Pamela is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Bill is her husband. These are our stories of sexual abuse and how it has affected our relationship.
I was sexually abused over many years as a child. I didn’t tell my husband, Bill, until 10 years into our marriage. Though we tried to get help at that time, it wasn’t sufficient. We had only one night of counsel from a trusted Christian pastor who had limited understanding of childhood sexual abuse.
Eight years later, one of my abusers asked for my forgiveness. His acknowledgment forced me to face what I had known all along. Suddenly all the pain, anxiety, and rage came to the surface like a tsunami! After 6 weeks of not sleeping, constant crying and being unable to eat, I went to a recommended Christian psychiatrist. I didn’t realize I was having a nervous breakdown. I was immediately admitted to the psychiatric floor of the hospital. That ward became my safety for the following 4 weeks. I saw my doctor daily for talk therapy. This began many years of counseling for both my husband and me.
The hospitalization was also the beginning of the great healing Jesus was doing in my shattered, broken mind and heart. Like the peeling of an onion, I healed one layer at a time. God was so faithful through the healing process. Frequently I would heal to the point of feeling human and functional. After a time of stability, God would prompt the peeling away of the next layer revealing a much-needed cleaning out of “old junk” and deeper healing.
Since the first hospitalization in 1991, I have not only continued on the path to deep healing, but have also had many opportunities to share my story. Speaking out about childhood sexual abuse (CSA) at Women’s Retreats in Milwaukee and in Chicago as well as overseas with Christian workers in several countries, has allowed me to give all the glory to God.
There were many dark, scary seasons for our family as I struggled to become healthy in my thinking. I was wounded and broken in areas like trust, safety, and the certainty that Jesus did indeed love me deeply.
This is a tiny glimpse into my story. I know that I survived CSA because of those who prayed on my behalf when I was completely unable to pray for myself.
My wife and I met during the summer prior to my senior year in college. Her beauty, especially her bright eyes and smile, caught my attention. Her wit, nonconformist nature, and laughter drew me in. Unending conversation, music, and a sense of adventure marked the early months of our relationship. Marriage was not in her plans. She wanted to be an au pair in Europe. I had to look up au pair in a dictionary to find out what it meant. I embarked on a mission to convince her that marriage could be a good thing. Evidently, I persuaded her enough because we were married a year after we met.
We both viewed our early years of marriage as having the normal ups and downs. Any surprises were considered as being what is common to many marriages.
As our third anniversary approached, we decided it was time to begin having children. Our two daughters were born 17 months apart. Our home was filled with joy and our marriage seemed as normal as I perceived it could be.
More than ten years into our marriage, we were on a retreat together when my wife told a counselor friend that she had been sexually abused as a child. That was news to me. I had no idea nor did I recognize at the time how her childhood sexual abuse (CSA) had affected her and our marriage up to that point. And I certainly did not anticipate nor was there any way of preparing for how her CSA would impact our lives for years to come. After a night of counsel from our friend I thought, “Okay, that was a boatload of surprise! But now we know what caused the recent sense of despair and so we can move on.”
I moved on, obliviously. I was early in my career. Success was important to me at the time. I thought counseling was for the weak.
However, for my wife, all the memories and emotions that had been pushed down for years persistently rumbled to the surface like hot lava. She spoke of her need to see a professional counselor. In my oblivion, I thought that she would be fine so I resisted her request for professional counsel.
A few years later, depleted of the energy required to keep a lid on the traumatic memories, my wife experienced a complete physical and emotional shutdown, the severity of which necessitated four weeks in a psychiatric ward. I was terrified. Psychiatric wards in my mind were for crazy people. It seemed surreal each time my daughters and I went to visit my wife. I have no idea how I would have survived if I had known then that the first hospitalization would be followed by multiple hospitalizations and years of intensive weekly counseling appointments.
It seems impossible to identify an aspect of a husband’s life that is not affected when his wife is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was affected by the pressure and exhaustion of trying to hold things together as a family and tending to the needs of our two daughters when my wife was in her darkest times. There was a certain disconnectedness that was experienced as she progressed through her counseling, and its dreadfully long process affected me. I was frightened by the behaviors stemming from her dissociation. I became irritated by the stages of infrequent sexual intimacy, and I was eventually affected by the murderous rage that I had towards her primary perpetrator.
I entered counseling at the advice of my wife’s psychiatrist when she was admitted to the hospital the first time. I thought I was being referred to a counselor so that I would know how to cope with the intrusion of my wife’s CSA into our lives. The sessions did prove to be a personal release valve as I verbally vomited my frustrations. However, there were also patterns in my life that became exposed and examined.
Over time, I slowly discovered that my controlling nature, inability to connect with my own feelings, and lack of individuation were personal issues that would undergo development for years to come. There is hope as both husband and wife accept the responsibility of working on the issues in their own lives.
It is not selfish for a husband to long for his wife’s intellectual, emotional, relational, and sexual availability. It is not wrong for a husband to recognize how he is being affected. But I’ve also seen the necessity of empathetically grasping how the CSA affected my wife. Dr. Clark Barshinger, author of Haunted Marriage: Overcoming the ghosts of your spouse’s childhood abuse, captured the effects of CSA as “murder of the psyche.”
Family Systems Theory (FST) introduces the identified patient. Outsiders looking in identified my wife as the patient. Even I found myself looking at her as a patient. However, working through the effects of CSA is a tremendous arena and opportunity for the spiritual, cognitive, and emotional growth that lead to relational health.
Together we face the challenges that infiltrate marriage when a spouse has been the victim of CSA. These can appear in the forms of distrust, anger, rage, dissociation, sexuality, shame, just to name a few. It is an ongoing journey of mutual learning, communicating, growing, and reconstructing previously held assumptions.