Two Steps to Managing Yourself in the Trauma (Part 2 of “Have you Experienced the Contagious Nature of Trauma?”)
“Trauma overwhelms the brain’s organizational system” according to psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in his book Stolen Tomorrows. The trauma alters the brain’s normal perceptions for those who were sexually abused as children. These alterations are not necessarily permanent but they are profound (p. 152).
With childhood sexual abuse (CSA), the brain’s ability to keep the traumatic experience in the past becomes compromised. Therefore, the victim of CSA is vulnerable to emotionally re-experiencing the past abuse in the present (p. 154). In Part 1 of this 2-part blog, Nate found Jamie curled up in the closet, shaking and convulsing. It’s possible that Jamie was emotionally re-experiencing her past abuse. Nate, and even Jamie, may never know what or who it was that triggered her mind and body to react as though her past abuse were reoccurring again.
Nate’s encounter with Jamie, Adam’s startling observation of Jody’s re-entrance into her childhood handwriting, and Clint’s attempt to get Becky out of bed when she was listless and wanted to sleep all day (see Part 1) were occasions in which the husbands perceived that they entered into their own trauma. Multiple studies indicate that close family members can experience a “secondary trauma” due to their close proximity to and care for the survivor.
So how can a husband manage himself in the context of his wife’s trauma and his own sense of trauma? Here are two steps for managing yourself in the trauma.
Revisit and Realize Your Assumptions
Most of the husbands of CSA survivors that I have met can be placed within two categories: (a) those who were unsuspecting and learned of their wife’s CSA several years into their marriage, and (b) those who married knowing about their wife’s past but assumed the CSA had little or no effect on their relationship. In both cases, husbands must “accept that there never was a time when the couple was unaffected by the trauma history, even at the outset of their relationship, when the event may have been fully remembered” (C. Maltas and J. Shay in “Trauma Contagion in Partners of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse” in a 1995 article of American Journal of Orthopsychiatric. p. 532).
The sexual violation of CSA is a unique trauma in that it invades and injures a young girl’s psyche, piling intense shame upon her. There is no way that CSA cannot affect subsequent relationships, especially intimate relationships. To assume that abuse of the past does not have affect in the present is denial of reality. Accordingly, to assume that trauma of the past will not impose trauma in the present is also denial of reality. Among the dangers is that denial of reality on the part of a husband mimics and potentially reinforces any denial of reality on the part of his wife.
Recalculate how to Navigate
The effects of CSA are often extreme and polar opposites. For example, one victim of CSA may have sexual preoccupations and exhibit promiscuous behavior while another may exhibit aversions to any sexual contact. Another example is that one victim might display aggression while another shows detachment. Some victims are extremely dependent while others are controlling.
The polarized nature of CSA effects present their own challenge to husbands. One husband might be afraid to come home from work for fear of his wife’s anger and aggression. Another husband may be afraid to leave for work due to his wife’s vulnerable state and suicidal tendency. Learning to navigate through life can become a 24/7 preoccupation for the husband.
It’s easy for husbands to distance themselves as a means of self-protection from the emotional pain. I’ve observed some husbands who distance themselves physically by seemingly taking on as much business travel as possible. Others might distance themselves emotionally through numbing.
There is no easy route when seeking how to navigate through such diverse and sometimes trauma inducing scenarios. A general guideline, however, is to serve as an anchor: be steady and soothing
I asked Nate how he responded when he found Jamie curled up in the closet convulsing. He responded, “I held her. I said, ‘. . . we’ll work through this.’” Adam described his world as being “rocked” when he saw Jody holding a pen and writing like a child. Nevertheless, he remained calm in that moment so as not to further startle Jody.
I have had occasions in the past when I was scared like never before and feared for my wife’s safety. Here’s what I recommend in order to navigate through the trauma:
(a) Assess what I’m thinking, feeling, and doing.
(b) Set any personal ambition or expectation aside.
(c) Contact any authorities if necessary
(d) Determine what responses will help to stabilize the situation. It’s time to serve as an anchor.
(e) Pray throughout this process.
(f) Debrief with your counselor subsequent to the event and take steps for self-care.
We can learn together in this complex issue. I invite you to post your comments. Please note that your first name will appear with your comments.