When Scott* was a boy, he and a couple of his friends — another boy and a girl — were playing in a forest across from his house one day. A college-aged guy they all knew came by and sexually abused them.
It happened just that one time. And over the years, Scott successfully locked the experience away in the deepest recesses of his mind. He dismissed it as “no big deal.”
But when Scott began telling his wife, Erica,* about the incident, she had a much different take. In fact, she was horrified.
“That’s abuse,” Erica gently explained.
“I wasn’t sexually abused,” Scott said, a little defensively. “We were just kids.”
In that moment, Erica had to make a decision. Should she press the point or should she let it go?
She chose to let it go, much to Scott’s relief. But she didn’t forget about it.
Scott was able to process what had happened to him, but it took time and Erica’s patience. She didn’t press him; if she ever asked about it and Scott didn’t want to talk, Erica just let it go. Eventually, Scott agreed to see a counselor, who helped him accept the fact that he and his friends had been sexually abused.
Tackling the subject of sexual abuse can be incredibly hard in any context, but there are distinctions between the way men and women deal with it. Wives can feel helpless, at a loss to know how to come alongside their husband and grapple with this terrible evil.
Childhood sexual abuse seems almost incomprehensible to many of us. But the sad truth is that of people who came of age in the 1990s, one out of every four girls and one of every six boys experienced childhood sexual abuse. Many researchers believe that those stats are likely understated because victims, especially men, may discount their childhood experiences. And those men carry the impact of abuse with them long afterward, even after they’re grown, married and have children of their own.
Erica understood that the first step was simply creating a protected place for Scott to share, a place where he could process his own story at his own pace. Without that safe space, men are more likely to simply shut down and lock away their memories for good.
How do you create that space? A few tips:
Be supportive and nonjudgmental
Your husband needs to know that he can tell you anything, even if it’s difficult to hear. Unpacking these old secrets can be more than just difficult; it can be terrifying. Often, these hurts stay buried so long because victims are scared of being judged or blamed, especially if your husband told an adult about the abuse shortly after it happened, and was accused of lying.
Added to that, men can often feel a loss of masculinity because of what they experienced. “Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by males (although females can be perpetrators too),” writes Christian psychologist Jennifer Degler. “Thus, a girl is being assaulted by someone of the opposite sex while a boy is being assaulted by someone of the same sex. This creates in male survivors many fears about being gay or being targeted because the perpetrator ‘saw something gay’ in him.” The Living Well website tells us that men receive “a lifetime of messages about what it means to be a man. … He therefore may be struggling with his own masculinity, and this will reinforce his feelings of shame.”
All these issues are at play as you engage with your husband. He needs to understand that no matter what he says, you’ll still be fully committed to him. Let him know that you believe him. Thank him for being vulnerable with you. Say something like, “I’m so honored and I so respect that you are sharing such a painful part of your past.” And remember, allow him to share his story at his own pace.
After reassuring your husband that you’ll be with him for “better or worse,” you need to be aware that childhood sexual abuse will affect your marriage in some way, ranging from trust issues and mood swings to flashbacks, PTSD and even substance abuse. That said, resist the urge to play armchair psychologist and blame your current relationship frustrations on his experience.
It’s perfectly natural that you want your husband to talk and share this vulnerable part of his life. But don’t demand details. Let your husband reveal only what he’s comfortable sharing. When he does share and calls what happened to him “abuse,” affirm him. Men often minimize the abuse, so the fact that he acknowledges what really happened to him is an important step toward recovery.
If your husband shows a desire to get help, support that. But don’t control what that help looks like. Let him know that you can help find a counselor and local support group if it’s too painful for him to find these resources. Ideally you can attend therapy together. However, don’t push him toward counseling. Let him set his own pace for recovery and healing. If you interfere and try to push your agenda, then it feels like more abuse and manipulation — an uncomfortable reminder of what happened to him before.
Manage your own emotions
Learning that your husband was sexually abused as a child can be shocking. You may feel a host of emotions simultaneously, including overwhelming sadness or grief, rage toward the perpetrator, helplessness and even hurt. Why didn’t he tell me years ago? you might wonder.
Deal with these emotions so you can remain open and present as your husband shares. Ask God to help you stay focused on your husband. Get support from a mentor or counselor to help you process your own emotions, even as your husband processes his.
Don’t try to “fix” your husband
You’re not his therapist. Ultimately, your husband needs to do the fixing: It helps him to be empowered and strong, something that maybe he felt he couldn’t be when the abuse happened.
Shelve trying to find solutions and instead respond with compassion.
Also, be careful about physically touching him when he’s sharing. Some people don’t want to associate a spouse’s touch with their story of sexual abuse. Ask before you provide physical touch and then respect him wherever he’s at.
Be realistic about what’s to come
Dealing with sexual abuse is a long, difficult journey of healing. Expect unpredictable emotions. Depending on who abused him, and the length of time and the severity of the abuse, your husband might experience a real crisis as he begins processing. Don’t be alarmed. This is actually progress. But be aware that the road ahead temporarily won’t be pretty.
Your husband may become angry and distant. He may have nightmares or experience anxiety or panic attacks. He may not trust you or want to be physically intimate with you. It may be difficult for him to connect sex with loving intimacy. Be patient while this part of your marriage is healed.
These painful moments will require sacrifice on your part. Ask God for the strength to be the stability your husband needs. And because he may not be able to meet your needs and desires, make sure you’re taking good care of yourself. You also absolutely need support from godly female friends during this season.
Finally, protect his story: It’s his story, not yours. Don’t talk to other people within your shared community or friend group about his abuse.
Sexual abuse can leave a lifetime of scars. But with love and support, and through the grace of God, husbands can find healing. They can be restored.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of several books.
*Scott and Erica are pseudonyms.
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