I wrote in a previous blog, “a reconstructed and healthy marriage is not the experience for all couples whose marriage is affected by childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Sometimes reconstruction is no longer viewed as a possibility” (What about the marriages that seem beyond reconstruction?).
This blog is for those contemplating separation or divorce. It is an invitation to take inventory before you separate, not of your possessions but of your perceptions.
Do an inventory of your perceptions before you separate.
Here is the first of three personal inventory questions.
1. Do I see my wife as the one having a problem?
The long-term effects of CSA imposed on a survivor are real and can include shame, blame, rage, anxiety disorder, and much more. It is wearying for the survivor. If her husband also wearies, he might become overwhelmed with her struggles. He begins to think, “if she would address her stuff, then our marriage would be fine.” Eventually, the only thing he sees is what’s wrong with her.
The weary husband’s perception fuels his running monologue of “If only” thoughts: “If only she would go to a counselor,” “If only she would just decide to move on,” “If only she did not get so angry,” “If only I could afford a lawyer for a divorce.”
The long-term effects of CSA do necessitate therapeutic care. However, one consistent observation in my research and work with husbands of sexual abuse survivors over the past 15 years is that husbands of sexual abuse survivors bring their own adverse factors into their marriage. In marriages affected by a spouse’s CSA, it is typical that both partners need counseling.
Husbands of sexual abuse survivors bring their own adverse factors into their marriage.
A husband who sees his wife as the only one having the problem distracts himself from addressing his own adverse attitudes and behaviors.
This brings us to the second question in your inventory.
2. Have I truthfully considered what it is like to be on the other side of me?
Step back into the scene of your most recent conflict with your wife, coworker, or neighbor. Imagine watching a video of yourself through the lens of how you appeared to your wife, the coworker, or the neighbor. Watch yourself. What do you see?
We typically see only what we want to see. Our selective perception can blind us from the truth about ourselves. Our vision becomes filled with “Yes, buts.” “Yes, but she doesn’t seem to care.” “Yes, but the people at work are incompetent.” Whether those accusations are true or not, the question remains: “What is it like for others to live or work with you?”
Some of the best relational help I received was when I invited friends who had my best interest in mind to let me know what it was like to be on the other side of me; specifically, to help me see the things I was not seeing about myself.
- One friend challenged me to stop my habit of self-deprecation. My self-deprecating was a manipulative means to get someone to say something nice about me.
- At a different time, another friend pointed out how I sometimes take a victim mode.
Inviting others to speak into our lives like this is risky and demands vulnerability and teachability on our part. Yet, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Our self-awareness resulting from our vulnerability and teachability can lead us to healthier relationships with our family and others.
Do you have two or three friends who have your best interest in mind and can lovingly speak to you with wisdom, grace, and truth? If not, you risk entering new relationships that repeat the same patterns you are experiencing now. It’s better to engage in self-examination than to descend into insanity, which is defined in AA as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
3. Am I expecting my wife to make me happy?
Happiness comes from the fifteenth-century Middle English word hap, which means “chance.” In other words, happiness depends on what, by chance, happens. By its very nature, happiness can be elusive and unpredictable. It is subject to what happens, by chance, in my health, friendships, possessions, and achievements.
The nature of happiness does not allow me to find it on a continual basis from anyone or anything. Expecting my wife, my marriage, or anyone else to make me happy will lead me to disappointment.
The nature of happiness does not allow me to find it on a continual basis from anyone or anything.
Not every marriage can be reconstructed. Not every sexual abuse survivor chooses to remain with her husband. There are matters over which we have no control. But all of us can benefit from a personal inventory that includes these three questions about our perspectives. We will benefit, as will those around us.
Some of the content of this blog is drawn from the chapter “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” from my book, Help, My Wife is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse.