When a marriage is affected by past childhood sexual abuse it’s a family matter, especially for the immediate family. The effects of childhood sexual abuse have a trajectory into marriage that extends as well into the life of our children. When a wife is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, her husband is often in a role of unusual challenge and unique opportunity.
Brian’s wife, Tanya, was in her early 30’s when she fully disclosed her childhood sexual abuse; the average age for a woman’s disclosure is 26. Brian minimized the effects of the abuse and thought Tanya would eventually conquer the effects. Instead, the effects conquered her. She was eventually admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital.
Though their two teenage daughters had been sufficiently informed of Tanya’s history, her emotional collapse ushered the family into uncharted territory. Despite her dysfunctional past, Tanya had been a nurturer to their daughters all the years up to her hospitalization. But her physical and emotional collapse depleted her of the energy to be the mom she wanted to be.
Brian knew that he could not take the place of a mom. He also knew that his role would expand into new dimensions. I asked Brian what he would say to other husbands whose wives are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. He listed four qualities that might offer stability and security in the context of uncertainty. Brian’s answer focused on responsibilities that are core essentials for any dad.
Brian knew that Tanya’s physical and emotional inaccessibility to her daughters was not much different than a parent who is debilitated by chemotherapy in a ferocious battle with cancer. Consequently, his first order of business was to adjust expectations, beginning with his own. His daughters would never be able to adjust their expectations if he did not first adjust his. Some of the things she had done would now out of necessity be left undone. Though Brian did all he could to maintain some normalcy in schedule and routines, some of the designated roles of each family member would be adjusted.
New types of Rx for Tanya were now on the medicine shelves of Brian’s home. Brian and Tanya endeavored to proactively adjust any negative perception their daughters might have of this new normal. They communicated that new diagnoses bring new prescriptions. “It’s no different than if mom were diagnosed with diabetes.” Brian and Tanya learned that adjusting is preferable over any unreasonable expectations or dishonest hiding.
During the initial years of Tanya’s intensive counseling, she was not able to be as accessible to their daughters as she had been in the past. He did not become Mr. Mom. In their home only mom could be mom and it would have been foolish for him to think that he could take her place. But he knew the importance of his presence during a time of her absence.
Brian learned that he could relax from work and life stresses in new ways, primarily through time with his daughters. It was fortunate that spending time with his daughters was not a new thing. What was new was his level of attention to them in the moment. He found satisfaction in being available both physically and emotionally.
Children, especially when they are in their teens, experience tremendous pressure in life. Stresses confront them in every dimension of life, especially academically and socially. Their changing body further complicates their life.
Teens look for and long for validation and affirmation. Who better to offer it than their dad? Dads must offer unconditional affirmation in appropriate ways of their daughter’s appearance. Dads must offer unconditional affirmation of their son’s performance. If dads don’t offer appropriate affirmation, their children will seek it from inappropriate persons.
Some of the best affirmation a dad can give to his children is to be an affirmer of their mom. Though this is the role of any responsible father, it is especially necessary if his wife is struggling to gain her own sense of worth.
Here is a principle that is being missed in our current culture. Dads must actively enter into the world of their children not as spectators but as participants. It is not enough to be taking our kids to soccer, for then we are only spectators of their lives. The better way is to find entry points into their world.
Brian had a surprising discovery. He took one of his daughters shopping for a dress. He knew that he needed to let her take the lead in the search rather than making it his own search and conquer. But his entry into her world formed a bond that can only come through action and created a fond memory for years to come. Actions can speak louder than words.
Striving for connection with our children is an unusual challenge in a family system affected by CSA. But the unusual challenges lead to unique opportunities. And the unique opportunities can lead to deeper bonds.
Questions for Reflection
- What unusual challenges are you and your children facing?
- What adjustments have you made or do you need to make?
- Have those adjustments been made reluctantly or lovingly? How can any reluctance be minimized or eliminated?
- Do your children perceive you as generally present in their lives or preoccupied with other things? Go ahead and ask them about their perception. If needed, what needs to occur for you to be more available to them? Don’t forget the self-care you need for yourself.
- Find two ways you can affirm your children this week. Remember to affirm character, not just performance and appearance. But affirm their performance and appearance too.
- In what way can you enter into your child’s life beyond that of spectator?