Nicole* loves her husband. She likes sitting with him on the sofa, holding hands and sharing thoughts in conversation. Any more intimacy than this is out of bounds. Hidden, unresolved memories of her sexual assault are affecting her and their marriage. Her husband, Trevor, knows nothing about the aftermath of sexual assault.
I understand Nicole’s pain and marital stress because my story, too, has been colored by sexual assault. It’s been more than 50 years now, and I still think that if my husband and I had known the full impact of sexual assault and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), we would probably still be married.
My husband was out of town one night. I was alone with my two daughters, 3 and 6 years old at the time. It was about 10 p.m. when the lights went out and loud banging on the front and back doors rattled the house. I tried to get help, but it was too late. A man came up behind me and grabbed me around the neck. I was forced into the bedroom where he raped me. I was afraid he would kill all of us. A few years later, I had a mental breakdown, my marriage dissolved and I was diagnosed with PTSD.
When wives have been sexually assaulted
The U.S Department of Justice reports that, on average, a woman is raped or sexually assaulted in America every two minutes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, "nearly 1 in 5 (18.3%) women … reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives."
The aftermath of a woman’s sexual assault has profound effects on her marriage relationship; sometimes leading to divorce. The emotional pain of fear, anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares and lack of trust can last for years — sometimes a lifetime. The magnitude of her rape taxes her ability to cope in healthy ways. Often, she experiences PTSD. I did.
It goes without saying, I hope, that the husband needs to know about the assault that’s occurred. A husband who understands how rape has affected his wife is critical to her recovery from sexual assault.
As a rape survivor myself and having spent countless hours helping women of sexual assault through the steps of recovery, I’d like to offer a few tips to husbands to help equip them to walk with their wife through the healing process. Your marriage doesn’t have to suffer like mine did.
Even though it’s painful to hear about her hurt, allow her to talk about her grief. Don’t try to avoid it. Be supportive and nonjudgmental. Don’t try to “fix” her. Just listen. Tell her, “I don’t understand what you’re going through, still, I love you very much and want to help you heal.” Let her know that you will endure this crisis together and that you will assist her by letting her set her own pace for recovery. Nurturing your wife will speed the process.
No matter how curious, don’t demand details of her attack. In time, when she feels ready, she might share more. Let her know you will listen. Tell her you love her several times a day. Be respectful and patient with her — especially during times of what might seem to be overly cautious behavior on her part, such as checking locked doors several times before bedtime and closing the blinds at dusk.
Gently suggest counseling. Recovery may go well for a few months or years, and then something may retrigger her stress and anxiety. She may need to resume (or start) counseling. Take seriously any suicide threat.
Deal with your own hurt and frustrations. Frequently husbands are secondary survivors. You, too, can experience feelings similar to assault survivors, such as sadness, shock and anger. Often, it can be difficult to handle these painful emotions all the while you are trying to support someone else, especially your wife. As the husband, I encourage you to seek counseling if you're having difficulty processing what has happened. Joining a support group for recovery may also be helpful.
Don’t give up on her. Stay for the long haul. Healing is a long process, sometimes a lifetime process, but it's possible. Although my husband and I did not understand the full impact of sexual assault or PTSD many years ago, I'm convinced that survivors and those who love them can find hope and healing today as they overcome emotional scars to build a healthy marriage.*All names, with the exception of Leila, have been changed to protect the storyteller’s privacy.
Leila Rae Sommerfeld is the author of Beyond Our Control.
Focus on the Family has resources to help. Call 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) weekdays between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. (Mountain time), or send an email to help@FocusOnTheFamily.com.
If your marriage is in trouble, there is hope. The Focus on the Family Marriage Institute is here to help — call one of our counselors at 866-875-2915 or visit hoperestored.focusonthefamily.com.