Three Styles of Response When Your Wife is a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse

What is it like for you as a husband whose wife was sexually abused as a child? Imagine that you and I are having coffee at a local café in your town (I wish that were possible). Given the vast and various effects of childhood sexual abuse, your situation might not warrant all of the following inquiries. But let’s consider some possibilities.

What is it like for you when your wife:

  • Withdraws and isolates herself from social gatherings?
  • Is so depressed that she cannot get out of bed?
  • Tries to control everything around her, including you?
  • Jerks away when you touch her in a certain way?
  • Contradicts previous comments or decisions she has made?
  • Bursts into sudden anger at what seems to be the smallest thing?
  • Wakes up – and wakens you – with frequent nightmares?
  • Becomes anxious about things that you don’t think should bother her?
  • Is overprotective with your children and fearful for them?
  • Is sometimes one person at one moment and another person the next?
  • Seems to have lost track of time and doesn’t remember part of her day?
  • Goes on a spending spree, busting your budget?
  • Resists closeness, emotional and sexual?
  • Eats too much and then secretly disappears into the bathroom?
  • Eats too little and is still concerned that she ate too much?
  • Has cut marks on her arm or leg?
  • Cannot seem to maintain long-term relationships?
  • Feels like she is at fault for most things?
  • Talks about being of no value to others or says everyone else would be better off if she wasn’t around?
  • Has recurring panic attacks?

Take some time to consider your response to the above scenarios that are part of yours and your wife’s experience. For your spouse, her past trauma invades her present experience. But what happens for you? In those times:

  • What did you think?
  • How did you feel? Sad? Scared? Mad? Powerless?
  • What did you do?
  • What did you say?

Before going any further, if your wife has indicated suicidal intent, have a direct conversation with her and seek professional help. It is important to know the resources that exist in your community. It might also be advisable to make a call to her counselor. Also, do what you can to ensure that she is getting professional help for any eating disorder or any self-injurious behavior (e.g., cutting, substance abuse, etc.).

Apart from an emergency situation, let’s consider your style of response. In my interaction with husbands whose wives are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the responses of many fall into one of three styles. They enmesh, escape, or individuate.

  1. Enmeshed

To enmesh is to become so entangled with the pain and emotions of your wife that you lose any sense of who you are. When your wife is happy, you are happy. When she is depressed, you are depressed. When she withdraws, you withdraw. In other words, when you are enmeshed with your wife you don’t know who you are apart from your wife. You cannot identify what you think or feel. You may think you are being controlled by your wife, but it would be more accurate to say that you’ve been absorbed into your wife.

Often, being enmeshed leads to control and manipulation. A husband who is enmeshed needs his wife to be and feel in favorable ways so that he can feel at peace. Therefore, he manipulates his wife or manages the situation in his attempt to maintain what he believes will be a tolerable existence.

  1. Escape

To escape is to get away from your wife. You might even do some things you wouldn’t necessarily choose to do except that anything seems better than being near your wife for too many hours at a time. You may choose long hours at work or go on longer fishing trips, not because you need more money or more fish but because you want less conflict and turmoil.

It can be healthy to withdraw for short periods of time if the purpose is to get rejuvenated – regroup – so that you can engage again with your wife. On the other hand, to escape is to not only get away geographically but to even be totally disengaged when you are in the same room.

With enmeshment, you are totally absorbed into your wife. With escape, you become totally absorbed in yourself.

There is a third style of response apart from being enmeshed or escaping. It is what some therapists refer to as individuation.

  1. Individuation

Individuation is “the process of finding out who you are and making decisions based on this knowledge. . . It is to be consciously committed to truthfulness, authenticity, congruency and maturity in living out what you value to be true in you and in your life.” (Clarke Barshinger in Haunted Marriage. pp. 84-85).

Individuation is not individualism. Individualism is about focusing on yourself without intent of serving others. Individuation is knowing yourself so that you have an ability to share yourself with others.

Here are some questions and recommendations that can help you discover or rediscover who you are.

Question:  What activity replenishes you when you engage in it? In other words, when you are done, you think or say, ‘I’m so glad I did that.”

Action:  Schedule that activity into your calendar.

Question:  What guy friend do you have who seems to genuinely care and with whom you love spending time?

Action:  Schedule to have lunch or coffee with that friend within the next three weeks. If the friend is not in your local area, arrange a phone call.

Question:  Do you have the kind of guy friend described in the previous question?

Action:  If you don’t have such a friend, inquire into the men’s activities at your church. Attend their next event.

Question:  Have you become so enmeshed or are you in such escape that you find it difficult to even converse with another guy?

Action:  Pray that God will empower you to break out of your shell. Your shell is not a healthy place for you to be.

Question:  Do you have children and how well are you connecting with them?

Action:  Begin doing some fun stuff with your kids on a regular basis (at least weekly).

Finally, you need to have a conversation with your wife about all of this. Your conversation is to inform her, not blame her. Only you can determine how to best express yourself, but here’s a suggestion for starting:

I’m discovering that I’m “running on empty” lately. I know that you are working through some really tough things. Just as I want you to do some things that will recharge you, I need to take responsibility for myself and do the things that will recharge me. 

I’m making arrangements to golf with Jim a week from Saturday and then we’re going to grab a burger together. I’ve made arrangements with Jackie, Jim’s daughter, to watch our kids that morning so that you can either sleep in or do whatever you want to do.  

Start getting reacquainted with yourself today.

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