From personal experience and from my interaction with other husbands whose wives are victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), I know that we men are often hesitant to express some of our needs and frustrations to our wives. Some fear usually hinders freedom of expression. For some, it’s fear that their wives will further distance themselves emotionally. Others may fear hostility. The expressive hesitancy on the part of husbands is not limited solely to marriages affected by CSA. But I know that many husbands of CSA victims bottle-up their feelings and frustrations, feeling unable or unwilling to express their thoughts and feelings.
Patrick and Megan have been married for over 25 years. Megan’s aftereffects of abuse are lowered self-esteem, guilt, and depression. I asked Patrick to identify some of his unexpressed thoughts and feelings he has had in their marriage. He answered, “I think some of the thoughts that I didn’t express were frustration that she couldn’t just put it [the abuse] in the past, forgive herself, and move on. . . . And I guess I never expressed that.” When I asked what Patrick did to maintain a sense of normalcy in their home, he said, “[I] try not to express conflict. I mean, a lot of people say I avoid conflict, but I try not to express it.”
Dr. Noelle Wiersma has done extensive research in analyzing the communication patterns between victims of CSA and their partners. Her research identified four domains in which the threatening nature of the communication was manifested: (a) expressive ability, (b) expressive motivation, (c) responsive ability, and (d) responsive motivation.
All four domains will be considered in upcoming blogs. This blog focuses on expressive ability. My counselor has been working with me for almost a year in developing expressive ability so I figure it’s worthy of singular attention.
Expressive ability refers to the ability of a partner to express what he or she is experiencing as a result of the sexual abuse. In keeping with the focus of MarriageReconstruction, this blog focuses on a husband’s ability (or lack thereof) to express what he is experiencing from the effects of his wife’s CSA.
Wiersma’s research findings indicated that Expressive Ability had two barriers: lack of self-efficacy and lack of self- awareness.
Self-efficacy is the belief that I have the capability to attain a desired outcome. For example, self-efficacy is when I believe I have the verbal and listening skills, empathy, knowledge, and sense of timing to express my thoughts in a way that my wife will listen and understand so that we will reach a greater level of couple agreement on an issue. Self-efficacy, in simpler terms, might be thought of as having a sense of capability.
Imagine that a husband’s frustration is any of the following: (a) how he feels so alienated, or (b) infrequent intimacy, or (c) her spending habits, or (d) that his wife gets too angry at the kids. I know, many of your don’t need to imagine these things; it’s your reality. Lack of self-efficacy is demonstrated when the husband with any of these frustrations thinks, “It would be helpful to sit down and talk about _______ but I just don’t think I can do that at this point.”
Self-awareness, when lacking, also hinders Expressive Ability. One of the participants in Wiersma’s study said, “I don’t know why I feel like I do, so how can I talk about it” (p.155). If these are your words, then please revisit the blogs on doing a self-check of your own emotional health.
What can we do as husbands?
Sense of timing is an important component to any productive communication. If our wife has recently made a further disclosure about her abuse, she may be in a vulnerable time. Therefore, it is not the time to vent a boatload of frustrations. Instead, find a friend or counselor you trust and begin processing your thoughts and identifying your feelings.
Assuming that it is an appropriate time for a deeper level of communication and understanding, what can we do to increase our Expressive Ability?
- Refuse to bottle-up feelings.
I’m not suggesting that we just recklessly blurt out all our angst. More will be said about this in the next blog on Expressive Motivation. But for now, we need to understand that we do not keep ultimate peace by bottling-up our thoughts and feelings.
First, to bottle-up feelings is to build up resentment. If we are on a walk and a pebble gets in our shoe, we quickly get rid of the pebble. But if it is sand accumulating in our shoe as we walk, we tolerate it for a while. Then, all of a sudden, we decide to sit down, take off our shoe, and shake it like crazy to get the sand out. We do the same when we bottle-up feelings. We may think we are able to tolerate the frustration, but suddenly we decide we’ve had enough and our words come flying out of our mouth just as the sand is shaken out of the shoe. Unfortunately, the flying words can be damaging.
Second, to bottle-up our feelings is to barricade potential individual and relational growth. I met Dan and Nikki, a victim CSA, a few years ago and learned from their experience. Dan’s expressive ability developed as healing progressed in their lives. Dan realized that sharing his struggles could become an opportunity for Nikki’s development. Referring back to when he bottled-up his sexual frustrations, Dan stated, “We found what that did [was it] denied her the chance to grow through any of it . . . it never gave her the opportunity to kind of work through the facts.” Dan’s expressive ability began to actually induce further healing.
Failure to express ourselves can give way to a wave of resentment in us and even diminish the progress of healing in our wives.
- Take inventory of your fears.
Give thought right now to something that you are afraid to talk about with your wife and then work through answering these questions:
- What am I afraid might happen if I express my needs/frustrations?
- What is compromised if I do not express my needs?
- What are the long-term consequences if I do not express my needs?
- Is the short-term pseudo peace worth the long-term cost if I do not express my needs?
- Take an initial and incremental step.
Don’t back up the truckload of your frustrations and dump it all out on your wife at one time. Here’s a suggestion. If you’ve identified something you wish you had the ability to express but you are concerned – or fearful of – her response, you might take an initial small step by saying to her, “Someday, I’d like to talk about [the topic you’ve identified], but it either hasn’t gone well when I’ve tried to talk about it or for some reason I’m imposing on you that you would not be receptive to my thoughts/feelings. I ask that, for now, you consider when and how we might talk about it.”
I’ve learned a lot from my counselor and from husbands like Dan, both of whom have given me the courage to take some initial steps of advance in Expressive Ability. To date, I’ve yet to be disappointed in my efforts.
Remember, it is essential to consider timing. If your wife is in a deep depression, it is not time to address some subjects. Expressive Ability does not disregard the general guidelines of healthy communication.
In my next blog, I’ll present Wiersma’s second domain: Expressive Motivation, the motive behind the expression.
I invite you to share your comments from your experience. Let’s interact.
Wiersma, N. S. (2003), PARTNER AWARENESS REGARDING THE ADULT SEQUELAE OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE FOR PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SURVIVORS. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29: 151–164. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb01197.x. Available for purchase at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2003.tb01197.x/abstract
Noelle S.Wiersma, PhD, is a professor of psychology and dean of the college of arts and sciences at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.