Childhood Sexual Abuse: Do you see your wife as the one having the problem?

In my last blog, I wrote about the Distorted Perceptions inflicted upon the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The family of the survivor, on the other hand, often adopts Selective Perceptions. With our selective perceptions, we interpret information in a way that is congruent with our existing beliefs. For example, most people who voted for Trump view his first 100 days favorably so as to be congruent with the beliefs they had when they voted. Likewise, those who voted for Clinton view Trump’s first 100 days with disfavor and as evidence that they voted correctly. In other words, we see things the way we want to see them so that we can prove ourselves to be correct in our views. Husbands, whose wives are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, are often culpable of selective perceptions.

An example of selective perception is when a husband views his wife as the “identified patient.” The identified patient is the one who is identified as having the problem. The effects imposed upon a wife who is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse can “convince” her husband that she has the problem and is therefore identified as the patient – the one in need of some therapeutic care.

The effects of childhood sexual abuse include issues such as eating disorders, panic attacks, substance abuse, self-injurious behavior, and anxiety disorder. These effects do, in fact, necessitate therapeutic care. But the husband, who does not struggle with these particular effects, exercises selective perception when he scans her daily behavior for proof that she has a problem. And though he has issues of his own, he is unable to identify how his issues too have a mounting ill-affect upon the marriage. In his selective perception, he has a running monologue of “If only’s” in his mind: “If only she would go to a counselor,” “If only she would just decide to move on,” “If only she could not get so angry.”

If your wife is the “identified patient,” is she the only patient?

Fred approaches his wife, Linda, at the end of the day and embraces her. In response, she stiffens – not because of Fred but because of her current shame and self-rejection. Linda feels unlovable. In response to her stiffness, Fred feels put off. So he backs away and sullenly goes into another room and turns on the TV. For the rest of the evening he counters Linda’s stiffness with a dose of his own stiffness by never looking directly at her. With selective perception, he sulks, thinking that she is a cold – and sometimes even cruel – person. Is there only one patient in this case?

Jack and Lisa struggle in their lack of sexual intimacy. Jack therefore rationalizes that he is justified in indulging himself in some pornography. In reality, he indulged in pornography long before his struggle with Lisa, but her aversion to sexual intimacy now serves his selective perception. He persuades himself that he has cause for his current behavior. In counseling, it is revealed that Jack’s involvement in pornography has rewired his thinking and behavior to objectify women. When he engages sexually with Lisa, she senses the objectification, which repels her because it repeats the objectification of the perpetrator when she was sexually abused as a child. In the counseling session, is there only one “identified” patient?

Jackie, who is in her 20’s, has struggled with a sense of powerlessness due to her sexual abuse from her older brother when she was a young teen. He was strong and aggressive. She was petite and powerless. At the fitness center, she notices Derrick who is strong and attractive. Derrick moves from one fitness apparatus to another with precision and determination. His body language speaks control. He pays attention to Jackie and she becomes drawn to his strength and his control of life. He functions at work with the same precision that he performs in fitness. They marry. But a year into their marriage, Derrick’s selective perception focuses on Jackie’s powerlessness and he becomes exasperated with her passiveness. He exerts himself as though enticing her to fight back. However, she wilts under Derrick’s oppressive power and dominance. He stands over Jackie in such a way that she cannot move. His relentless insistence that things operate his way at home mirrors his relentless persistence in his workout. The traits that drew Jackie to Derrick now repel her. What is the identified problem in this case, her powerlessness or his dominance? Who is the patient that has brought the ill-affects to this relationship?

When a husband’s selective perception labels his wife as the identified patient, he diminishes her sense of self-worth. But that is not all. His selective perception actually functions as self-deception. By seeing his wife as having the problems, he can distract himself from any of his own problematic attitudes and behaviors.

Avoiding the Deception of Selective Perception

  1. Ask the question

I don’t know the origin of this question, but it is a question that should be asked by everyone: “What is it like to be on the other side of me?”

Right now, step into the arena of your conflict and ask that question. Go back to the most recent conflict with your wife and ask the question. Look through her eyes. Go back to your most recent conflict at work. How did you seem to others?

These inquiries won’t guarantee a truthful answer. Selective perception will fight the truth about ourselves. Our vision will be filled with “Yes, buts.” “Yes, but she doesn’t talk.” “Yes, but she doesn’t seem to care.” “Yes, but the people at work are incompetent.” Whether those accusations are true or not, see them as your perceptions.

In your search for truthful answers to the question, be aware that your selective perception may lead you to others with the same selective perception. Generally, family members won’t give us an accurate portrayal of ourselves when assessing whether the issues lie within our spouse or us. Siblings will generally have selective perceptions that favor their own family unit over in-laws.

It is most beneficial when we have two or three friends who have our best interest in mind and can lovingly speak to us with wisdom, grace, and truth. If you do not have this kind of friend, then it’s time to ask yourself why that is the case. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

A good counselor can also speak truthful perspective into our lives if we allow enough sessions for them to fully see into our lives. Because of some good counsel and God’s gracious work in my life, my dysfunctional patterns – which I had not seen due to selective perception – are being dismantled and replaced with healthier perspectives and patterns.

  1. Assess how I’m affected

When we judge someone – when we judge someone as the identified patient – we are not seeing who he or she is, but instead, we are seeing their affect upon us.

Selective perception can misguide a husband’s thinking and even find its expression in such statements to his wife as, “Here we go again.” I think I’ve done that a time or two. In other words, we are thinking, “Here we go again . . . this lines up with what you’ve done or thought before. It doesn’t change.” Whether or not that is true, it seems to be true most of the time that the biggest frustration is in how we, as husbands, are being affected.

Granted, there are frustrations for husbands. But there are also frustrations for our wives. We are affected, but so are they. In our frustration, it can be enlightening to momentarily step away from the tension and ask ourselves:

  • How am I being affected and how much is that the issue for me?
  • How is all this affecting her? What is it like for her?
  • Am I avoiding a problem or a need to change by only seeing how this affects me?
  • Though this affects me, is this really about me? If so, how do I need to change? If this is not about me, how can I respond with calm so that I do not escalate the situation?

Send your comments. I’m interested in hearing from you.

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