Constructive communication between husbands and wives requires intentional and loving expression and receptivity. This is true for all couples, whether or not a spouse is the victim of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).
The potential for misunderstandings in communication always exists. Consider the husband and wife whose date night resulted in two vastly different experiences and understandings.
Her journal entry at the end of the evening noted the following:
Tonight, Jim was acting odd. It was our date night and we went to a nice restaurant for dinner. The ambiance was great. We sat in a nice quiet corner. But unfortunately, our conversation was also quiet; it was even awkward. I asked him what was wrong. He said, “Nothing.” I asked him if it was my fault that he was upset. He said he wasn’t upset, that it had nothing to do with me, and not to worry about it. On the way home, I told him that I loved him. He smiled slightly, and kept driving. When we got home, he just sat there quietly, and watched TV. He continued to seem distant and absent. So I decided that I should just go to bed. He didn’t seem to enjoy the evening, or me! It seemed like he was somewhere else. I don’t know what to do.
Before Jim went to bed, he entered the following into his journal.
Rough day. Boat wouldn’t start, can’t figure out why.
In my recent blogs, I’ve discussed the first two of four domains in communication that were identified by Dr. Noelle Wiersma in her research entitled, Partner Awareness Regarding the Adult Sequelae of Childhood Sexual Abuse for Primary and *Secondary Survivors. The threatening nature of the communication for couples affected by CSA was manifested within the domains of (a) expressive ability, (b) expressive motivation, (c) responsive ability, and (d) responsive motivation. In this blog, I’m focusing on the last two domains.
Receptive Ability refers to our ability to hear and understand what was expressed. In the case of Jim and his wife on their date night, Jim exhibited negligible Receptive Ability by not receiving his wife’s verbal message and emotional plea for connection with him.
The fourth domain, Receptive Motivation, refers to our motivation for listening. Whereas Receptive Ability refers to our readiness for listening, Receptive Motivation refers to our reason for listening. As with the other domains, understanding can be compromised by some Receptive Motivations.
Poor Receptive Ability would be when a husband does not know what to do with the information about his wife’s CSA. Poor Receptive Motivation would be when a husband does not want to deal with the information; that’s his reason or motivation for being non-receptive. Lack of self-awareness hinders a husband from discerning his motive.
So how can our Receptive Ability & Motivation improve?
I propose that empathy is one of the key components for relationally healthy Receptive Ability and Receptive Motivation.
Daniel Green, Ph.D., defines empathy as the ability to be aware of what it is like to be another person – what their inner experience is like – while being aware simultaneously of one’s own inner experience (derived from notes for Guilt & Shame Course taught by Dr. Green at the Elmbrook Study Center, Fall, 2015. Milwaukee, WI). It is knowing simultaneously what it is like to be me and what it is like to be you. Since the former has been addressed in previous blogs, I’ll focus on the latter. Receiving the communication from our wives is governed in part by our ability and motivation to consider what it is like to be them. So what is life like for our wives?
Two general characteristics of wives who are survivors of CSA:
- They fight internally against being wrong
Victims of CSA fight against being wrong because ever since their abuse occurred they’ve been battling with the lie that they did something wrong that warranted the abuse. Admittance of any current wrong is as a slitting knife in the fabric of their lifelong effort to believe that they did no wrong when they were abused. Any acknowledgement of wrong in the present collides with the trauma of the past. Therefore, communication can easily digress into an “I’m right, you’re wrong!” conflict.
So how can husbands empathetically respond? Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen recommend the following:Listen for what’s right and why she sees it differently. This will take disciplined effort if you feel you are being treated unfairly
- Listen for what’s right and why she sees it differently. This will take disciplined effort if you feel you are being treated unfairly.
- Create some inner curiosity – perhaps the message being received isn’t entirely unfair. Maybe your wife sees something that you don’t or maybe there is something about her view that will be helpful for you to know.
- Offer evidence that you hear her. Too often, we are like Jim in the opening story. If your wife seems competitive, it may simply be that she is competing for your attention.
- If you don’t agree with the message you are receiving, then add in what’s been left out; your data, your interpretations, and your feelings (Stone, D. & Heen, S. pp. 234-242).
Stone and Heen contend that once all the pieces of the puzzle are on the table, you and your wife can begin to see how you perceive things similarly, differently, and why it is so. A successful effort will give evidence of empathy: your ability to be aware of what it is like to be your wife – what her inner experience is like – while being aware simultaneously of your own inner experience
- They fear not being safe
Victims of CSA are fearful of not being safe. The trauma of not being safe when the abuse occurred inflicted a seemingly permanent fear of losing that safety again. So if security and safety are threatened in the present moment, it is seen by the victim against the dark backdrop of abuse.
In the opening story, Jim failed in his Receptive Ability. And who is to say what his Receptive Motivation or Unreceptive Motivation was about. Whatever the case, his wife did not feel safe.
So how can husbands empathetically respond to their wives’ fear of not being safe? Here’s a simple step that we can all put into practice: Don’t wait for her to have to ask you “What’s wrong?” Instead, do your best to identify what it is that has you so preoccupied and share it with your wife. Remember that we men have all our thoughts compartmentalized. And sometimes, like when the boat won’t start, we cannot easily get out of that compartment. Share that with your wife and then do all you can to reassure her that you are not upset with her. She won’t be completely satisfied, but she’ll have a better chance of feeling safe.
*Secondary Survivors refers to those who are in an intimate relationship with a trauma victim (the primary survivor). The term conveys that there are outcomes of the trauma that affect those in close relation to the ones who experienced the trauma directly. Therefore, husbands of wives who are victims of CSA are referred to as secondary survivors.
Stone, D. & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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.