Navigating Sex After Surviving Trauma: A Guide for Couples

Holding hands of a man and a woman, with just the hands and their arms in the image
Published on
April 18, 2024

Intimacy can be a complex terrain for any couple to navigate, but for those who have survived trauma, it can present unique challenges. Whether the trauma occurred individually or within the relationship, its impact can deeply affect one's ability to connect with a partner on a physical and emotional level. In this blog post, we'll explore some strategies and insights for couples looking to rebuild intimacy in the aftermath of trauma.

Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Intimacy:

Trauma can occur as a result of a wide variety of experiences. This can range from sexual abuse/assault, physical or emotional abuse, betrayal (affairs/infidelity, financial betrayal, discovery of an addiction or other big secret), death of a loved one, major injury/accident, and so much more. There are so many different ways that trauma can occur that don’t have to be enacted by one’s partner that can still result in a major impact on sexual connection in a relationship.

When trauma occurs, our body is often stuck in the stress response cycle, which can lead to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. This can result in hypervigilance, avoidance, or dissociation that all have a major impact on intimacy. When our body is a constant state of panic/fear, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which means that our body is primed for action. This leads to increased heart rate, dilated pupils, inhibited digestion, and redistribution of blood flow to prioritize muscles and vital organs (hint, hint, we need blood flow to our genitals in order to experience arousal and if our stress response cycle has kicked on, that’s not even close to where the flood is flowing). As a result, sex often drastically decreases after a traumatic experience because the body cannot prioritize arousal and desire - it HAS to prioritize safety and there’s no amount of logic and reasoning that can quickly shift a person from their sympathetic nervous system to their parasympathetic nervous system.

Oftentimes the partner of a person who has experienced trauma feels unwanted and “like a predator for even wanting sex,” which can lead to feelings of rejection and disconnection in the relationship. The person who has been traumatized has no words to explain how their brain simply cannot get to that place of desiring sex. So if you can both learn and understand that this isn’t a matter of desire but rather a matter of the body being stuck in the stress response cycle, you can both move away from blaming one or both parties and instead see this as a problem that you both can tackle together. You need to help the traumatized person’s nervous system get re-regulated - which takes time and consistency.

An important piece to note is that even if a traumatic experience occurred years or even decades ago, a person can still have major negative responses to sex. I’ve seen people get confused by this. When they first get into the relationship, the sex is good and consistent - everything seems fine. But as months or even years pass, something changes. Their partner is avoiding sex, doesn’t want to be looked at or touched, or starts dissociating during sexual experiences. This is because they have moved past the highs of new relationship energy, where a lot of dopamine and serotonin are running through the body, and are now comfortable enough with you that their sympathetic nervous system is tuning back into potential dangers that don’t necessarily exist anymore.

There may even be an introduction to an event that triggered them from their past that reignited the stress response cycle in their body that is now leading to a disconnection sexually again. For example: a client came to me noticing that they were having a trauma response after two years of being in a relationship with their partner. As we explored the trauma that occurred growing up and explored the current sexual experiences they were having, we realized that her partner, completely inadvertently, touched her in a way that reminded her of her abuser. Her partner’s touch was coming from a place of desiring to connect but all her body could remember was the pain and fear she felt when she was touched that way many years ago, and therefore, had no desire to sexually connect with her partner because her sympathetic nervous system was running the show again.

The main thing to focus on is that more often than not, a person’s trauma response has less to do with their partner and more to do with the way that their sympathetic nervous system is responding to a stimuli that makes the body believe its unsafe (even if the conscious brain says otherwise). This is NOT applicable to situations where abuse has occurred within the relationship. If your partner is having a traumatic response as a result of abuse that previously occurred in your relationship, this will be a dynamic problem between the two of you. If abuse is ongoing, this is not applicable to you as the abuse cannot be ongoing if you’re ever to experience healing.

Communication Strategies:

Identifying Triggers

It’s important to have open, honest communication to start the sexual reconnection process when one has experienced a trauma. One important component is to know what might trigger a trauma response. It may take some time for you to identify all of the triggers, but any that you can list off from the beginning are a good starting point.

For example, I had a client (let’s call her Lisa) who was one of the first girls in her grade to develop breasts and was shamed for having them (by family and peers) and felt very self-conscious about them. She would shut down during a sexual experience any time the focus turned to her breasts, which she was able to identify as a trigger. Therefore, she and her partner (we’ll call him Jim) were able to adjust their approach while she gradually got (as comfortable as she wanted) with breast stimulation. They started with Lisa wearing a bra during sex and the couple giving her breasts no attention, to eventually building up to being comfortable with her bra off, progressively adding stimulation, and more.

Another example is a couple in which one partner had an affair. One of their triggers was deep kissing because it felt so intimate, much like what happened in the affair.

Having awareness around what triggers may cause an intimate connection to become disrupted will help you both to avoid accidental triggering and instead, allow you to intentionally work on decreasing the intensity of said trigger.

Clear boundaries

Clear boundaries are another important aspect of communication when coping with trauma. If the individual who has experienced a trauma says an action or body part is off limits, that needs to be honored. I have seen far too many relationships in which the non-traumatized partner thinks they are being playful or feels “owed” to touch an off-limits body part and makes the relationship all the worse for it. Boundaries help us to feel safe and are a way to build trust with others. If you respect your partner’s boundaries, they will trust and open up to you (even if it means a certain part or activity is off limits). Your relationship and partner’s well-being should be more important than one activity or body part pertaining to sex. You are not entitled to your partner’s body (and vice versa). Giving and receiving pleasure is a privilege and gift. Discussing and honoring boundaries is a huge way to help rebuild sexual connection.

For example, with Jim and Lisa, Jim used to tease Lisa by walking by and grabbing her breasts. He insisted it was a joke/way to show affection; however, for Lisa, it caused her to feel like her body wasn’t hers. She felt much like she did growing up - her body (and particularly her breasts) were others’ to objectify and comment on, rather than being a part of herself that she could choose to share with others. In therapy, when we talked about the couple making Lisa’s breasts off-limits to touch without her consent, she and Jim were then able to build up to a level of trust that he could engage with her breasts again.

Depersonalizing the response

For the partner who has experienced trauma, learning to separate your partner’s needs from your own feelings is a helpful way to maintain open and honest communication. Your partner is allowed to be disappointed that sex isn’t able to happen at this time. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or there’s something wrong with you. There is simply something they want and cannot have. Their job is to avoid using that disappointment as a way to manipulate you into getting what they want. Your job is to empathize with the disappointment without feeling like you need to fix it. Their feelings are theirs to deal with, but you can be a loving and supportive partner by showing up and listening to their pain. Again, if your partner is the one that enacted the traumatic experience, you may not be able to empathize/sympathize with them and that’s okay. You can remain neutral and encourage them to talk to their therapist or trusted friend/family member instead to process their emotions.

Remember: you are in this process together. The more you collaborate and see the trauma as something for you both to work through together, rather than making it one person’s problem, the more likely you are to experience a positive re-introduction to sex.

Rediscovering Pleasure

Once you’ve discussed triggers and boundaries, you can start to reintroduce pleasurable connection. A way to ensure a positive outcome for both of you is to get clear on your goals. If your goal is for you or your partner to orgasm,  your partner not to get triggered, to have your genitals respond a certain way, etc. you’re likely setting yourself up for pressure that leads to disappointment. Instead, if you make your goal to focus on pleasure and connection, you’re more likely to experience success.

For example, Jim initially wanted sex to be a time that he could touch Lisa’s breasts without her being triggered. While that can be a nice secondary goal, it ended up putting more focus on her breasts and made Lisa feel a pressure to figure out how to “get over” her feelings about them getting so much attention. Instead, I encouraged them to shift their goal of sex to be focusing on pleasurable connection. I encouraged Jim to consider other ways in which he could feel connected to Lisa, even without her breasts being part of the picture. This shift allowed them both to move their focus to a place of connection, rather than about a specific outcome.

One way to help couples rebuild connection is through non-goal oriented body exploration. This is usually done through a method called Sensate Focus. The idea is that you start with non-genital body exploration and touch and progressively add erogenous zones each week as you feel comfortable. A simplified version of this would be to set aside thirty minutes, distraction free, and take turns exploring each other’s bodies. Notice what areas feel off limits and what areas feel comfortable or even pleasurable (and remember, pleasure doesn’t necessarily equal arousing). Lean into the places that are pleasurable and simply take note of those that are not. With each session of exploration, see if you can gradually explore the more uncomfortable places until they feel less threatening. The person receiving the touch should be the one guiding where they want to be touched. This creates a sense of body autonomy and safety.

You can also focus on pleasurable touch outside of erotic settings. Notice if you can simply hold hands or make out or cuddle without any expectation of things having to go further. Savor these gentle pleasures that allow you feel connected.

Engaging in therapy

I highly recommend seeking therapeutic support from a trauma informed sex therapist if one or both of you have experienced trauma and are looking to explore sexual connection. It can be incredibly helpful to have a trained professional give guidance and recommendations on what would/would not be helpful as you start the exploration process. Otherwise, some people jump in too quickly and end up feeling re-traumatized, which can feel like a major setback (to be fair, this could happen even with the support of a therapist, but would be less likely).

A therapist can help you both feel supported, heard, and understood by the other and can provide some education on the impact of trauma on sexual and intimate connection. It can be a safe place to process and explore challenging emotions and can take some of the pressure off of the exploration process.


The impact of sexual trauma on one’s sex life can be confusing, painful, and disappointing. The trauma could’ve happened recently or years ago and it can still have an impact on one’s ability to show up sexually today. However, there is hope for being able to experience pleasure-filled and connected sex. It starts with adjusting expectations, going slow, and setting boundaries to help your body feel safe enough with your partner to explore a new way of connecting. Therapy can be an incredible holding space for that process. Remember that this connection comes at your own pace when you’re ready. Taking your time to learn to trust and honor your body will yield incredible results.

Photo by Min An

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