Ask The Therapist: When your spouse is a survivor of sexual abuse

Q: “What sort of principles should a husband keep in mind when his wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse?”

A: A spouse whose partner survived childhood sexual abuse needs to know that the wounds go very deep.  They can be triggered and re-opened over the course of a marriage. This can often result in confusion, pain, anger and a feeling of lack of control. Understanding the difficulties and problems your partner may be experiencing will help you to be supportive of her. This begins with accepting that your partner is a survivor. She needs to know that you believe her and will be there for her. Some of her current problems and problems in the relationship are likely, but not entirely, related to unresolved emotions tied to the abuse.

It is helpful if you understand your own emotions and role in your relationship.  Since this will help you to be sensitive and compassionate towards your partner. Therefore, it is important to take responsibility for any part you have in causing further distress. Reassuring your partner of your love and commitment to her will lower her anxiety.  Equally important it will help to restore her basic trust.

It is not uncommon for a survivor to experience sudden panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may suffer from low self-esteem and carry with them a sense of shame.  This casts a shadow on all of their relationships. This can lead to depression and impact on their ability to function at home and in the workplace. It is not uncommon for a survivor to experience sudden panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares. There is a higher incidence of illness and chronic pain among survivors. It is believed that this results from prolonged storage in the body of repressed feelings of pain and hurt that at the time could not be expressed.

Being married to a survivor may mean that at times you will be confused and worried about your partner’s problems and difficulty in coping.  As a result, you may even be hurt by behavior and high emotion related to her abuse.  Avoidance of intimacy and expression of anger towards you can occur. It is important to acknowledge your feelings. Your response, when respectful and warm, can create an atmosphere that allows for mutual articulation of needs and understanding of the challenges facing you both. The more you are able to be empathic, the easier it will be for your partner to express her emotions and needs effectively.

If your spouse is contemplating therapy

If your spouse is contemplating therapy or has begun therapy your support is essential. Your encouragement and belief in her will hopefully enable her to seek the help she deserves. If she is currently in therapy, you may notice a temporary worsening of her difficulties. Be aware that as she confronts her strong feelings about the trauma she will be in a great deal of emotional pain.  Furthermore, she may need to be comforted and reassured that your love for her is unwavering. She may need space to grieve. Remember it is up to your partner to decide whether or not she wants to tell you about her past. Should she decide to share details of her past with you it is essential that you respect her privacy and confidentiality. It is not recommended that you ask about her work in individual therapy as this may feel intrusive.

Couple’s counseling can provide an emotionally supportive setting

When your partner is ready and willing to include you, couple’s counseling can provide an emotionally supportive setting for a deeper understanding and appreciation of each others lives, histories and experiences. Both your partner’s abuse history and your own history influence how you relate to one another and to your family. In couple’s counseling you will be encouraged to share concerns around emotional and physical intimacy. Since issues around Taharat HaMishpacha (Family Purity Laws) are common, joint therapy can address these and more. In joint therapy you will learn together to build a positive relationship. A more positive relationship will result in  enhanced communication and expression of emotion which will be mutually satisfying. Parenting as a team will be encouraged when there are children.

Recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Recovery from childhood sexual abuse can be a very long process with ups and downs particularly at times of change and stress. A survivor who experiences an emotionally present spouse who can be supportive through uncomfortable and distressing moments gradually learns to feel safe. The hard work of therapy combined with being in a relationship with a partner who is sensitive, caring and loving can help to restore her belief in herself.  Additionally, it will help her pave the road to recovery.

Addendum: A word to spouses of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse: You may be wondering how you can be supportive of your partner and if the above principles apply. Indeed, many of the above do apply. However, there are some differences unique to the male experience of abuse that make their expression of loss and betrayal different as well. We hope to address these more fully in a separate response. Please be aware that issues of trust and control often prevent male survivors from relying on others including on their spouses. It can seem like a husband is emotionally distant when he is struggling with whether it is safe to connect at all. Being accepting, supportive and encouraging during his healing journey may help him to cope with his current struggles and find hope within himself for the future.

Dvora Samuel, MSW

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