Three Steps to Personal Development for Spouses of Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors
The principles that govern my work with husbands include the necessity of self-awareness, self-care, and personal development.
The trauma inflicted by childhood sexual abuse and the long-term effects endured by survivors of abuse imposes unwanted challenges for both the survivor and spouse. I work with husbands of childhood sexual abuse survivors, helping them navigate in their marriage relationship in such a way that can foster both marital and personal health and growth. The principles that govern my work with husbands include the necessity of self-awareness, self-care, and personal development.
Self-awareness is a component of empathy. Empathy is knowing what it is to be in my wife’s shoes while simultaneously knowing what it is to be in my shoes. Understanding the trauma of abuse and its long-term effects can lead to a knowledge of what life is like for our wives. Knowing myself – my needs, desires, inclinations, motivations, etc. – can guard me from being enmeshed in my wife and reveals what it is to be on the other side of me.
Self-care acknowledges the needs and desires of which I have become aware and endeavors to meet those needs by engaging in relationships and activities that are morally appropriate, physically healthy, and emotionally rejuvenating.
The focus of this blog is on personal development. Researcher and speaker Kim Lear recently joined Cory Hepola on WCCO Radio in Minneapolis to talk about what she has learned about leadership and management in the workplace. At the end of the interview, Hepola asked Lear what one piece of advice she would give to people seeking a promotion or the job they really want. Her answer was the “ability to have a growth mindset.” The skills needed today are constantly changing, so one needs to be curious, able to change, and adapt.
The value placed on personal development – a growth mindset – in the workplace is also true for marriage and is especially applicable for marriages dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Lear’s highlighting of being “curious, able to change, and adapt” are as applicable to marriages impacted by childhood sexual abuse as they are for the workplace.
Husbands of survivors need to be curious, able to change, and adapt.
Many husbands of sexual abuse survivors read books on marriage in hopes of resolving some of their marital issues but receive little or no benefit from those books. One husband said, “I had to stop reading marriage improvement books, because it made me bitter.” Unfortunately, the content in the general books on marriage falls short of addressing the unique challenges for survivors of sexual abuse and their spouses and can even leave them feeling more hopeless.
However, there are available and valuable resources for husbands of survivors who are curious to learn. Husbands of survivors can benefit through knowledge gained from resources that specifically address the trauma of abuse, its effects, and its impact on relationships. A few are listed at the conclusion of this blog.
Husbands of survivors can benefit through knowledge gained from resources that specifically address the trauma of abuse, its effects, and its impact on relationships.
Learning about the effects of abuse enables spouses of survivors to understand the life perspective that might be driving various behaviors, fears, and distortions of the survivor.
Their curiosity and increased understanding can foster empathy; I know it has for me. With that empathy, much of my stress is alleviated as I realize that her struggles may affect me but they are not about me, assuming that I am living as a faithful and loving husband. Even more, any angst at her is also alleviated as I realize that her struggle is not of her choosing; it’s been imposed upon her by past trauma.
2. Able to Change
Anthony described his response to his wife’s disclosure of her childhood sexual abuse by stating, “Well, at first I couldn’t believe it because it was shaking my foundations, things that I believed. And now, we’re introducing something that throws all that stuff aside . . . now what do you do? Well, you’ve got to reconstruct something.”
“You’ve got to reconstruct something.”
Anthony knew that our task is not to change our wives. We grow and develop ourselves when we are willing to be the persons “under construction;” able to change and even be transformed.
Marriage Reconstruction Ministries is devoted to the process of reconstruction. Reconstruction is a change of mind that affects perceptions, assumptions, behaviors, and expectations. It may relieve anxiety in husbands of survivors as new understanding is developed and may lead to the rediscovery or discovery of positive connection with their wives who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Reconstruction is a change of mind that affects perceptions, assumptions, behaviors, and expectations.
Step two focuses on being “Able to Change” your mind. Step three focuses on being able to change your behavior; adapting.
The rules of engagement can shift in marriages for childhood sexual abuse survivors and their spouses. If your wife is a survivor, she may be independent one day and needy the next. One evening she may want to snuggle as you watch TV together and the next night she might move to the other end of the couch emotionally distant. One day you are her hero and that evening you might be her foe.
It would be easy for a husband to be confrontational during these contradictory incidents by either blaming or insisting on an answer to “why did you change?” She probably won’t have an answer that is satisfactory for you. Most likely, she has reverted to a long-established coping mechanism.
The best option for husbands is to adapt our behavior. One husband recently told me that when he made changes, his wife began making changes. Our own personal adjustment – or personal development – is much easier when we’ve taken the time to be curious and learn. We will then be more patient, wise, and compassionate.
Here’s what the behavioral adaptation might look and sound like when a husband’s wife has unexplainably moved to the other end of the couch, “Honey, it appears you want some space and that’s ok. Whenever you want to snuggle again, I’m here, open arms, loving and ready. If there is anything I need to know, you can tell me. But you don’t have to speak. Just know you are safe.”
Husbands who are curious, able to change, and adapt, will often see advance over time in the health of their marriages.
Recommended Resources for the Curious
Barshinger, C. E., LaRowe, L. E., & Tapia, A. T. (1995). Haunted Marriage: Overcoming the Ghosts of Your Spouse’s Childhood Abuse. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Graber, K. (1991). Ghosts in the Bedroom: A Guide for Partners of Incest Survivors. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Jones, D. S. (2012). When a Woman You Love Was Abused: A Husband’s Guide to Helping Her Overcome Childhood Sexual Molestation. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Ronzheimer, W. (2019). Help! My Wife is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse: Answers to Your Most Important Questions. To be released in early September.