In my research of husbands whose wives were victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), social relationship conflict was at the top of the list – even surpassing sexual frustration – as the most problematic issue in their marriage. A common word used by husbands in my interviews was trigger, referring to how a simple conversation and circumstance would trigger a negative response. Their wife’s response would be unpredictable and with unexpected intensity given the situation.
Chad – a pseudonym for one of the husbands I interviewed – noted how the unpredictable anger would be directed at him. He explained how he would be “so very, very cautious as to what I say or do. I didn’t know what. I mean, anything could trigger it. . . . it was no rhyme or reason. You didn’t know when it was going to be triggered.”
It seems that we husbands sometimes unknowingly pull some kind of trigger with our wives who are victims of CSA. When that trigger is pulled, there is an unpredictable reaction. Here are three scenarios when it appeared the trigger was inadvertently pulled.
- Carl asked his wife to repair the zipper on his trousers. He was stunned by her explosive refusal as she threw the trousers back in his face. It was an unpredictable and unacceptable response.
- Skyler – not the husband in this case – entered the room with Madison and closed the door behind them so that the conversation of others in the hallway would not interrupt their conversation. Madison abruptly turned around, and looking alarmed, adamantly said, “Why did you close the door?” He wondered what had triggered what seemed to him to be normal protocol.
- Robert loved the outdoors, so one of his favorite activities was walks in the evening with Robin, his wife. The two connected well during their walks. For some reason, however, Robin never wanted to go for walks in the fall when the leaves were falling. Even though Robin said it was her allergies, her resistance – and sometimes rudeness – always surprised Robert when he suggested that she join him.
Something seemed to be triggered in each situation and it appeared that Carl, Skyler, and Robert were the ones who pulled the trigger.
Unpredictable and intense responses from victims of CSA can be disconcerting to husbands. Over time, it can become unbearable. Researchers Bacon & Lein found the reactions at times to be so severe that one husband reported he would never remarry and another stated, “I wish someone had told me not to marry someone who’s been abused” (Living with a female sexual abuse survivor: Male partners’ perspective. 1996. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 5-2).
Here are three steps we can take to avoid the possibility of accidentally pulling a trigger with our wives.
Step One: Carefully examine the situation
Guard yourself from thinking in terms of “My wife is so unpredictable” or “My wife seems to have such a short fuse at times.” Instead, here are some questions you can ask yourself in order to examine the situation.
- What is it that is going on here?
- Does this kind of reaction occur in other situations? If so, are there any similarities among the situations and, if so, what are they?
- What seemed to be the focus of her comments?
- How is this the same or different from how she usually responds?
- How is this different from how I would expect her to respond?
Step Two: Cautiously explore possible links between the situation and her past
If your wife has not shared with you any specifics about her childhood sexual abuse, it will be difficult to consider any possible links between her reaction to the current situation and the past. If she has shared her past with you, you can only explore – not prove – possible links between her reaction to the current situation and her past. It either case, use caution. We can only speculate possible links.
The demonstrative reaction of Carl’s wife (throwing the trousers back in his face) did not seem to be in keeping with the request. He knew she had the ability. If Carl were to ask himself, “What is it that is going on here?” his answer would include his wife not wanting to fix a zipper. The zipper and trousers seemed to be the focus of her comments; it wasn’t about her needing more time or having too much to do. Carl might then wonder, “What’s the problem with zippers?” Aha! Could it be that his wife had to manipulate the zipper of her abuser? At this point, we can only speculate. Did her perpetrator do something like make her act as an aggressor by unzipping his trousers? If so, who wouldn’t want to throw those trousers across the room?
Madison’s focus was on the door, once it was closed by Skyler. Since doors are made to close, the alarm seemed inconsistent to the situation. Skyler had not seen this kind response from Madison before. Did her perpetrator take her into a room and close the door?
Robert had wondered for a long time if Robin’s allergies were any worse than normal when leaves were falling. He did note that she’d make negative comments on other occasions about the smell of leaves in the fall. He thought that most people like the smell of leaves. Candle companies even make seasonal fall fragrances for their candles; which by the way, Robin never bought. The more Robert thought about it, the more he realized that there always seemed to be a cloud over Robin’s countenance in the fall of the year. He wondered if most of Robin’s childhood sexual abuse occurred in the fall. Since our olfactory sense is the strongest of the senses, could there be a strong association between Robin’s experience of abuse and the sensations of smell – autumn leaves – surrounding the situation of abuse?
Step Three: Compassionately inquire
The third step in our attempt to avoid accidentally pulling the trigger on our wives is to be entered into with compassion rather than with any conviction that we think we have it all figured out. Our interaction with our wives is not the scene of an investigation where we are detectives. Neither is this a courtroom where we present our case as evidence. Though the immediate situation affects us as husbands it is not about us and we must be careful to not make it about us.
It is appropriate for us to inquire but only if we do so with compassion and remember that we can only speculate at best. When you make your inquiry, be sure to do the following:
- Pray first. Don’t pray that she will be convinced about your idea. Pray that you will be compassionate in presenting your idea.
- If at all possible, have your conversation within a day or two of your wife’s next counseling appointment. The conversation might bring your wife more recall of the abuse.
- When you inquire, be careful not to blame. For example, don’t say, “The other day you really got angry when I asked you to . . .”
- Allow your wife to assess the situation. Carl might begin, “I’ve thought about what happened the other day when I asked for my trousers to be fixed. It was difficult for both of us. Have you thought about it and, if so, what do you want me to understand about that situation?”
- If the door opens, you can ask, “Can I ask you a direct question about your childhood sexual abuse?” Depending on the answer, Robert may have inquired, “Did the abuse occur in the fall?” if Robin answered in the affirmative and if she was in counseling, Robert may have suggested, “Could you talk to your counselor about how the timing of the abuse may affect things? I’ve wondered if the smell of leaves reminds you in some way of that horrible time of year for you.”