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Childhood sexual abuse & marriage: I want my wife back!

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
world, and
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.

Resources Cited

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.

5 Responses on “Childhood sexual abuse & marriage: I want my wife back!

  1. Matthew says:

    So I know this article is a little dated…I see some comments are recent though. My wife informed me of her childhood sexual abuse just a little over a year ago. We had been married 11 years when she told me. Almost five years ago she cheated on me. I chalked it up to our financial issues. Seemed like that’s what we mostly fought about. I remember her telling me at one point that she wanted to go to marriage counseling. I told her it was just a rough patch and we would soon be more financially stable and we could do more things together and enjoy each other more…get away from married with children life etc. I didn’t see the signs. Just didn’t think that she would ever do something like cheat. Her cheating partner got caught by his wife. She slowly over the course of three days sent my heart and life through a shredder. Started off by telling me it was an emotional affair, the next day she told me she had met and kissed him, the next day, which was our youngest daughter’s birthday, she told me it was a full sexual affair. She begged me not to leave her and asked me to go to counseling. I reluctantly agreed but made her no promises. I took her back a couple days later, probably too soon I guess I don’t know. We continued counseling and I thought things were good two years post d-day. She then finished her degree and became a teacher. The month after she began her teaching career I got laid off and we were back to financial troubles. She started hanging out with her teacher friends and another friend who was now single after going through divorce. She started going on girls trips seemed like monthly. She was spending money we didn’t have. After one trip I looked in her luggage and there was lingerie. I immediately texted her who it was for. Oh, btw, a few months before that I found a nude picture of her on her laptop…I had not ever received this picture. She said she like the way she looked and took the photo and emailed it to herself. Asked her to show me the email. She said she had deleted it. After I discovered the lingerie I immediately texted her and asked who it was for. She got defensive just like a cheater does. She said her frien had told her to buy something that made her feel good and wear it out under her clothes. I put my faith in her. We started going to counseling. I had been checking our phone records and noticed a few numbers from out of state. I started researching them. I eventually looked in her phone, which she had been guarding closely for a while. Some of the numbers had men’s names in her contacts. After another girls trip, the morning after when she was coming home, she had told me she had a bad dream about consent. She stopped responding to texts and calls. She was crying all morning and the girl she was riding with obviously noticed her state but told her she didn’t want to talk about it. During the three hour drive home she stopped responding to texts and calls. Oh, I had discovered that she had been using a chat app…Kik. Had discovered that a few weeks before this. She said it was to connect with other teachers and such. I decided to come home from work when she would not respond and found her in bed crying. For some reason this is when I decided to ask about the numbers that had men’s names attached to them. She lied about it and said there was not a mans name but a women’s name that was very close to a mans name. I began to walk out. She said “so we are done”. I again asked who the man was in her contacts. She finally admitted that the man was someone from a childhood sexual abuse group from Kik. I felt like shit. Oh she had also lied about a one or two other things in the weeks leading up to this. I told her I was not comfortable with her discussing these issues with men. Told her she could not keep lying to me. She said she would cut contact with the men in her group. I told her I was totally fine with her keeping in touch with the women. A few months later I was feeling the disconnect again. I began searching again. I found an appointment card for her doctor in one of her drawers. Turns out it was to get an IUD, she did not tell me about this. I did not tell her I had found it and asked her what was going on as I felt a disconnect. She said we were fine and when I pressed she got defensive and said maybe we’re not okay. Like now I was accusing her of something. I backed off and, through recommendations from people on an infidelity site, I waited to see if she would go through with it without telling me. The day came for her to have it put in. I came home and confronted her. She acted defensive and couldn’t believe what I was suggesting. I explained that from her lying and hiding things it was hard for me to accept what she was telling me. She said it was to control heavy periods, which she had been having. I let it go and put my trust in her. A few months later I saw that one of the men had texted her. I confronted her and suggested I call the man and have a little talk. She said it was incoming and she had not responded and again got defensive again and was upset that I would think there was something going on. Soon after that she got a new phone and all of a sudden my password wouldn’t work to view our phone bill and records. She had since told me she had deleted her KIk account but still talked to one of the women from the group. Recently, just two days ago, still feeling a disconnect, I looked at her phone while she was in the shower. When you double click on the home button of an iPhone it shows you all the open apps. One of them was the FaceTime app and what did I see…a call to or from one of the men. When I clicked on the app to look closer that entry disappeared. I left for work quickly because I was enraged, upset, sad, etc. Did not confront her. Have spent the last two days trying to figure out what to do. So you can probably see my dilemma…I am supposed to back her and comfort her…but how do I know what is real any more. What is the truth? She has told me recently when she is having a bad day regarding abuse to be patient with her. Seems like I am just being played for a fool. Maybe she is not actually cheating but she is still lying and hiding things. How long am I supposed to wait? I have read that marriage counseling will do no good until she receives counseling for abuse. She keeps telling me she will go but it hasn’t happened. I love her more than anything. I am a loving husband, a good father and she will tell you the same. I know her lying and hiding things is a coping mechanism. I’ve explained many times that her actions suggest that she does not want to be in this marriage but she keeps telling me she does. Sorry about the novel but I am desperate to know the real truth. Where do I fall in those four keys to understanding and responding to the sense of loss?

    1. It is very difficult for husbands when their wives do not yet seek counseling for the trauma of their past abuse. But in keeping with the fact that loss is an opportunity for growth, I urge you to find a counselor who can help you sort out all that is going on and who can also identify ways in which you can experience new growth. This past week, I read again chapter 3 from the book, Ghosts in the Bedroom. The author states, “Finding ourselves in a relationship with the survivor of sexual abuse means we must look at ourselves to see why we were attracted to a person like that. Even if the sexual abuse issue had not been identified when we met, at a subconscious level we were in tune with each other and were communicating on the same wavelength. If we are in a close personal relationship with a sexual abuse survivor who is active in or needs therapy or a recovery program, it follows that we also need therapy or a recovery program” (p. 25). You are not responsible for how she treats you, but you are responsible for how you treat her and how you treat yourself. The best way to care for yourself is to allow a counselor to help you discover new ways to personal growth and freedom. That’s been my experience. I also think it is significant that your wife has wanted for the two of you to see a counselor. I agree that there needs to be individual counseling for both of you, but it is promising that she has wanted to get counsel together.

  2. Lisy Luisa says:

    My name is Lisy, I knew God united us and when it came to work together through Childhood Sexual Abuse Trauma, he walked away. I am just writing my memoir still 5 years later, I still have not accepted my divorce I trusted him to the end. And he is happily in another relationship.

    1. Too many relationships affected by childhood sexual abuse end up in divorce though it was never the original intent of either partner in the relationship nor of the Creator and designer of marriage. In my work with individuals whose circumstances are similar to yours, I have found that a Divorce-Care group has been very helpful for them. I hope you have found a group in your area.

  3. Mike says:

    I hear you……but traveling the road when my wife doesn’t want to travel it with me is such a long journey. Lament — absolutely. So…… How can I help her start? Share this blog…she doesn’t respond to that at all….counselling…..already has refused many times. I don’t even want this for me anymore — yes I would love to regain a little intimacy and a sex life — but I can honestly say I hurt for her. I watch her worship on a Sunday – and she is just lost and absorbed in the worship and praise of God….and I am so thankful she can go there. But I long for her to be free, and selfishly wish I could enjoy some of that freedom??

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