Men who are married to victims of childhood sexual abuse might experience a marriage in which it seems like they’ve been married to two different women, especially if their wife’s disclosure of the abuse occurred several years into their marriage. Brent’s wife was outgoing and adventurous during the first ten years of their marriage. But after her disclosure of childhood sexual abuse, the wife Brent had known seemed to vanish as she became reclusive and somewhat reserved. Brent and other husbands married to childhood sexual abuse victims struggle with a sense of loss in their marriages wondering what happened to the woman they married.
In my research, a sense of loss ranked third among the top ten responses of husbands to the effects of their wives’ childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Husbands experienced the loss of a connection with their wives once she manifested CSA effects or began to process the trauma of the abuse. The loss was accompanied by loneliness and a sense of having been rejected.
From my interviews with men, Patrick referred to the loss in terms of Megan’s emotional absence. He stated that Megan was absent “because of her dealing with her own problems. You know, she’s not there for you.”
Nate’s loss was captured in his question to his wife’s counselor, “When do I get my wife back?” He added, “It’s frustrating because you help as much as you can and she’s not there.”
Another husband’s wife began manifesting the effects of her childhood sexual abuse 16 years into their marriage. His sense of loss was three-fold. First, he lost what had been a “normal” marriage in his view. After describing his wife’s loss of interest in him and their frequent struggles and fighting, he said, “I wanted the former woman I married.” Second, he was fearful of losing her. Not only did she want to leave the marriage and their daughters, she wanted to kill herself. Third, there was the loss of financial security, having to declare bankruptcy because of her spending sprees.
The loss can be experienced in daily functioning and performance. Victims of childhood sexual abuse develop coping mechanisms to override the pain of the trauma. For some victims, the quest for achievement serves as their coping mechanism. When they marry, their husbands cheer them on to further accomplishments. But years later, the coping mechanisms can no longer drown the pain. As the energy that had been expended in the coping mechanism gets redirected towards survival, the husband wonders what happened to the former woman he married.
The sense of loss often occurs in sexual intimacy. Women who have not yet been counseled through the damaging effects of childhood sexual abuse enter marriage with distorted notions about sexuality. They’ve been conditioned from the abuse to think that the sexual relation is about “servicing” a man. In marriage, she views sex as servicing her husband. This dysfunction is exacerbated if the husband has been or is involved in pornography because he consequently objectifies his wife. His distortion of her sadly fosters her servicing of him. When she begins to deal with the effects of her abuse, she might pull away from any sexual relation in an effort to no longer be controlled. Meanwhile, he believes he has lost something.
Here are four keys to understanding and responding to the sense of loss:
1. The loss is tormenting because of its ambiguous nature
Pauline Boss, in her book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief, identified two kinds of loss. The first, physical loss and psychological presence, refers to the kind of loss that is easily recognized, such as the death of a loved one. Even though the loved one is physically gone, the presence of the loved one lives on forever (psychologically) in the mind of the grieving person. The second form of loss, physical presence and psychological loss is ambiguous. The loved one of an Alzheimer’s patient has the ongoing physical presence of the patient but experiences the psychological loss. No longer is there cognitive or emotional connection.
Husbands of victims of childhood sexual abuse experience ambiguous loss, especially when the disclosure and processing of the abuse is further into their years of marriage. The husband experiences the loss of a psychological connection with his wife because her energy is redirected once she begins to process the trauma of the abuse. As with the men I interviewed, the husband wants the former woman he married and wonders when he will get his wife back. It can be maddening. But it is helpful to understand the kind of loss he is dealing with.
2. The loss is an opportunity for growth
We tend to idealize the past because we somehow forget the difficulties and failures of the past. This may be truer for husbands than for wives. But what we viewed as a normal marriage probably had dysfunctions that we did not recognize at the time. The examples cited earlier offer evidence of our skewed perspective.
If your wife pursued achievement as a coping mechanism, she was chasing after a mirage in her emotional desert. That was not a healthy way for her to live. As a response to your current situation, consider how you can offer her safety to be who she is today.
The earlier example of lost sexual intimacy highlighted past dysfunction. Emotional and relational growth begins when we accept sexual intimacy as a designed gift from God. This counter-cultural reorientation begins in our thinking.
3. Process the loss through lament
John Townsend, in Hiding from Love, stated “Make sadness your ally instead of your enemy. . . . This sadness, or grief, allows you to let go of what you cannot have in order to make room in your heart for what you can have.” When a person holds on to lost hopes they become vulnerable to depression. Depression resists processing the loss whereas lament “moves toward resolving the loss.” Solomon spoke of the value of lament. “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 7:4).
I suggest the following steps of lament:
a. Acknowledge, mourn, and accept that disorienting loss
and trauma are part of this world,
b. Release the contaminating expectation for a perfect
c. Surrender to God’s sovereignty as He places us in His
larger redemptive story.
You’ll need some time to go through these steps especially since lament is so counter-cultural. After going through the steps, repeat the process on behalf of your wife and the losses she has endured from the CSA. Lamenting frees husbands to communicate with their wives in a way that is other-centered.
4. Love your wife for who she is
The experiences and growth stages of our lives are like the rings in a tree. Your situation today is represented by a single ring. There are many other rings through which we have grown and there are more to come. The current ring is not the whole story; it’s just part of the story.
There are certain rings in my past that I wish were not there. They are rings that no one would find easy to love. Nevertheless, those rings exist and all the rings together are part of who I am today. To love me today is to accept all the rings that make me who I am today. To love your wife is to accept all the rings that make her who she is today. To love your wife today is to stop missing the one you thought you had.
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Townsend, J. (1991). Hiding from love: How to change the withdrawal patterns that isolate and imprison you. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.