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Have you Experienced the Contagious Nature of Trauma? (Part 1)

My interviews with husbands whose wives are victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) consistently revealed that trauma is not insulated or isolated with their wives. Researchers Carolyn Maltas and Joseph Shay’s extensive study of the contagious nature of trauma was reported in their work, “Trauma Contagion in Partners of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse” in a 1995 article of American Journal of Orthopsychiatric. CSA does not occur in a vacuum. Being exposed to the trauma of CSA can be traumatic within itself. Consequently, spouses of CSA survivors are often referred to as “secondary survivors” or “secondary victims.”

In this first part of a two-part series, I present four real life scenarios of how the effects and trauma of CSA can have a ripple effect on husbands. You might relate to Clint, Nate, Adam, or Wade.

Clint said that the change for him was “almost overnight,” stating that his wife, Becky, became “a non-functioning wife”. He elaborated by saying,

“She was listless . . . She wanted to sleep all day. . . . I’d have to physically pick her up out of the bed, stand her up, . . . I’d walk her into the shower, turn on the shower . . .”

Becky’s depression included isolation and lack of interest in their daughters. Clint recalled, “she started talking about moving out and getting away from all of it. She didn’t want the girls. And, she wanted a new life.”

Another husband, Nate, came in the house after being out one night and described how he found Jamie.

“I came in the bedroom. She was curled up in the closet, shaking, convulsing. And then she just confessed to me all kinds of stuff no guy wants to ever hear. She confessed to me the child abuse. She confessed to me an affair. She confessed to me promiscuous stuff before we were married that I didn’t know about. She let it out. And I just, all I could do was hold her. She goes, ‘You hate me. I’ll pack up. I’ll leave.'”

Perhaps you can relate to Adam who described what he observed when Jody journaled after a nightmare about her CSA.

“When I turned and looked at her, that was probably the most shocking turning point in my experience because I saw her grasping at the pen as in a little kid’s hand and, ah, trying to in printed little kid’s handwriting write what was happening to her. . . . It was in, ah, the vocabulary of a little kid . . . it just rocked me because I didn’t think that was possible.”

[This phenomena is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and will be addressed in a future blog).

Wade’s wife experienced a less common effect that has been associated with CSA. The long-term effects of CSA have indicated that some husbands live under the threat of their wife’s potential criminal activity. Shoplifting has been noted as a possible behavioral outcome of CSA. Wade’s wife, Tina, had a clean criminal record. However, she came home on multiple occasions with merchandise that she had not purchased. Wade reported feeling traumatized himself as he contemplated that someday he might be called to the local police station to visit his wife behind bars or would have to explain to neighbors or friends why her name was in the newspaper for the crime.

If you identify with any of these husbands, it probably feels like good news bad news. The bad news is that you can identify with the experience of trauma. The good news is that you are not alone. There is someone else in this world who understands your struggle.

In Part-Two of this blog, we’ll explore how we might manage ourselves through the trauma.

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