Grant recently told me of a loss that his wife had experienced. The lost item had significant financial value. Grant’s wife, Callie, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Grant and Callie, not their real names, have both given me permission to share this incident that offers insights into wives who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
When Callie realized the loss, she became distraught. Her distress was aimed inward in self-hatred and outwardly blaming God. As Grant and I talked about the loss and Callie’s anguish that accompanied it, I noted how Grant’s response to her demonstrated his wisdom in understanding the life of a survivor. Here are three insights we need to know when survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience loss.
- Distress in the present can mirror a trauma of the past.
As Callie wrestled with and expressed her dark feelings, Grant realized that her past was likely once again invading her present. Just as the sudden, loud, unexpected bang of a slamming door might send a war veteran under a table for cover because the past trauma of war conditioned him to take cover at the sound of any blast, so also a survivor’s present distress can mirror the trauma of past abuse. For Callie, her present loss of a valuable item erupted emotions that had accompanied a much deeper loss in her past, the loss of her innocence.
Callie’s specific reactions were not uncommon as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Survivors often struggle with self-hatred. They feel that the abuse was their fault in some way. In many cases, their perpetrator told them that the abuse was their fault. Or if they were not told it was their fault, survivors blame and hate themselves because they feel that they should have done something to stop the abuse. The truth is that survivors were powerless to stop their perpetrator; that’s what makes it “abuse.” The survivor is overpowered.
It is also common in their loss that survivors blame God. The big dilemma for survivors is, “Where was God when I was being abused? Didn’t he care? How can he ever be trusted?” Survivors can hold God and themselves responsible for the abuse that was not committed by them.
Husbands of survivors can learn from Grant when their survivor wives have what might seem to be an overreaction to a current loss. For our wives, as for Callie, being distraught was not simply about an expensive item. Her current loss opened a fissure that exposed the hot lava of a much greater loss, the loss of her innocence.
- The silencing of victims of childhood sexual abuse exacerbates the trauma of the loss.
Callie was able to express her self-hatred and blame to Grant. He was wise to be available and to listen. As a result, she was eventually able to come to a point of resolve.
But imagine what it is for a child who has suffered at the hands of an adult perpetrator and has also been threatened in some way by that perpetrator to keep silent. As husbands of survivors, we really cannot grasp the intensity and insidious nature of such silencing and the conflict churning within the victim. The abuse was bad enough in itself. Having to keep quiet about it exacerbates the trauma.
Once survivors begin speaking, the best response for those around them is to start listening and to listen compassionately. I’ve been emphasizing recently that it is best to allow survivors to talk out their feelings rather than trying to talk them out of their feelings. Resolve and healing can come as survivors are given freedom to speak and the gift of being heard.
- Loss is not replaced
Grant had the God-given sense of what not to say. He demonstrated great wisdom in not telling his wife, “Honey, don’t worry. We can replace it with a new one.”
Yes, the item could be replaced and probably has been replaced by now. But remember, Grant knew that the depth of Callie’s distress over the current loss was because of her greater loss, the loss of her innocence.
When I speak of “loss of innocence,” I am not suggesting that a survivor is “damaged goods” and that they are flawed people. No! But their innocence has been deeply marred by touches, words, looks, knowledge, violations, smells, penetrations, pain, betrayals, and lies that they should never have had to endure. Innocence is lost in the sense that though there is hope and healing that can occur, the violation against them cannot be erased.
Grant has demonstrated important insights to be remembered by all of us who are husbands of survivors of childhood sexual abuse.