The legacy of sexual abuse can be devastating for the victims - but what about their partners? David Cohen asks how they coped
More than two million men in the UK are married to women who have been sexually abused as children. At least a million more are in long-term relationships with women who were similarly abused, or raped as adults. Yet the question of how men cope with this traumatic legacy has rarely been addressed.

Many male partners feel guilty even addressing this question - after all, their pain can never be as great as that experienced by the victim. Low self-esteem, loss of trust, depression, lack of interest in sex, eating disorders and frequent contemplation of suicide - these are some of the enduring emotional and sexual distortions that victims live with. But it is precisely because the damage to a victim's psyche may be so profound, turning the couple's life upside-down, that the partner's plight needs to be taken seriously.

Paul Brown, a sex therapist, says: "The partner is in an invidious position because, as her husband, he is the subject of her love and affection, but, as a man, he is the object she most mistrusts and hates. He feels her ambivalence and may, in an attempt to resolve it, take on the burden of the abuser's guilt."

In addition, partners commonly feel guilt for their desires and fantasies (psychotherapists say that rape is a common male fantasy), confusion over how to approach sex, helplessness in their inability to "make it better", and despair that the healing of their spouse is so painstakingly slow.

That partners face a hard road is beginning to be recognised in the US, where workshops for partners have provided source material for an emerging body of literature, notably Allies in Healing: A Support Book for Partners, by Laura Davis (herself a survivor of abuse). But in the UK there is scant literature, research and support for partners.

Margaret Robinson, a therapist at the Institute of Family Therapy, admits that "regrettably we haven't thought about what the partner goes through because, like everyone, we've been focusing exclusively on the woman."

This mindset begins with the support agencies - Rape Crisis and Victim Support - who gear their resources almost entirely towards the counselling and practical support of women. "Although we provide counselling to male partners if asked, we do not offer it," says one Victim Support counsellor. Rape Crisis is even more exclusive - it refuses male partners any counselling at all, though it will point them in the direction of organisations such as Relate. As both support agencies are massively underfunded, it is understandable that women should be their priority, but perhaps what is missing, suggests Andrew Samuels, a Jungian psychotherapist, is a wider appreciation that the partner may play an important part in the recovery of the victim.

Denise Knowles, a Relate therapist, argues that "the impact on a marriage of prior sexual abuse is so devastating that it is unlikely the relationship can survive without both partners getting professional help. There are no short cuts to healing, but couples can get through it."

I was the target of her unresolved anger

Hugh is a social worker in London. His partner, Debra, was sexually abused by her father from the age of 4 to 15. They are in their thirties, have been together seven years and have three children.

When Debra told me early on in our relationship what her father had done to her ... and that he had done it for more than 10 years ... I was gutted. I wanted to be as supportive as possible. But her unresolved anger towards her father became a problem in our relationship. If we had a row, however insignificant, she gave vent to that anger by getting violent towards me. Minor things, like I'd get a cup of hot coffee thrown in my face or she'd punch me. Once I had to go into hospital with a cracked rib. Part of me understood that it wasn't her fault, that I was not the target. Her father had disempowered her and her anger towards me had to do with the fact that I was a man. It made me loathe myself. I felt terrible guilt.

Sex has never been straightforward for us. It was six months before we had penetrative sex, for example. Now Debra rarely initiates sex which means that I always have to make the first move. That is difficult because the line between seduction and coercion has been traumatised. Once Debra was lying with her back to me and I was touching her as a build-up to foreplay. On this occasion, unbeknown to me, she was asleep and when she woke up and realised what I was doing, she freaked out. She said that that was what her father had done to her. I felt awful and confused. But it's a difficult thing - she has a bad menstrual cycle which means long periods when we're unable to have sex and so, when I think I'm getting a response, I go for it. We talked it through, but the bottom line is we have no possibility of a normal sex life.

There are times when I feel that what Debra has brought into my life is too much to live with. I have sought counselling, but she has resisted therapy or been messed about by the NHS. That's been a frustration for me and we have split up three times, once for a year. At times I have felt suicidal with the never-endingness of it all. Once I took some pills, though clearly not enough.

It's not easy being the partner of someone who has been sexually abused. There is no real support offered to men by rape or abuse agencies. It is not even acknowledged that male partners have a problem.

I felt guilty even seeking outside help

Malcolm, 31, is a health worker whose wife, Sally, 30, was raped shortly before they became involved four years ago. They live in the north of England.

With time my wife's pain has diminished and she seems to be "over it", but on a deep level, I feel damaged by what has happened. The rapist took something he had no right to take. He took her virginity, her innocence, her trust. In violating her physically and psychologically, he took something from me, too. No matter how politically correct we are, at the heart of it a man sees his wife as something that on some basic level belongs to him. As men, we are raised to have a certain pride in ourselves as defenders. It's primeval, but I feel that I am less a man for being unable to protect her from being raped.

Early on in our relationship, if I said something slightly tactless or sexist, Sally would get extremely angry and scream and cry for a long time. My response was to find out what was wrong and to help put it right. But her pain was too deep. It left me feeling powerless and isolated. I had to accept that occasionally a raped woman gets unaccountably angry and lashes out. As the partner, you end up taking the punishment for a crime committed by another man. There is an element of injustice in that.

My wife expected, indeed society expected, that I would be able to cope. When I tried talking to men friends, they would frown, take it seriously, but soon forget. Men know rape is wrong, but they just don't realise what a horrendous and lasting legacy it leaves. I felt guilty even seeking outside support because my partner is the one who went through the trauma and my feelings will never be as deep as hers. It feels phoney to think of myself as a victim, though in a secondary way I am.

She warned me her mistrust would grow as we got closer

Stephen, 36, is a businessman from Somerset. His ex-partner, Sue, 45, was raped as a child.

Six months after we met, Sue broke down and confessed that she had been raped when she was 12 by the minister in her church. She added that having done it to her, he went on and raped others, and that although she knew that what he had done was wrong, she felt jealous that he had left her and transferred his affections elsewhere. She said that it had made her feel worthless and irrationally jealous and unable to trust men ever since. She said I was the first person she'd told in 30 years.

I wanted to help her, love her, cherish her. But she warned me that her mistrust of me would only get worse as we got closer. And that is precisely what happened. If I so much as talked to another female, or talked about a female colleague, the mere mention of their names would provoke a mood change and you could feel the jealousy rising.

She became bitter, vitriolic, paranoid that I would leave her. She knew she was being unreasonable but she claimed that she couldn't stop. And it made her hate herself.

I encouraged her to let it all out. I said that it wasn't her saying those things - it was him, what he had done. I made inquiries about therapy and she came very close to calling, but in the end she couldn't bring herself to. I understand: I saw how tortured she was when she talked about it. She says that the only way she can cope is by being alone, that it is just a matter of time before I, like her rapist, transfer my affections elsewhere.

So last month, after 15 months together, we split up. I'm angry, bewildered, bitter. We love each other. But the devastating action of this man 30 years ago has destroyed her ability to have a proper relationship. He screwed up her life and pulled the plug on our relationship even before we got started. Sue once said, "If anybody can get me through this, you can." I failed. The thing is, I don't know what more I could have done.

All names have been changed.