What to do when past sexual abuse is hurting your marriage
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is an unimaginable evil perpetrated upon the most innocent and vulnerable, and it shatters a child’s sense of safety, security, and trust. If this has happened to you or your wife, I am so sorry. And though the struggles in your marriage may seem hopeless right now, I have good news. God can heal and restore the past, and redeem what this evil threatens to destroy in your life and marriage.
According to the most recent statistics from the US Department of justice,1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they’re 18 years old. And experts assert that this greatly underestimates the actual numbers, as many victims don’t report their abuse. This has been my experience as I’ve worked with women (and men) who’ve experienced abuse–that the shame, guilt, and trauma from the memory keeps them in a prison of secrecy and pain. And while we tend to think of sexual abuse in terms of molestation and rape, sexual abuse encompasses a variety of non-contact forms that include exposing children to pornography, sexual activity, and sexual talk, breaching their privacy during dressing and showering at inappropriate ages, and filming or exploiting children for one’s sexual pleasure.
Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, cutting, suicidal ideation and attempts, posttraumatic stress, flashbacks, nightmares, and substance use are just some of the consequences survivors struggle with as adults. But even more, CSA can hinder adults from forming and maintaining healthy relationships in marriage. When a child is betrayed by a trusted adult, their sense of self is damaged and they can lose confidence in themselves, and their ability to be safe. This can cause them to build emotional and physical walls that, despite desiring closeness in relationships, keep them isolated and alone, often not understanding why. As a result, some with CSA may have difficulty trusting their spouse or expressing themselves emotionally and sexually. In addition, CSA survivors may need to control their environments to protect themselves, since they had no control during the abuse. While an individual’s response to abuse is unique to them, research has found that some behaviors can vacillate to extremes— such as being completely aversive to sex to being overly promiscuous, from being completely shut down emotionally to having exaggerated emotional responses, or from having to control even the smallest detail to being unable to make any decisions. Further, CSA can have an impact on parenting, as often memories of the abuse are locked away until a survivor has children, or a child of the same sex reaches the age when they were abused.
But generally, it’s in the bedroom where the effects of CSA are felt the most. Sexual abuse, as well as sexual assault, can damage a women’s view and experience of sex. Something that God created for bonding, intimacy, and pleasure between a husband and wife now feels more like a weapon that is used against her. Sex can feel shameful, coercive, scary or disgusting. Rather than feeling safe and enjoyable, sex is now painful and humiliating.
THE BRAIN AND BODY REMEMBERS
Research on how trauma affects the brain and body has continued to illuminate why decades later, CSA can trigger a myriad of negative symptoms. Whenever we experience something that feels scary or threatening, the memory along with our emotional and physical response can get tucked away in the threat-center of our brain, the amygdala. The amygdala is the survival center that tells us when to fight, flee or freeze during a life-threatening or dangerous situation. However with CSA, a child often has no way to fight or flee their older attacker and therefore, their response is to freeze. This can take the form of dissociating from the experience as if it’s not happening to them, which protects them in the moment of the trauma. A young child is often unable to cognitively process or understand what is happening, they just know how it makes them feel. As a result, the traumatic memory can get locked in the emotional part of the brain causing the body and brain to be triggered with similar responses decades later. Our brain has the amazing ability to block traumatic memories to help us survive and cope during trauma. However, even if we don’t have specific memories, our body remembers and when something happens that reminds our threat- center of that dangerous experience, our body responds in similar ways — by shutting down, dissociating, feeling anxious, and scared—and along with it the physical symptoms of a racing heart, trouble breathing, sweating, anxiety, etc., all without knowing why.
CSA also has a confusing experience of sexual arousal for the child. In addition to feeling a sense of threat and danger, their bodies may have responded with a sense of pleasure. Not being able to cognitively process what they are experiencing, they lock away a combined body memory of danger and pleasure associated with sex. Now fast-forward to marriage, when sex is supposed to be something beautiful, intimate, pleasurable and permissible. But now when they get sexually aroused, their body remembers the confusing feelings they experienced as a child, thus unleashing their protective response causing them to shut down, dissociate, flee or freeze.
WHAT YOUR WIFE NEEDS
Being willing to get healing is often scarier than the trauma itself because it means opening up all the memories that she has spent years trying to forget, stuff down, medicate or numb. I tell my patients that healing is hard, but without it, your body and brain will continue to keep the trauma locked away allowing the suffering to continue.
Though difficult and scary, having the courage to unlock the memories and make sense of them, frees her body from being triggered with the painful reminders of her trauma.
It doesn’t mean she’ll forget, but with healing, the memories no longer trigger the familiar feelings of shame, dread or fear.
“But what if my wife won’t get healing, or doesn’t think she needs it?”, I can hear some of you asking. “How can I encourage her to?” That’s tough, and it’s true that some minimize what happened to them when comparing their stories to others, or they believe that it’s in the past and no longer a factor. The truth is, we can’t make someone get healing, even when it’s so obvious to us. However, you can lead her to the place of being willing to consider it with your kind and gentle encouragement. Read this article with her. Offer to read one of the books offered at the end of this article with her. Having someone to go through the journey is always less scary than going it alone.
Seeing a professional counselor who specializes in trauma is a first great step towards healing. Trauma- focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is an empirically proven therapy to heal past abuse and trauma. In addition, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another effective and proven trauma-focused therapy that helps your brain process traumatic events.
My book, Kiss Me Again; Restoring Lost Intimacy in Marriage, offers some trauma-focused therapy steps along with biblical principles to help you and your wife begin the healing journey. It explains the science of bonding and trauma and has exercises and discussion points, along with a study guide to help you and your wife both process past sexual experiences that may be affecting your sexual intimacy. In addition, my study, Free: Finding Freedom and Healing for Your Past, offers a 12-week intensive spiritually-based program based on TF-CBT that can be done in groups or on your own. Check out these resources on my website at barbarawilson.org.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
First, you need to remember that you can’t fix your wife, only God can. But He will use you in this healing journey as you support, encourage, and walk alongside her. As God brings up her painful past, be prepared for a rollercoaster of emotions; sadness, anger, shame, regret, and an abundance of tears. At first, she may appear to take out her emotions on you, as if you’re to blame. Be patient and gentle. Let her express her feelings to you without judgment, or the need to ‘fix’ her. As God reveals new insights, she may want to share these with you. Listen. Let her cry. Give her the time she needs to process all God is showing her. Be prepared that, for a period of time, the pain associated with her abuse may trigger greater difficulty with sexual intimacy. If that happens, remember two things: it will get better, and it’s not about you.
Most importantly, stay hopeful even if your wife isn’t. Give her courage when she is afraid, strength when she is feeling weak, and a calm presence when her emotions are out of control. It sounds like a lot—I know. It won’t be easy. But on the other side of this painful journey is a healing that will not only set your wife free but a hope and a future for your relationship that you could never have imagined. And don’t forget—you’re not alone. God is more invested in your wife’s healing and the restoration of your marriage than you are—you can trust that He will be with you. Every step of the way.