A qualitative study investigating the relationship between the meaning given to women's experiences of chidlhood sexual abuse and their interpersonal relationships

Allan, Katrina (1999). A qualitative study investigating the relationship between the meaning given to women's experiences of chidlhood sexual abuse and their interpersonal relationships. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e23e

Abstract

Objectives: - Research in the field of meaning and trauma has failed to examine how interpersonal factors might impact on how people come to understand their experience of childhood sexual abuse, or how this meaning might change over time. This research aimed to develop a greater understanding of the meaning women develop for their experience of childhood sexual abuse over the course of their lives. A further aim was to investigate the ways in which interpersonal factors might impact on the meaning derived for these experiences and to investigate whether these meanings impacted on relationships with others.

Design: - The study employed a qualitative research paradigm using a grounded theory methodology.

Method: - Sixteen female participants were sought. They were recruited from selfhelp organisations and NHS mental health services. Face to face interviews were conducted using a semi-structured interview schedule. The interviews aimed to develop a greater insight into participants' current and past understandings of the abuse, explanations for changes in meaning over time (if applicable), the influence of interpersonal relationships on the meaning of the abuse, the influence of the meaning of the abuse on interpersonal relationships and the nature of the support desired to help participants manage these meanings.

Results: - Participant responses were analysed using aspects of the grounded theory method. Categories and themes were generated from the data. The data suggests that different meanings were given to the experience of sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence when compared to the current time. In particular, most of the participants interviewed reported 'self-blame' and 'the self as bad or wrong' in childhood and adolescence whereas current meanings were more likely to be characterised by'perpetrator blame. The impact of the meaning of the abuse on interpersonal relationships, and the impact of interpersonal relationships on the meaning of the abuse, also differed between childhood, adolescence and the current time. In childhood and adolescence, most participants described feeling disconnected from others. In contrast, many participants reported fearing rejection and feeling worthless in relation to others in adulthood. Relationships with others were also reported to both modify and confirm abuse-related meanings, particularly in adulthood. The data generated suggests that the changes in meaning reported over time resulted from interpersonal life events and experiences, such as having children or forming close relationship with others.

Conclusions and Implications: - A tentative theoretical framework was developed from participants' responses to the research questions. This incorporated the difference in meanings that were given to the experience of childhood sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence when compared to the current time, and the relationship between these meanings and interpersonal relationships. A theoretical account was also developed to account for the changes in meaning given to participants' experiences of abuse from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Methodological and conceptual issues in the research have also been addressed and suggestions made for further research. Implications for clinical practice are considered.

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