How should husbands respond to their wives’ dissociation?

Tina Zahn experienced dissociative moments common to many survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In her book, Why I Jumped, Tina described how her stepfather ordered her to their dark and dingy basement. She recalled how she hated her stepfather’s breathing, being held down by him, and the smells that emitted from him. As her stepfather went through his abusive ritual, Tina’s thoughts went to her siblings playing outside and the firehouse across the street that represented safety (pp. 18-20). The mental transporting of ourselves to another place is a common form of dissociation that can function as a God-given form of self-protection. Dissociation functions to shelter the abused child from the physical and emotional pain of the traumatic experience (See What is Dissociation and does it affect Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse). A survivor jumps from the intolerable to the tolerable when dissociation occurs.

Some level of dissociation is common to all of us. When my dentist begins drilling into one of my teeth, I picture myself on a beech in Cancun. This psychological displacement from my physical experience is easily done even though I’ve never been to Cancun.

When occasional and typical dissociation becomes the habitual coping mechanism of escape, it progresses into Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). A child’s incidental occurrence of dissociating during abuse can lead to an intentional experience of dissociation as an adult through which alter personalities can be created and developed.

There are many expressions of dissociation among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Jack’s wife, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, sometimes spoke in a childish voice, interjecting childish giggles. In a counseling session, a 64-year-old survivor covered her eyes and could not speak words as she momentarily dissociated as the 8-year-old girl who was sexually abused. Another survivor would suddenly charge out of her house and drive away recklessly in her car.

The dissociative experiences of female survivors can be very confusing and alarming for their husbands. A better understanding of how dissociation occurs can reduce the fear.

What happens during a dissociative experience?

The BASK model, constructed by B. G. Braun, offers an explanation of dissociation that dispels some of the alarm surrounding its occurrence. BASK serves as an acronym for the components of memory: Behavior, Affect, Sensation, and Knowledge. In human experience, especially traumatic experiences, any component can be dissociated from the others. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse may have a sensation that is connected to an event or object yet be disconnected from knowledge of that event. For example, if abuse occurred in a room with a wood-burning stove, the scent–sensation (S) of the burning wood may increase the pulse or anxiety of the survivor when exposed to the sensation in adulthood even though conscious knowledge (K) may be buried.

Kyle asked his wife if she could sew on a new button on his trousers, replacing the one that had broken off. She responded with explosive refusal. Her response stunned Kyle and served to reinforce his perception that he was always “walking on eggshells” in his relationship with his wife, a feeling shared by other husbands of survivors. I advise husbands to pause and reflect when unpredictable and inexplicable responses are received from their wives who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In Kyle’s situation, I wonder if his wife was forced to manipulate and undo the button of her perpetrator in order for his genitals to be exposed. If so, it is then possible for disconnect to have occurred between any of the components of her behavior (B), her emotion associated with the incident (A), her sense of touch (S), or her cognitive memory (K). As stated by Heather Gingrich (2011), “Any one of the BASK components, or various combinations, can be dissociated from each other at various times for any [childhood sexual abuse] survivor” (p. 64).

How can we respond?

Here are some recommendations for a loving and healthy response to a dissociative wife.

1. Be calm, compassionate, and confident

Ask God to calm the storm that you might feel in your own soul.

If you become agitated, you then add agitation to the immediate situation. Your wife’s primary struggle is with her perpetrator, not you. Don’t add to her battle.

Allow her to speak. You may not have a satisfactory response to her statements and questions, but don’t shut her down. It’s probable that no one listened to her cry as a child. But you can listen now.

Maintain eye contact. Stay connected with her as best you can. If she becomes aggressive with accusations, do your best to assure her of your love, your commitment to her, and your desire to work through things together.

Ensure her safety but don’t be controlling. If you attempt to control her, you then step into the place of the perpetrator.

All three C’s are necessary:  calm, compassionate, and confident.

2. Don’t be the therapist.

Do not say, “I think this is happening because . . .” or “Is this the . . . . personality?”  And it mostly likely will not be wise to ask at a later time, “Were you dissociating when . . .?”

Even if you are convinced your wife had a dissociative episode, she is probably not aware of it nor will you be able to convince her. Keep in mind that her alter personality functioned to protect her conscious state. Only after effective counseling and some successful integration will your wife be able to recognize the occurrence of a dissociative incident.

3. Love the whole person

A past school of thought proposed relating to the dissociative individual on the same level as their alter personality. For example, if your wife was in a dissociative state as an eight year old, then you would relate to the alter as you would to any eight year old. In recent decades, this methodology has been discouraged. The focus has shifted toward integration of the alter personalities.

When dissociation occurs, husbands are to show respect. Never belittle or ridicule. Love her for all that she is.

No one is the same all the time. For example, our moods can shift from one day to the next and from one moment to the next. We are grateful for those who love us whether we are in a good mood or in a funk. Our wives, made in the image of God, are worthy of the same consistent love no matter what their mood or condition.

4. 48 hours

After a significant dissociative occurrence, it takes time for the survivor to get back into a more balanced state. It can take up to 48 hours. As my wife’s former counselor would always tell me, “Be patient!” I got tired of hearing it, but he was right.

5. Take inventory and responsibility for your own feelings

When my wife has had a dissociative experience, I typically feel lonely. My counselor has reminded me that loneliness is a longing for someone to return. With dissociation, we do wait for our wives to return psychologically. That means it’s time again for me to be patient until she does return to connect.

Loneliness is a common experience for husbands of survivors. It is necessary to have close relationships with other men. It is also necessary to have a counselor with whom we can process our fears and loneliness.

6. Remember that your children are in the house

If you have children living at home, remember that they are very much connected and in tune with their mom, your wife. Just because they may not be saying anything does not mean that they are not being affected. Developmentally, your children may not have the words or concepts by which to communicate their well-being or lack thereof.

Again, it is necessary to discuss your situation with a qualified counselor who can advise you regarding the best course of action for your children.

Final word

Dr. Daniel Green, Clinical Director at New Life Resources in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has reminded me that dissociation is coping with overwhelming material. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, dissociation is a God-given gift to deal with sinful atrocities done against our wives.

Integration can occur with good counseling. The process of integration will require our patience as husbands.

Resources cited

Gingrich, H. D. (2011).The role of dissociation in sexual abuse: Current research and approaches in healing. In A. J. Schmutzer (Ed.), The long journey home: Understanding and ministering to the sexually abused (pp. 60-73). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Zahn, T. (2006). Why I jumped: My true story of postpartum depression, dramatic rescue and return to hope. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell.

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