize it as something else (sadness, depression, anxiety). Another might only feel/express anger paired with violence towards themself or others. Or perhaps the anger will be severed and pop up in some psychosomatic way. Because anger is an important part of the emotional spectrum, it’s important to learn to experience it with all of its colors, not only the stunted expression.
Can you talk about your work around images, dreams and sensory experiences?
I work with folk’s dreams and images and sensory experiences because those images and sensory feelings seem to hold units of psychic content, made by the particular mind. It’s like I could talk about anger with a client all day, where they’ve seen it before in their family and all that. But if we’re not getting to the particular mind’s images and specific containers of anger, it’s still gonna be pretty superficial work. In this way, my clinical mind is pretty Jungian. I use other methods and borrow modalities but I can’t un-see the archetypal stuff.
Tell us about how you as a counselor experience someone’s “felt” presence.
A “felt sense” of folks is important here too. How they sit, how they present, what it feels like to be with them gives me a referential point to start that work. The images and feelings that get transferred to me can have enormous psychic content for my client, and we are learning together what it means to tend to them.
Do you have a theory of change?
Change looks like learning to be a companion to oneself. That contains all the buzzword-concepts like containment, self-soothing, self care, mindfulness and all that but I see those things as for the sake of the psychic content having a place to live and be welcomed in order to work itself out. Like, complexes can’t be eradicated…but they can be given some space to breathe, and to open/loosen some of those associations, so a person has some creativity, they aren’t at the mercy of the associated compulsions any longer.
Are there any resources you would like to share with our audience?
Audre Lorde – she’s rooted in identifying cultural containers of psychic content (particularly in regard to racism and sexism) and teasing out those complex-hubs. I’m so grateful for her work. Check out “Sister Outsider.”
I also return to Bell Hooks a lot. I like memoir as a genre because it’s like I’m watching someone working poetically with their experience, using that inner companion. It’s helpful to me clinically. Check out “Teaching to Transgress.”
Julie DeBoer is a NWFL affiliate therapist who specializes in trauma, abuse, and food and body issues. She has a background in eating disorder treatment, and she is passionate about helping clients develop new ways of relating to themselves and their bodies.
Tell us about the work you do with clients around food and body issues.
Most of my clients have strained relationships with their bodies and struggle to varying degrees to accept, love, and nourish their bodies. They experience their bodies as places of pain and shame rather than safety and comfort, and many have learned to fight against their bodies rather than allying with them. For the population I work with, this often involves disordered eating and exercise patterns. Many of my clients have become both fixated on their bodies and simultaneously highly estranged from them. They have learned to resist or override their physical needs and cues rather than listening and attending to them. My desire is to help my clients restore a sense of belonging in their own bodies. In that way, I really see my work as a therapist as the slow and gentle process of bringing people back home to themselves.
Can you speak to the idea of the body as home?
From the time we are born until we die, our bodies carry us through the world, and they are really our only constant. Our other physical houses are temporary and transient, but we never leave our bodies. Our bodies contain us–physically, spiritually, and emotionally–and are meant to be places of safety and comfort. If “home” is a place where we are known and loved and cared for and free to be ourselves, I believe that our own bodies are meant to be the place we experience that most fully.
So what happens when that home (the body) is unsafe?
All too often, our bodies endure harm and violence, and for survivors of these experiences, the body can feel extremely unsafe. For a survivor of trauma, the body is a place of immense vulnerability and betrayal, and many have the experience of feeling trapped in their bodies rather than being at home there. To live in the body is terrifying, and yet, there is no way to escape. So people who have suffered harm often develop ways of psychologically leaving their bodies by disconnecting and dissociating, because staying feels unbearable.I believe that so often, patterns of addiction and disordered eating and self-harm are ways that people struggle with the reality of living in a body that feels unsafe.
Talk about helping people identify and understand patterns that have been informed by trauma
In my experience, helping people identify the links between trauma and current behavioral patterns is often so essential to the healing process. When people can begin to understand why their body has responded in the ways that it has and how it has been wired to protect them, they can begin to develop a sense of empathy, gratitude, and ultimately trust for their bodies.
How might trauma affect a person’s experience with their own body
Trauma is, by definition, an experience that overwhelms our system and exceeds our capacity to process it in the moment. Our bodies have an ingenious way of helping us survive these experiences by creating a split between our mind and body and essentially allow our minds to leave while our bodies endure the traumatic experience. For many, this split continues long after the traumatic event is over and leads survivors to fundamentally distrust their bodies. They experienced their body as powerless during the traumatic event and may feel that their body has betrayed them. Many trauma survivors hold conscious or unconscious resentment toward their body for responding as it did. It’s also important to recognize that when we feel powerless, we often respond by doubling down on controlling behaviors to try to increase a sense of power, and this frequently plays out in body-based processes such as eating disorders.
When you combine all of these factors, the unfortunate reality is that trauma sets survivors up in an almost uncanny way to have highly contentious relationships with their bodies.
How might feeling anger be terrifying for a trauma survivor?
To be connected with anger is to be connected with a sense of power. I believe that most trauma survivors experience immense ambivalence regarding their own power. For some, anger can become a means of trying to protect themselves and compensate for the experience of powerlessness. For others, feeling anger may increase their experience of feeling out of control, and they put their anger on lockdown. Particularly for survivors of abuse or domestic violence, anger can feel quite dangerous and actually expose them to greater harm, so they learn to bury it at all costs. Even long after the threat has passed, anger can feel terrifying and difficult to access. I think learning to engage anger and connect with power can be an immensely important component of the healing process for survivors of trauma, but it is often a long and very difficult process.
Talk about befriending or reconciling with your body
Our bodies are created for survival. They are wired in all kinds of intricate and incredible ways to keep us alive, and when we can begin to understand how our bodies have been working our entire lives to keep us safe, we can start to trust them and ally with them rather than fighting against them.
Tell us about the mindfulness part of your work
I use mindfulness and body awareness practices frequently in my work, especially with clients seeking help with food and body issues. Our bodies are constantly giving us data about ourselves and the world around us, and every time we pause and choose to listen to these physical sensations and cues, it is a way of telling our bodies, “I trust you.” When we practice mindfulness, we are returning home to our bodies, even if only for a moment. Mindfulness does not magically take away the fear or anxiety that we hold in our bodies, but through repetition it slowly increases our capacity to feel safe there.
For many of your clients, there is also a faith component to trauma work. What does someone do with the question, “If God is good and loves me, how did this happen,” or “Where was God when…?
Part of the crisis of trauma is meaninglessness. Trauma is suffering with no explanation or purpose, and for many survivors, this raises questions about God. Part of the healing work of trauma is meaning-making and finding ways to integrate the traumatic experience into their belief system. Many of my clients of faith have found meaning in experiencing God as a co-sufferer. Elie Weisel is a Holocaust survivor who writes about the horrific experience of watching the execution of a Jewish child. He writes, “Behind me, I heard a man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where [God] is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows.’” For many of my clients, this sense of God suffering with them has brought a profound sense of comfort and meaning.
Do you have any resources you would like to share with us?
Food Psych podcast by Christy Harrison
“I’m Taking My Body Back” TED Talk by Rupi Kaur
Night, by Elie Weisel
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk
To get in touch with Julie please call 206-880-3430 or email email@example.com
Barbara Trantrum is the NWFL Director of Foster Care and Adoption. She is one of the founders of Northwest Trauma Counseling and has been a NWFL affiliate therapist for the last 6 years. She works with both children and adults, often around issues of foster care, adoption and attachment.
You have 7 kids, tell us about the makeup of your family.
Our kids range in age from 9 to 23 and include 2 bio kids and 5 non-traditional kids. Of our non-traditional kids, we have one sibling group of three and two non-related kids. We have children from DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. We received one child through a private agreement with her family whom we are friends with. We foster international refugee children through a UN program. Most of our kids have been with us for either 10 or 12 years, but we have one newer one of less than a year. We are about to adopt our 18-year-old.
How can identifying emotions be difficult for kids with trauma?
Emotional identification is something that often has to be taught, even for typical kids, but for kids with trauma it is much more difficult. Kids with trauma are more easily triggered – making access to those emotions more difficult. For children with trauma, emotional expression can often feel unsafe – for many kids the only thing they can express is anger. Other emotions feel too vulnerable, so any strong emotion that they feel ends up coming out as anger.
How/why do you incorporate art and music into therapy?
Music and art access emotions and feelings in ways that talk alone cannot do. I try to use music and art in fun ways in therapy like playing musical chairs, drumming, playing emotions pictionary, and painting together. I have created books with clients with their art, and done countless art and craft projects.
Tell us about how attachment is formed through mirroring.
We try to help attachment form in many of the ways that attachment forms organically with an infant and child. The attachment cycle of an infant expressing a need and the need being met and that cycle happening a million times over is the basis for healthy attachment.
Mirroring is a normal part of attachment with a baby and a parent during the early stages of development – a mom sticks out her tongue and the baby follows suit. This is the activation of the mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and the beginning of empathy. For children that come from abuse and neglect where there has been an interruption in attachment, it can often really help to activate these mirror neurons. This works best for younger kids, but we encourage parents to do mirroring activities with kids of all ages – things like having kids and parents repeat a pattern on a drum that one person makes, singing songs together, playing games that involve mirroring, etc.
Tell us about working with kids and parents as a unit.
For kids with attachment challenges, they often get into a pattern of what we call “parent shopping,” which is when they aren’t sure of the security of their placement and are always scouting out the next place to go. A sympathetic therapist can make a very tempting target, and that can cause a lot of very tricky dynamics. I want the child to attach to the parent, not to me.
Also, kids often come into therapy thinking that they’re the problem, and the kids are never just the problem – any solution involves the whole family. So I work almost exclusively with kids and parents together. The model of dropping a child off to talk with a therapist for an hour with little contact with the parents just doesn’t work to solve attachment problems for those in foster care and adoption and reinforces that the kid is the problem.
You’ve said that when you parent a kid with trauma, it really brings up your own trauma. Can you expand on why and how to navigate this?
A soldier with childhood trauma is far more likely to get PTSD on the battlefield, and the same is true for a parent. If you have childhood trauma, when your child dysregulates and has a PTSD reaction that could very well set off your own PTSD reaction. Often I work with parents who mostly know what they need to do in parenting, but being able to keep control of their own reactions is tough. For parents with childhood trauma, I recommend that they be in therapy to help them. In my own life when I have sought therapy when my secondary trauma reactions were more than I could handle, and it was enormously helpful. In the interest of the whole family, I also talk a lot about self-care and emotional regulation for everyone in the family.
Talk to us about interracial and international adoption.
International adoption is on a decline currently, as overseas orphan care is shifting to building up foster care and adoption programs in the countries of origin. There still is international adoption happening, especially for special needs children, and for situations like refugees and such.
Interracial adoption is becoming the new norm. In 1996 the federal government legally mandated that race cannot be a factor in adoptive placements, and currently about 40% of adoptions are transracial. Although we often think of transracial adoption as being white parents adopting children of color, I work with parents and children of all combinations.
The most important thing with transracial foster care and adoption is respect and conversation – you never want to adopt from a people group that you don’t respect and enjoy. When you adopt from another ethnic group your family becomes multiethnic, and how your family functions needs to reflect that reality.
The other key is to talk about racial issues, don’t just pretend the child is the same race as the parents and go with that. Studies show that children raised in transracial adoptions do basically the same as same-race adoptions if the parents talk to them about racial issues.
Can you talk about the places where domestic violence and foster care intersect?
It is rare to have a child adopted from foster care at an older age that hasn’t experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the main reasons that kids are in foster care and need new families. Many of the dynamics of domestic violence continue in the dynamics of sibling relationships when parents adopt sibling groups, and we have to talk a lot about power dynamics and control issues. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is just as traumatic as experiencing it done to them.
WA State is experiencing a massive shortage of foster parents, with 1,000 less foster homes available now than 10 years ago, and more kids than ever in the system. What are some ways people might help?
Treehouse is a great place to donate or help, it’s a local organization that helps foster kids in King County. You can also become a CASA voulunteer, or help at the many churches that support foster care ministry. If you are considering foster care and are not quite ready to take the full plunge, you can do something called respite care, which is having foster kids short term to give their regular foster parents a break.
If you are ready to take the plunge, I recommend working with a private foster care agency rather than just with the state, and there are several great ones. Some organizations in the Seattle area that I recommend are Amara, Bethany Christian Services, Olive Crest, and Antioch. If you are interested in fostering refugee foster children, check out Lutheran Community Services. Before committing to an agency, make sure you talk to some people who have used that agency before and ask them about their experiences.
What are some recommendations or resources you have for people who are interested in become foster parents?
Talk to some current foster parents and look into what is involved. But don’t get too intimidated, you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent – just be open to learning and growing.
Find a support group – either through your agency or through your church or community. The time to do this is when you are getting licensed – you will need support when kids hit your house.
The Refresh Conference is a fantastic conference put on every year by Overlake Christian Church, and it is a wealth of information. You can go even if you’re just checking it out! There are also a lot of different agencies there so it can be a great way to get a feel for different agencies all at once.
The movie Instant Family is also a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to become a foster parent.
Barbara has a book called: The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to
Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,
coming out in September 2020. You can connect with her via