This is a handbook that is written for all husbands and partners of women who were sexually abused/assaulted as children. It is to be used to help understand the long range effects of this abuse and to help both the partner and survivor through the recovery process.
This handbook focuses on women who were abused/assaulted, but many men have also suffered similar abuse from both men and women. This handbook is meant for the use of their partners as well.
Sexual abuse is not something that any of us likes to think about, yet it is a common occurrence. Most women who have been abused report that the abuse had devastating effects on them as children and that these effects have lasted into adulthood. In fact, the damage is so severe that many women do not recall the actual events until they are in their 20’s, 30’s, or even 40’s. The coping mechanisms they used, to survive emotionally, as children stay in place into adulthood, and these frequently allow women to “blank out” painful childhood events.
WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO BLANK OUT THE PAST?
As indicated above, sexual molestation invades the very soul of that child. Often, in order to get through the event, the child learns to separate herself from her body, and to pretend she isn’t even there. It is as if the abuse is happening to someone else. In adult life this is experienced as memory loss. It is a protective measure. If a woman does not remember the abuse, then it seems as though it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have to deal with it.
WHY IS SHE REMEMBERING NOW AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?
That is different for each woman. Sometimes an attempted or actual rape will trigger memories. Sometimes a dream will seem all too real and will precipitate a memory. Sometimes a woman will burst into uncontrollable tears while at a movie or upon hearing someone else’s childhood story and memories will appear. Sometimes it is just a vague feeling that will stir someone to dig deeper. Or, it could be a look or a touch that causes tension, discomfort, and the feeling that similar looks or touches have happened before.
BUT WHY DOES SHE NEED TO REMEMBER AT ALL? IT’S OVER AND DONE WITH. SHOULDN’T SHE JUST GET ON WITH HER LIFE?
It would be nice if life were that simple. The fact is that any “unfinished” business from childhood does affect adult attitudes, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. Unfinished business is any event or interaction that was not resolved satisfactorily at the time it occurred. A few very fortunate women, who had mothers or teachers who believed them and saw to it that they were protected thereafter, may not have scars that affect their adult lives. Most women are not that fortunate, and therefore need to get in touch with the pain in order to deal with it and put it to rest.
This is very much like the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that some Vietnam veterans are still dealing with 20 years after the actual events. Because they had no outlets for their feelings at the time, the problems have remained with them and they need treatment now in order to be at peace with themselves.
HOW DO WE KNOW IT’S ALL TRUE? MY PARTNER HAS A VERY VIVID IMAGINATION.
We don’t know. However, there is very little reason to make up these stories. The obvious pain that accompanies the retelling is strong evidence that it is real. Many women have also been able to check with siblings and other relatives who reveal that they too were molested by the same person.
SHE ISN’T MAKING IT ALL UP.
This is a common feeling. Many children are told that they are lying – that Uncle Charlie or Daddy couldn’t possibly be molesting them. If no one will talk about it, then the child gets the feeling that maybe she has made it all up. Since that’s what she’d like to believe also, that feeling continues when real memories occur.
WHY DOES SHE KEEP DIGGING AT IT? FIRST IT WAS HER STEP-FATHER, THEN HER UNCLE AND NOW HER BROTHER.
The need to know the “whole truth” about our past seems to be a common human trait. It is somewhat like an adopted child who grows up and leaves no stone unturned to find her birth parents. This may be a painful process but she can’t rest until all the facts are before her.
IT WAS ONLY ONE EVENT: WHY SHOULD THAT BE SO DEVASTATING?
It is devastating because sexual abuse is a total invasion of one’s body and privacy. Most often the perpetrator is someone the child knows and trusts. If this is a family member, then it is someone whom the child especially trusts and looks to for protection. Children feel betrayed, and they live in fear that the abuse will happen again. As adults, they feel they lost their innocence too soon, grew up too fast, and were robbed of their childhood.
BUT HE ONLY FONDLED HER GENITALS. IT ISN’T AS IF HE PENETRATED HER.
There is no such thing as “only fondled”. He fondled her genitals and that, in itself, is a crime. He may, in fact, not have touched her at all, confining his sexual advances to lewd and suggestive remarks, and this can be devastating too. If a child has been subjected to years of painful intercourse then she has been more traumatized than someone who has been fondled a few times. In both cases, however, the emotional scars run deep.
SHE MUST HAVE BEEN A VERY PROVOCATIVE AND SEXUAL CHILD.
Most children who are sexually abused are neither. Children don’t ask to be raped any more than adults do. Some children may cuddle with adults, seeking non-sexual attention and caressing; or some, who have already been abused, may appear seductive because they have learned this is the only way to get any attention at all. In any case, it is always the adult’s responsibility. Even a well developed 13 or 14 year old who is parading around scantily clothed is not “asking for it”. Rape is not the penalty for poor judgment!
I THINK SHE PROBABLY ENJOYED THE ATTENTION ANYWAY.
If this was the only way she got any attention at all, then she may have enjoyed that aspect of what happened. But dread, fear, disgust, confusion, and pain were also present. This is one reason why therapy takes as long as it does. The adult who was a victim as a child often feels ashamed and guilty and responsible for the incest because there was a part of her that needed the attention. This still does not make her responsible for what happened to her, and the little girl inside
of her needs to be convinced of that.
WHY DIDN’T SHE SCREAM OR SOMETHING?
She may have tried to. Adults, however, are much bigger and stronger than children. At first she may not have even realized what was happening to her. Also, many abusers bribe or threaten children so that silence seems like the only choice.
WHY DIDN’T SHE TELL HER MOTHER?
She may have tried to and was silenced or not believed. She may have known from previous experience that her mother would not listen or that she would be in more trouble if she did tell. The abuser may have threatened to harm her mother if she told. Or, she may have feared a split in the family if she said anything. The reason victims tell is that they want the abuse to stop; they usually don’t want to be removed from the home or have their father or brother put in jail. In some families, the mother is also abusing the child, so the child feels she has no place to turn.
SHE PROBABLY ENJOYED THE SEX TOO.
This is possible. We are all sexual beings and, if we are stimulated in certain places or in certain ways, then our bodies may respond whether we want them to or not. This still doesn’t mean that it is okay to be sexual with someone who is not old enough to give informed consent. If she did feel turned on in any way, then this has probably added to her sense of guilt.
WHY DO I HAVE TO KEEP PAYING FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S MISTAKE? SHE’S BEEN TALKING ABOUT THE ABUSE EVER SINCE I FIRST MET HER.
Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. Until she gets help with the problem and works on changing her attitudes and beliefs, it will continue to interfere in her life – sometime unbeknownst to her.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE? SHE’S BEEN IN A SUPPORT GROUP FOR TWO YEARS NOW.
It will take as long as it takes. There are a great number of issues that need to be dealt with, such as low self-esteem, poor body image, fear of not being in control, lack or trust, inability to know what she feels, difficulty in talking about feelings, anger, guilt, and denial – to name a few. In short, the main messages children get from abusive, and other dysfunctional, families are: “Don’t trust”, “Don’t talk”, and “Don’t feel”. All three need to be reversed in order to lead a healthy adult life.
COULDN’T SHE JUST TALK TO ME? I RESENT HER TELLING OTHER PEOPLE OUR FAMILY BUSINESS.
You are too close to your wife/lover/girlfriend to be her therapist too. However, your support and concern are very important to her.
WHENEVER SHE TALKS ABOUT HER STEP-FATHER, I FEEL LIKE GETTING A GUN AND SHOOTING HIM.
This is understandable, but it is not helpful to express this feeling repeatedly to your partner. She has her own anger to deal with. It is distracting and non-productive if she feels she has to calm you down on an ongoing basis. If you need to express your outrage continually, then it might be important to find a friend or counselor who will listen to your concerns.
SOMETIMES I JUST CRY WHENEVER SHE RECALLS A MEMORY TO ME.
This is another reason that it is wise for you not to try to be her therapist. The material is so highly charged, it requires someone who has been trained or someone who has worked through a similar experience to deal with it effectively. Don’t turn off your tears, but also don’t be surprised if she prefers telling the details to her group members. Your crying may be beneficial to both of you in terms of releasing emotion for you and providing empathy for her, but she may stop sharing her memories with you as a way of protecting your feelings.
HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO BE THE FOCUS OF HER LIFE? IT SEEMS THAT SHE DOESN’T RESPOND TO ANY EVERYDAY CONVERSATION THESE DAYS.
Once again, this can’t be predicted. If she has spent 10 or 20 or 30 years pretending to herself that a major event in her life didn’t happen, then it will take some time to bring all of it to consciousness, to digest it, to come to terms with it, to apply new insights to her present life, and then to get on with the business of living. She may very well seem stopped in time for a while. However, she has actually been “stuck” there for a long time, and that has caused some of the problems in your own relationship.
IF THE INCEST WAS SO DEVASTATING, WHY HAS SHE BEEN SO PROMISCUOUS ALL HER LIFE? SHE SEEMS VERY SEXUAL TO ME.
There is often a great deal of confusion between affection and sex. Being promiscuous is not necessarily because one enjoys sex. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Some women “use” men, or women, in the same way that they were used as children, and sex becomes a way of getting back at the perpetrator through all other men (women).
Some women are simply repeating what they learned as children: the only way to get attention at all is to be sexual. Many just want to cuddle but feel that intercourse is the price they have to pay.
Sometimes, being sexual is a way of trying to avoid painful feelings – a kind of quick fix. Many abused women also misuse alcohol and drugs in the same way.
MY WIFE WILL HARDLY LET ME TOUCH HER, EVEN IN AN AFFECTIONATE WAY.
This is another reaction that sexually abused women often have. Even though the abuse may have stopped 20 or 30 years ago, the little girl inside of her is still scared. Automatically, her defenses against being hurt go into effect. Any number of things can remind her of long ago. Some women can’t bear to be surprised from behind, others react to pats on the fanny, and others don’t like to have their breasts touched. If this is the case, then pay attention to what she asks you not to do.
MY LOVER ALWAYS NEEDS TO BE IN CONTROL. SHE DECIDES WHEN WE’RE GOING TO HAVE SEX AND HOW WE’RE GOING TO DO IT.
This is understandable. Control is a big issue for survivors of sexual abuse. As little girls they had no control over what happened to their bodies. As adults they need to have a sense of control in order not to panic.
BUT I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN GENTLE WITH HER AND NOT THE LEAST BIT ABUSIVE.
How wonderful! She’s lucky to have you. Your caring and concern are certainly helpful. However, there may be times when she doesn’t see you as you; she is flipped back in time and has someone else’s face on you. She may need to stop whatever you are doing together so that she can get back to the present.
SOMETIMES IT SEEMS AS THOUGH SHE ISN’T EVEN THERE WHEN WE ARE HAVING SEX.
This is probably an accurate observation. Often, the only way a child can survive sexual abuse emotionally is by pretending she isn’t there. Women describe it as “going numb”. It is a protective device that is difficult to stop. As she gains trust and is more relaxed in sexual situations, she will slowly be able to be there with you.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
Be patient. Be as understanding as you can be. Don’t push.
Work on clear communication skills.
Be as non-judgmental as you can be about her process. She will progress at her own pace no matter what you think or say, so save yourself some arguments and heartaches.
If you can’t stand it, find a therapist to talk to. Or join a group for partners of abused women. If there is no such group in your community, find a therapist who would be willing to form one.
WHAT ABOUT ME? I HAVE NEEDS TOO.
Indeed you do. However, if you can focus on her needs for the time being, it will pay off in the long run.
There will be days, maybe weeks, when she is feeling so emotionally raw that even the thought of being sexually intimate would be hard. So be patient. This feeling of rawness often occurs the day or the day after she has attended a group session. It is not a signal for her to stop going; instead it’s a positive sign that she is dealing with her problems. It is a sign of hope for the future.
PERHAPS I AM AN ABUSER TOO.
If so, RUN, do not walk, to the nearest professional counselor. If you do not, don’t be surprised if your wife/partner decides to leave at some point. This is not a threat, but rather, a fact. It is not uncommon for women who were abused to choose abusive men or women because it is a familiar situation to be in. Sometimes it’s because they feel they don’t deserve anything better. As their self-esteem rises, however, they may wish to make changes in their entire lifestyle. If you are unable to change accordingly, you may be left behind.
BUT I WAS ABUSED, MYSELF, AS A CHILD.
This is often the case. If you were abused too, then there is even more reason for you to get the same kind of help your partner is getting. There is nothing more exciting than two people who are becoming healthier together.
GOOD LUCK TO BOTH OF YOU!
This has been adapted from Bearingthroughit.