Husbands married to wives who are victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) want to know where they are on the journey of healing and when they’ll get to the destination of resolve. So they ask:
When will this finally be over?
When will we get through this?
How long will this take?
The emotional pain for wives as survivors and for husbands as secondary survivors is often intolerable. So we ask the questions – I sure have – hoping to find out how long this painful journey will last. But there doesn’t seem to be any “mile markers” and if there were it seems that we are at mile zero.
It’s natural to ask these questions. After all, who likes pain? But it’s also natural for babies to poop in their diapers. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s desirable. It occurs to me that my two daughters asked the same questions from the back seat of our car when they were preschoolers; “When will this [trip] finally be over?” I conclude that these questions that some of us husbands ask are not a sign of maturity and might be a sign of immaturity. Nevertheless, we wonder where we are in the journey that has placed us in what seems to be a god-forsaken desert.
Several years ago, an extensive study was done of couples whose relationship was affected by CSA. Two things were observed about these couples who were traveling a road in marriage just like you and me.
First, there was an inter-connectedness; the husband mirrored the wife’s experience and vice versa. When a wife who was the victim of CSA experienced trauma through a nightmare or flashback, her husband experienced some degree of trauma as well. Similarly, when a wife progressed towards healing, her husband was also likely to make progress. But the wife’s healing also relied on the progressive healing of her husband. As distant as you might feel from your wife, or she from you, couples tend to travel through the stages of trauma and healing together.
Second, the experience of the couples in the study indicated six “mile markers” to this pathway through which we travel from trauma towards healing. I’ll address the first three markers in this blog and the subsequent stages in my next blog.
Marker 1: Pre-trauma stage
The pre-trauma stage occurs prior to the disclosure of abuse or prior to the time when the reality of the abuse can no longer be pushed into the subconscious. It is a period of turmoil, often an ambiguous turmoil. In my own experience, a perturbing darkness and sense of hopelessness began plaguing my wife for the first time in her adult years. Her bright countenance was slowly disappearing. I mirrored her trauma with my own confusion.
When I interviewed Bryan, a husband of a survivor, I asked what it was that prompted his wife’s disclosure of her CSA. He answered,
“She wasn’t prepared to tell me. I caught it. And, I asked her point blank, ‘Were you molested?’ I recognized what I saw.”
Bryan went on to explain what he recognized.
“I was also molested as a child from 12-15, by a family member. I recognized the frustration, shame, anger, and sadness that all go with childhood sexual abuse. It was fairly easy for me to recognize my own feelings in her.”
For Bryan, the pre-trauma was recognizing his own abuse through his wife. For his wife, her pre-trauma stage consisted of experiencing some effects of her abuse without yet acknowledging to herself the reality of the abuse.
The pathway from trauma to healing is not a direct route. Throughout the process, and at any time, we circle back to earlier mile markers. This was the experience for Nate, another husband that I interviewed. His wife was thrown back into the Pre-trauma stage when she had additional recall of her abuse. Nate described one incident.
“I remember once we were traveling to another state and she started doing this finger thing. I could tell, ‘Oh, here we go.’ She maybe sometimes would start crying or whatever. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘I remember something about a motorcycle and ah, the woods . . .’ It went on for a few minutes . . . A lot of times, those things happened right when she was on the edge of sleep, right when she was dosing off. . . . She was dosing off and she just got this uneasy feeling and this fragment of a memory happened.”
Sometimes we don’t know that we are in the pre-trauma stage until we come to the next mile marker.
Marker #2: Trauma awareness
Reaching the trauma awareness stage is dependent upon the timing of the victim’s disclosure and her husband’s readiness to hear the disclosure.
Nate offered a vivid example of his trauma awareness. He described an occasion when his wife’s nightmare depicted everything that had happened to her in one incident of her CSA. When she awoke in a disturbed state, Nate got a notebook and instructed her to record what she had just experienced. Nate described what happened.
“When I turned and looked at her it was probably the most shocking turning point and experience because I saw her grasping the pen as though in a little kid’s hand and trying to, in little kid’s handwriting, write what was happening to her. It was in the vocabulary of a little kid. It just rocked me because I didn’t think that was possible.”
Nate’s trauma awareness was exposed by his description of the event being “shocking.” His wife’s trauma awareness was obvious.
Marker #3: Crisis and disorientation
The effects of CSA include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, shame, nightmares, paralyzing fear, flashbacks, life dominating mistrust of people, sexual aversion or sexual perversion. Some effects were developed as coping strategies such as dissociation, withdrawal, and even spending sprees. The effects and the coping strategies, though they might lie latent for a time, eventually evolve to fuel crisis and disorientation.
Crisis and disorientation can become evident through our conversations. An indicator of crisis and disorientation is when a husband wonders, “What just happened?” or “What is happening?” Bryan recounted his conversations with Mandy regarding the lack of sexual intimacy. He said,
“I start off with the best of intentions and it seems somehow to always flip over on me and become my issue, not hers. This is really confusing. There’s days I walk into the conversations, I’m like, ‘Ok, how did that happen?’”
The sexual relationship is another setting of crisis and disorientation. As one example, the marker of crisis and disorientation is starkly evident when the victim of abuse confuses the present intimacy of love and trust with the past injury of violation and hurt.
Derek, another husband of a victim of childhood sexual abuse captured the frustration inherent in the crisis and disorientation. He said,
“I couldn’t fix it; couldn’t do anything about it. . . I can’t process this. I either want to go cry because I’m so sad that it happened and she has to deal with this, or, since I know the perpetrator, I want to shoot him.”
“When will this finally be over?”
Questions like this are unproductive and even counterproductive. The questions fail to help our wives and furthermore hinder the process of healing by prompting them to conclude, “If this is not good for him then it is not safe for me. So I’ll shut down.”
This journey is not traveled in a straight line. Sometimes we circle back to previous mile markers. But hopefully these markers have helped you see more clearly where you currently are along the path.
We’ll look further down the route in my next blog at three more “mile-markers”: outward adjustment (personal and relational), reorganization (personal and relational), and integration & resolution. We’ll also consider the importance of the “now.”
For Reflection and Application
- Make a bullet point list of what you’ve experienced and observed over the past two weeks in your relationship with your wife.
- Make a second list of what you’ve observed in the past two weeks regarding your wife.
- Make a third list of what you personally have been experiencing and thinking.
- Looking at your lists, see if the observations and experiences fit into the first three stages of the journey from pre-trauma to resolution.
- I’m interested in your comments.
Remer, R., & Ferguson, R. A. (1995, March-April). Becoming a secondary survivor of sexual assault. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73, 407- 413.