• Trigger Warning: This content includes scenarios that, while fictional, may be a close reflection of the actual experiences of survivors. Please proceed with caution and stop if the content leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

Can Childhood Sexual Abuse Cause Loneliness?

Experiencing the trauma of sexual abuse as a child can have long-lasting psychological effects, even well into adulthood.1 Since the abuse involved another person(s), survivors can endure severe emotional injuries like betrayal, self-hatred, and depression.2 These (and many other effects of abuse) can make it very difficult to connect with others or sustain meaningful relationships.

For most survivors of sexual abuse, the person who hurt them was someone they knew—someone who should have been protecting them. Because of this, the trauma of what physically happened, is compounded by feelings of deep emotional betrayal.2 Many feel additional betrayal when they disclose the abuse to someone who doesn’t respond helpfully or are betrayed by an imperfect justice system that didn’t serve them well.

Because the trauma occurred as their brain was developing, survivors of childhood sexual abuse may also encounter an additional difficulty—emotional numbness. Both during and after the abuse, your brain and body may have ingrained the message like “trusting is dangerous” and “connection leads to pain.” As a result, your brain naturally tries to find ways to avoid betrayal and abandonment in the future. Sometimes this means you become numb during relationships. For others, it might mean desperately clinging to relationships, even if the relationship becomes unhealthy. And for many, it means avoiding relationships altogether.

To be capable of love but not to be able to sustain a normal loving relationship is a devastating price to pay for what happened. But the great news is that we can make progress in this area if we are intentional about it.Anna Runkle

What Can Loneliness Look Like in the Lives of Survivors?

Taking opportunities for some “alone time” is a common prescription recommended by many individuals these days. One person might enjoy the solitude of visiting a calm mountain lake. A creative writer might choose to isolate themselves for a week while they dedicate their time and energy to focus on a special project. But the loneliness experienced by survivors is different than the productive alone time that others are familiar with. For many survivors, being alone is not enjoyable or helpful at all.3


Examples

Georgina and her brother were abused by a member of her family. She still has difficulty managing her feelings of anger when she attends family events and sees her abuser. For years, she has chosen to avoid family events, but deeply misses seeing members of her extended family.

Bonnie’s co-workers describe her as guarded and shy. She wants to develop friendships and socialize with others but doesn’t know how. When she was young, she didn’t really have friends because it was hard to trust anybody.

Brandi is vivacious and has lots of “flings” with men she meets at school. It isn’t uncommon for her to spend time with a new guy each weekend. But if you asked Brandi who she would call if she had a personal crisis, she wouldn’t be able to name anyone. Deep connections just don’t seem to exist in her life.

Elena gets incredibly anxious when other people invite her to join social events. More often than not, she leaves early or doesn’t show at all. It is just easier for her to stay home and keep to herself. She describes it as “having my radar always on high alert.” It is exhausting.

Tanya has been with her partner for three years but still uncontrollably lashes out in moments of frustration. Tanya wonders to herself why anyone would choose to be with her. She thinks it is just a matter of time before her partner will give up and leave.

Shawnda took a big step last year and started seeing a therapist to process through the events of her abusive childhood. It took lots of work, and she is tremendously proud of the progress she has made. Shawnda wishes she had more people in her life whom she could share her private feelings with, not just her therapist or her support group.


Whichever manifestation loneliness takes in the life of a survivor, it extracts a double price. Not only do they have to battle the emotional scars of the past, but they don’t get to enjoy the strength and support that comes by having nurturing connections with others in the present. And it is this connection with others that can make the difference between overcoming betrayal, depression, and despair or eventually succumbing to them.

Is Connection Really Worth It?

Seeking to form new social relationships or deepen the ones you already have can feel daunting, and you may be tempted to ask, “Wouldn’t it be easier to heal on my own?”

It is common for those who experienced abuse to adopt this mentality, but the truthful answer is that complete healing simply cannot occur in isolation.4 Retreating from relationships was an important survival mechanism developed as a result of your abuse, but fully recovering from trauma will always involve allowing others to participate in your life and allowing them to show they will not violate your trust or vulnerability.

Not all social connection needs to take the same form.5 Romantic partners, community involvement, friendships, or therapeutic confidants might be the first images that come to mind, but finding your tribe can look differently for each individual. Nurturing your connections with others can lead to multiple benefits.

  • Social support can help a survivor heal from many of the emotional side effects of child sexual trauma.6,7,8
  • Greater social support leads to better health and a longer life. 9
  • Hearing others’ stories and advice can give you new perspectives on your own experience.
  • Receiving validation from others can help improve self-esteem.6
  • It gives you an opportunity to love and support others on their journey, which in itself can be healing. 9

A Path to Healing Through Social Connection

Building healthy relationships and connections with others can be a key part of healing from past abuse. We all need support from individuals in our lives who we trust and who care about our wellbeing. If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, this is even more true.4 Your ability to overcome the effects of past abuse can be accelerated by surrounding yourself with healthy and secure connections, where you both receive support and contribute while feeling safe to do so.

Seek out individuals with whom you can interact on a regular basis. Build trust over time. Allow others to build deeper relationships with you. Find people who can share honest feedback when they sense you need extra support, but also will accept your boundaries.

Resources to Help Combat Loneliness

Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you combat the loneliness you are currently experiencing.

Building a Support Network

Sometimes negative self-talk or fears prevent us from letting others get to know us. However, there is immense power in creating a support system of people who you can call upon for aid in a crisis or lean upon when taking new steps to connect with others.

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Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Take a look at some common thinking errors (often referred to as cognitive distortions) that prevent us from taking the next step in securing healthy connections with others. You may find that in order to connect with others, you first need to connect with yourself and address thinking patterns that are pulling you down. As you review these thinking errors, remember to practice speaking kindly to yourself, just as you would to someone for whom you care deeply.

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Creating Intentional Behaviors

Taking opportunities to find or strengthen social connections can feel like a foreign concept, especially if you’ve been relying on isolation as a coping skill for many years. But however strange or daunting seeking social connections can feel at first, you can, over time, become more practiced and comfortable with building such connections through intentional, consistent behavior.

learn more
References:
2. Hall, M., & Hall, J. (2011). The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. Retrieved from http://counselingoutfitters.com/vistas/vistas11/Article_19.pdf
3. Victor, C., Scambler, S., Bond, J., & Bowling, A. (2000). Being alone in later life: Loneliness, social isolation and living alone. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 10, 407–417.
4. Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.
5. Matthews, T., Fisher, H. L., Bryan, B. T., Danese, A., Moffitt, T. E., Qualter, P., ... & Arseneault, L. This is what loneliness looks like: A mixed-methods study of loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0165025420979357.
6. Hyman, S. M., Gold, S. N., & Cott, M. A. (2003).Forms of Social Support That Moderate PTSD in Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors. Journal of Family Violence, 18(5), 295-300.
7. Murray, L. K., Nguyen, A., & Cohen, J. A. (2014).Child Sexual Abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 23(2), 321-337.
8. Asberg, K., & Renk, K. (2014).Perceived Stress, External Locus of Control, and Social Support as Predictors of Psychological Adjustment Among Female Inmates With or Without a History of Sexual Abuse. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 58(1), 59-84.
9. Siedlecki, K. L., Salthouse, T. A., Oishi, S., & Jeswani, S. (2014).The Relationship Between Social Support and Subjective Well-Being Across Age. Social Indicators Research, 117(2), 561-576.