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What is Dissociation and does it affect survivors of childhood sexual abuse?

Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience a phenomenon common to trauma survivors known as dissociation. Husbands of those survivors can be unfamiliar with the phenomenon’s existence and fearful of its expression. Dissociation is a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, identity, and general perception of self and the environment (DSM-IV-TR). Dissociation serves as a means of self-protection against the terror or horror of the abuse. When the common experience of dissociation becomes a practiced pattern, it develops into a disorder known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

If you are an NFL enthusiast and over the age of 30, then you probably remember Herschel Walker. Walker was a premier running back whose NFL career extended from 1986-1997, playing for the Dallas Cowboys for six of those years. After his career as a professional athlete, Walker went on to be a successful businessman.

As Walker contended against eleven defensive players each week, little did the fans know that he was also contending with twelve “players” within his own being. In his book, Breaking Free: My life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Walker stated, “I didn’t realize then that there was inside of me a kind of chorus or a cast of actors each taking their turn to step into the spotlight to take charge. I now understand that there may have been as many as twelve distinct alters enabling me to cope with my reality. Some of them were aware of the presence of others, some were not” (p. xv).

Walker went on to explain that the alters (meaning an alternate identity) are created in order to dissociate from a painful, traumatic event. Though Walker’s childhood trauma did not include sexual abuse, he wisely noted that dissociation explains how a victim of incest can remain living in the same house as his/her abuser. The dissociation enables an alter to be created who then suffers the abuse. “When DID is present, that alter is the one present during the abusive episodes, but is not the one seated at the breakfast table the morning after the attack chatting away as if nothing had happened” (p. 16). Dissociation functions to shelter the abused child from the pain and memory. A survivor jumps from the intolerable to the tolerable when dissociation occurs.

No husband of a childhood sexual abuse survivor should attempt to render a diagnosis of his wife. The identification of dissociation and diagnosis of DID is to be determined by a qualified professional counselor. At the same time, I believe it is essential for husbands of survivors to be informed of the phenomenon and equipped to offer an emotionally supportive response.

I interviewed Wes who is the husband of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. His wife, Jyl, experienced dissociation. Wes used the word “switching” to describe Jyl’s experience. Jyl’s switching, or dissociation, sometimes followed a disturbing nightmare.

One night, Jyl had a dream that took her back to everything that had happened to her in one incident of her childhood sexual abuse. She awoke disturbed from her dream. Wes, aware of what had happened, got a notebook and instructed her to record what she had just experienced so that she could talk it through with her counselor at her next appointment. Wes described what he then witnessed.

When I turned and looked at her, that was probably the most shocking experience because I saw her grasping at the pen in a little kid’s hand and trying, in little kid’s handwriting, to 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. I turned to her and I saw a look on her face that was the look of childish bewilderment. [I thought], this kid doesn’t know how to handle this.

Accepting the existence of dissociation as a psychological phenomenon was a learning process for Wes and for any husband whose wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The existence of dissociation adds to life’s uncertainties, affects intimacy, and can be perplexing. When Wes described coming home from work at the end of the day, he said, “I’m going to find either a wife or a kid.”

Dissociation is not always as dramatic as cited in Jyl’s experience. There are degrees of severity and in how it manifests. Here are a few examples of dissociating from survivors of childhood sexual abuse:

• Not being able to remember segments of the day
• Wishing to be called by another name that is completely different from one’s given name or nickname
• Being somewhere and not knowing how you got there
• Covering one’s eyes and being unable to speak

As stated at the beginning of this blog, husbands of survivors who dissociate can be unfamiliar with the phenomenon’s existence and fearful of its expression. Better understanding of how dissociation occurs can reduce the fear.

Watch for my next blog in which I will explain how dissociation occurs and offer some suggestions to husbands for when it occurs.

6 Responses on “What is Dissociation and does it affect survivors of childhood sexual abuse?

  1. Heather says:

    This article is very helpful. Still, it seems to forget that males are also victims of sexual abuse. It may be a wife having to support a husband.

    1. You are certainly correct, that males are also victims of childhood sexual abuse. Cecil Murphy has done a great job of addressing wives whose husbands are victims. The focus of MRM is on husbands whose wives are victims, but that is not to disregard other tragic scenarios of abuse.

  2. Ron says:

    I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse for over a decade. When I am stressed or anxious, the first thing I do is cover my eyes. I am also frequently unable to speak when I am in hose states.

  3. Ray K says:

    Explains why wife does not wish to be referred to as “Pat”.
    Adamant that she be known as Patricia”.

    1. Yes! Exactly! I have found it best to honor the wish and to help others honor it as well. A survivor can feel like they’ve been stabbed by a knife when called by the name that is so closely associated with the abuse.

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