Caleb stood in the hallway and poked his head into the room, enough to see in but not enough to be easily seen. He was deciding whether to attend my breakout session at a men’s conference or the breakout session on pornography – how men are enticed into it and neurologically affected by it. My breakout session focused on helping husbands respond to their wives’ childhood sexual abuse. Caleb’s wife had been sexually abused in her youth.
Men who use pornography experience the loneliness, isolation, and shame that accompany its use. But for Caleb, the shame of attending a session on a husband’s response to his wife’s childhood sexual abuse carried much more shame than a session on pornography.
As Caleb scanned the room, he saw other men he knew who were already seated and ready for my presentation. His silent response was, “Wow! Him too?” He entered the room, sat down, and waited nervously for the session to begin.
Shame is a dysfunctional adaptation to childhood sexual abuse that exists in the survivor of the sexual abuse and also her family – especially her husband.
Why do husbands of childhood sexual abuse survivors feel shame?
Husbands feel shame because of an illusion that can be engraved in us from childhood. Sandra Wilson noted that families sometimes function by a code of unwritten rules that are “intended to conceal family imperfections because parents were taught that they and their children should be perfect” (Released from Shame, p. 43). Even though we discover that life is messy, Wilson contended that these rules are “engraved” in our minds from childhood. Husbands of childhood sexual abuse survivors live in a relationship and situation that is imperfect and therefore feel disconnected from others – shame – because of the engraved illusion that others live in a “perfect” world. That’s what Caleb experienced.
Another reason for shame is that relationships affected by childhood sexual abuse are not what they ought to be. Many of these relationships fall short of God’s design due to their conflicts over sexual intimacy or social connectivity.
Derrick, the husband of a childhood sexual abuse survivor, knew that his conflicted marriage was not what it ought to be because he could not measure up to what his wife, Nikki, expected him to be. He stated, “It was like a game I didn’t know the rules to, and frankly, I think she would have been like, ‘I have no idea what I’m asking you to do, but just know you’re not doing it.’”
Dr. Daniel Green of New Life Resources Counseling (Waukesha, WI) points out that because things are not as they ought to be, we are disconnected from God’s intention – and that disconnect brings shame. You don’t have to do anything wrong in order to feel shame.
What can the husband of a survivor do about shame?
Here are two steps that husbands can take in order to subdue and silence shame.
- Name it
Curt Thompson, along with other psychologists, prescribed a practice that can be summed up in these words, “Name things in order to tame things.” Emotions that would otherwise impair or paralyze can be tamed when we acknowledge them rather than ignore them. If I acknowledge, “I’m scared,” the fretful effect of that emotion dissipates.
When Caleb told me of his hesitancy to enter the room, he was acknowledging a shame response. When we identify and name our shame for what it is, the shame is subdued.
- Seek Connection
Adam and Eve’s sin caused a disconnection from each other that was verbalized in their blame of each other. In that shame, they covered themselves with fig leaves in the same way that we, in shame, might cover our imperfections or faces. Moreover, they hid from the Lord.
But God, who always seeks connection, came and called to Adam and Eve.
What can husbands of survivors do about shame? Be God-like by taking the initiative to connect with our wives and others.
Connecting with our wives does not mean barging into a room and demanding that they talk to us. Rather, healthy connecting is gentle and restorative. It calls rather than requires. It invites rather than insists. It seeks the best for the other. We are not responsible for our wives’ response to us. But we are responsible to them by coming to them and inviting them into connection.
Connecting with others also silences shame. During my presentation in the breakout session, Caleb got to hear other men ask their questions as they wrestled through the marital challenges they were facing. Guys in that room were immediately linked together in camaraderie.
God designed us for connection/community. When we call out to others and invite them into our experience, shame is silenced.
Moll, Rob. (2016, July/August). The Loneliness of Shame. [Interview with Curt Thompson]. Christianity Today, 60(6), pp. 62-66.
Wilson, S. D. (1990). Released from shame: Recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.