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Childhood Sexual Abuse: How to Respond to the Distorted Perceptions of Survivors

Childhood sexual abuse inflicts and imprints a distorted lens through which the survivor interprets – or misinterprets – life. The distortion affects the survivor’s perception of life, God, men, themselves, sexuality, etc. It is difficult to identify an aspect of human life not affected by this imprint. That is not to say that all survivors have a distorted perception of all life’s aspects. But all aspects can be distorted by childhood sexual abuse.

Among the vast array of potential distortions for the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the compromised sense of safety and ability to trust can have a direct and damaging affect on a marriage relationship.

The Survivor’s Sense of Safety is Compromised

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often live in some level of anxiety, constantly “on guard” in order to identify potential sources of threat. When entering a room full of people, many survivors conduct a rapid scan of the surroundings in order to determine the apparent safe place to sit or stand. Seats at or near the end of the row are preferred so that there is no sensation of being trapped because the survivors were trapped when they were abused. Doors and exits are noted as survivors never want to again be in a situation they cannot escape. Though others who were never sexually abused may prefer the same seats, survivors of abuse conduct their assessment with an underlying anxiety; blood pressures can even elevate.

The survivor’s hyper alertness to perceived risk or danger can lead to patterns of:

  • Overprotection of self and children
  • Aversion to risk
  • Avoidance of social settings
  • Compulsive behaviors

These patterns of behavior can be frustrating to the spouse of the survivor. The imposed limitations to freedom can adversely affect the couple’s social and recreational life and parenting style.

The Survivor’s Ability to Trust is Compromised

Common phrases stated in therapy by survivors of childhood sexual abuse are, “It’s too dangerous for me to let my wall down” and “I will never trust him.”

Dan, whose wife Nikki is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, talks about the recurring conflict between he and Nikki. Believing that he had lived enough years being trustworthy, Dan often protested to Nikki, “It’s like I can’t climb this dang mountain fast enough or high enough to get over whatever imaginary barrier you’ve set.”

Dan described his relationship with Nikki as,

“Like eggshells, not knowing what’s going to set her off . . . what am I going to do that’s going to put her in a place that I’m going to get penalized or . . . explain myself for something I didn’t do . . . For us it was always centered on trust . . . Like, ‘every other man has hurt me, and you’re going to be just the same.’ That was the default . . .”

So how can husbands of survivors respond constructively to their wives’ compromised sense of safety and trust? Here are three recommendations:

  1. Develop and Maintain Understanding 

    The general purpose of this blog and others on the Marriage Reconstruction Ministries site is to educate and explore. We seek to educate families and the public regarding the effects of childhood sexual abuse and their affect on marriage. From there, we explore healthy and helpful responses to those effects. So the first step in forming a healthy response is to understand the root of the compromised safety and trust. 

    The survivor’s sense of safety and trust were compromised in having been betrayed by adults in childhood. The betrayal was germinated when an adult, perhaps parent, whom they rightfully trusted and upon whom they depended, inflicted harm upon them rather than caring for their wellbeing. God intends that children develop a sense of safety and security from their parent or caregiver. But when an adult caregiver violates that trust, the ability to trust is sabotaged into adulthood.A husband’s response to his wife is healthier when monitored by understanding the root of the mistrust and compromised safety. The understanding then needs to be maintained due to the variety and unpredictable ways the distorted perceptions might be manifested.

  1. Monitor Yourself 

    There are husbands who live in consistent fidelity and offer enduring support and reassurance to their wives. Yet, their consistency can still prove to be futile as their wives, as survivors, cannot free themselves of the fear that their partner might someday prove to be untrustworthy.However, there are also husbands, who because of their own past misfortune or mistakes privately indulge in pornography or other indulgent behavior. Oddly, these same husbands gripe at their wives’ resistance to fully trust and feel safe. For such husbands, individual wholeness should be pursued before there can be hope for marital wholeness.

  1. Validation & Acceptance 

    Most husbands, when not trusted, would retort, “It doesn’t make sense that you don’t trust me!!!” A healthier response would be to validate the root of the problem by saying something like, “It makes sense that trust is so difficult. I know that I too would struggle if I had been so betrayed.”As husbands, we often try too hard to talk our wives into safety and trust. But rather than attempting to change their minds, we will show love by creating an environment that is worthy of trust and safety. This does not mean removing all danger; we cannot do that on this side of heaven. But we can remove unnecessary threats.

    The betrayal done to our wives kindled the psychological impact of mistrust. Life is never the same after a parent or trusted adult sexually abuses a child. But a husband’s consistent faithfulness and love can build a new environment where trust and safety can be fostered.

Constance Nightingale wrote this about the experience of a survivor.

As sexual abuse is the most unloving thing that can happen to a child, then love is the key to our healing . . . the love that is acceptance of the people we are. It’s someone listening and believing, someone caring, and understanding the complex mix of our emotions; someone accepting all the rage, grief and terror we have concealed for so long; someone helping us to replace the old tape that told us we weren’t worth anything, were guilty and dirty, with a true new tape that speaks of our value, our innocence and essential goodness, and of our ability to take control over our own lives, and to trust ourselves and others. (Cited by Bray in Sexual abuse – the child’s voice: Poppies on the rubbish heap. 1997, p. 195)

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