This is Part II of a 2-part blog dealing with a question asked by husbands married to wives who are victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). We husbands wonder, “When will this trauma finally be over?”
The late Yogi Berra was known for his memorable twists of phrases. Yogi once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” However that Yogi-ism might be interpreted, we need to know where we are going if we intend to make progress towards that goal. This 2-part blog offers direction from the experience of trauma to the desire goal of healing.
An extensive study of couples affected by childhood sexual abuse, conducted by Rory Remer and Robert A. Ferguson, identified six “mile markers” or stages through which couples pass on their journey from trauma to healing. Part 1 introduced the first three stages. So what’s next? This blog walks us through the final three stages of the pathway towards healing.
Marker #4: Outward adjustment; personal and relational
Our attempts to return to the status quo, or what we view as being normal for our marriage, indicate that we’ve entered into the adjustment stage. In other words, the adjustment stage begins with our efforts to restore the patterns and expectations that characterized the pre-trauma stage of our marriage relationship. In this stage, we ask questions like, “Why can’t we [name your activity] like we used to?”
Caution is warranted in our attempt to return to life as it was before the pre-trauma stage. No doubt, there may have been many happy times in the pre-trauma years. That was certainly the case for me and I hope so for you too. For my wife and I, those were the years when our daughters were born and raised. I can make a long list of phenomenal memories. However, the desire to return to the pre-trauma stage is likely based on some inaccurate assumptions. We are probably assuming that our relationship with our wives was at a higher level of emotional health than was actually the case as well as our level of emotional health as individuals. Oh, I thought I was fine back in those years. I know better now.
Another adjustment during the outward adjustment stage is the attempt to ramp up our support for our wives. The emotional injury that occurs to victims, our wives, from childhood sexual abuse compromises any ability they did have to offer emotional support. I was blessed, and so were my daughters, to have received emotional support from my wife during the pre-trauma years. I know that is not the case for most. But once we are in the trauma awareness stage, our wives’ ability to extend themselves to us is thwarted. A husband who previously received emotional support from his wife is required to adjust by offering more emotional support to her, thereby losing the old, more enjoyable connections. Husbands, in their adjustment to offer emotional support, may feel like they are walking a tight-rope in finding the balance of being supportive and encouraging without being dominating or controlling.
A commonly used metaphor by husbands of CSA victims is that they feel as though they are “walking on eggshells.” This feeling might be especially true during the two stages of disorientation and adjustment. Typical statements from husbands during this time are, “I can’t say or do anything right.” Clint, one of the men I interviewed, used the eggshell metaphor and continued saying that he was, “clueless as to what to do. I’m walking so gently. I don’t want to say anything that will upset her. I don’t want to push the wrong buttons.”
Derek, another husband I interviewed, referred to eggshells and “not knowing what’s going to set her off.” Derek felt as though he had to defend himself for offenses he hadn’t committed. He explained,
“It was like I was in the witness stand, just being drilled. That’s what it was like. Oh, I hated it. I tried to be civil. I would try to be patient through it. I’d try to be gentle through it. And, finally, I remember, every time I’d spout, it was like, ‘I’m done. I’m done being examined by you.’”
The adjustments of this stage are outward. Inward adjustments begin with the next “mile-marker.”
Marker #5: Reorganization: personal and relational
Self-awareness is the prerequisite to crossing the “mile-marker” into the stage of reorganization. Once we are self-aware, we can identify the unhealthy values, attitudes, and behavioral patterns that characterized our lives prior to and during the pre-trauma stage. By acknowledging the unhealthy and dysfunctional attributes, we can then do some reorganizing of our lives. Nate referred to his own experience in the reorganization stage as “reconstruction.” In this stage, Nate revisited previously held assumptions saying,
“things you thought were fact . . . now what do you do? Well, you’ve got to reconstruct something. . . . The foundation that you built on was not built on facts, but now we’re putting the facts, we’re putting the building blocks back in place.”
Clint reorganized his attitude and expression of love saying,
“It doesn’t matter what she says or how hurtful things that were said could be. I’m going to love her unconditionally.” Referring to his pre-trauma stage and earlier, Clint said, “I was a failure, early on. I didn’t know the things I know now. I didn’t know how to love unconditionally.” Though Clint indicated that Becky’s effects from CSA had ceased, he spoke more of how he was different than how she was different.
Derek spoke about the reorganization that occurred for him in regard to his sexual relationship with his wife, Nicole. After describing how he watched her pain and listened to her at length as she poured out the toxin, Derek then began to experience a change within him and he expressed it by saying,
“My heart began to change with it. And, so, for me, I began not just to desire her, and not desire like sex, but more like intimacy. [I realized] there’s a purpose for sex other than me having an organism; it’s oneness in our marriage – a great bond. And, when I started to pursue her that way, man, that was, that was a big shift in our marriage.”
Reorganization creates a safer environment in the relationship. The safer environment opens the door for possible further disclosure that then re-routes the couple back to the trauma awareness stage. This time, however, the trauma can be faced with deeper understanding and a higher level of emotional health.
The reorganization stage reveals that healing usually involves a tremendous amount of unlearning and relearning. The hard work must be done individually as both husband and wife work through their individual dysfunctions and then together as they combine to face the problems in their couple relationship.
Marker #6: Integration and resolution
For husbands, integration refers to accepting the trauma through accepting our wives and ourselves for who we have become. Our lives are like the rings in a tree. The inner rings – all the experiences of previous years – cannot be removed. They are always part of our story but they are not the whole story. Trauma will always be part of our story but it is not our whole story. We have grown and matured beyond the “rings of trauma.”
Resolution does not refer to everything being resolved, but rather to appreciate the healing that has occurred and the ever-continuing healing yet to occur. Once this stage is reached, new memories or disclosures do not throw a couple back into disorientation. Instead, they return to reorganization, taking a route that is more effectively and efficiently navigated.
Experience with couples affected by CSA consistently shows that professional counseling is necessary for healing to occur in the victim of CSA. Counseling is also necessary for husbands of CSA victims in order to prevent dysfunctional patterns such as codependency.
In regard to “When will this trauma finally be over?” Yogi Berra would say, “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” Yogi’s reference was to the unpredictable ending of extra-inning baseball games. If it is indiscernible to know when trauma will be over, perhaps we can identify what’s next for us in our journey from trauma to healing as husbands of CSA victims.
For Reflection and Application
- Make a bullet point list of what you’ve experienced and observed over the past two weeks in your relationship with your wife.
- Make a second list of what you’ve observed in the past two weeks regarding your wife.
- Make a third list of what you personally have been experiencing and thinking.
- Looking at your lists, identify where you are on the journey from pre-trauma to resolution.
- I’m interested in your comments.
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Levine, R. B. (1996). When you are the partner of a rape or incest survivor: A workbook for you. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications.
Remer, R., & Ferguson, R. A. (1995, March-April). Becoming a secondary survivor of sexual assault. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73, 407- 413.
Ronzheimer, W. C. (2013). Husbands speak: The perceived impact of a wife’s childhood sexual abuse on a marriage relationship. (Doctoral dissertation, Oxford Graduate School in Dayton, TN).