“Discovering the Abuse”

excerpted from
Survivors & Partners: Healing the Relationships of Sexual Abuse Survivors
Paul A. Hansen, Ph.D.

For most couples, the time of discovery is certainly not a time of calm, but rather one of tumult and upset. Some say: “Discovery is nauseating. I feel sick and I feel very small.” I know that discovery was upsetting for us. I think I felt almost as much a shock as my wife did. For some it is a relief. “Discovery is like a light at the end of the tunnel.” “Now I have a reason for all that anger.” It can help to break the isolation and alienation felt by survivors. As one woman said: “I will never forget the first time I heard the word incest and realized I wasn’t the only woman with an awful past!”

For us, even though it was a relief to have some understanding of the source of the upsets in our lives, the disturbances continued unabated. At that time (1982) there was little or nothing in the media or in print about sexual abuse. Sexual abuse had not yet begun to show up in my psychotherapy practice. I think in those days many of us in the profession were not wise enough to ask the questions that would even discern if sexual abuse had occurred for our clients.

Fear of the unknown

During the period when sexual abuse memories are emerging, fear arises about what will arise next. One woman said: “I don’t want any more memories to come. I’ve had enough!” The survivor fears the memories rising to the surface, as well as the possibility of what terrible things might be hidden. However, survivors can also become quite driven, almost possessed, with trying to uncover just what happened. Hypnosis, body work, expressive therapies, and breath work can sometimes help but do not guarantee finding all the memories. When the traumatic experiences of childhood sexual abuse have been buried in the psyche for many years, the unconscious mind does not release them easily. It takes time for the survivor’s unconscious to build a relationship of trust with the remembering conscious mind. If the survivor is strong enough, and handles the first memories well, more will come. If not, further memories can remain buried, though frustratingly near enough to the surface to let the survivor know they are there.

Trust becomes a major issue During this period all the foundations of a survivor’s trust are severely shaken. When coupled with the childhood feelings of fear that emerge, this questioning causes all persons and the relationships to be scrutinized.

When that foundation of trust between parent and child is broken it severely affects the future ability of the person to be able to trust. The inner child of the survivor cries out: “If you can’t trust a parent, who can you trust?” Sometimes there is such disbelief that a parent would so violate the trust relationship, that the survivor would rather question the memory than question the trust. They say: “How could my mother let this happen? or “How could a mother do this to her son?.
Needless to say, such uncertainty causes great disruption in a marriage or adult love relationship.

Who am I?

Discovery is a time of shock, rage, disbelief, relief, sadness, and great confusion. “I’m losing my mind! Nothing makes sense. I don’t know where I belong or who I am.” Confusion rapidly becomes the common denominator for the days of discovery. The shock resulting from the discovery of incest or sexual abuse is so great, that it seems to throw the survivor’s (and her Partner’s) understanding of herself and her world, into total chaos, causing her to ask: “Who am l?” “It’s such a shock . . not me too!” With the revelation of this new aspect of her history, it seems as if all the basic foundations of life, his understanding of himself, his very identity, are now called into question.

He has changed! The very core of his internal reality seems to have shifted … and with it his identity. The Partner has difficulty understanding that her spouse/partner is, at some deep levels, not the same person anymore. He is not and cannot go on
being the same person he used to be. When the known structure of one’s life suddenly crumbles, it takes time to pick up the pieces and reassemble them in a new order. The survivor needs time to recover and reclaim those aspects of strength that have sustained her during the years of her life.

The non-survivor (eg. the Partner) has difficulty comprehending the depth of chaos created by the discovery of abuse. Basic responses to life and to people come into question. For most survivors it is like having your own private “holocaust,” your own private hell. Few of us would demand that a survivor of the Nazi holocaust forget that it ever happened. Though we might tire of hearing about it and ask them to talk less about it, we could not humanely ask them to forget it or ignore that it ever happened. The same is true for the survivor of sexual abuse.

If one of the individuals in a relationship changes this profoundly, we can see that the relationship itself must change. When this occurs Partners may feel bewildered and sometimes ask themselves:
“What happened to the person I married? This is not the person I fell in love with. What do I do now?”

“I wonder if I will ever get my partner back!” Hopefully, their dismay will not lead to a hasty decision to end the relationship. Abandonment at this stage would devastate the survivor.

Survivors, too, may wonder if they will ever retrieve the person they once knew as themselves. Their confusion frequently manifests itself in their sexual experience. In bewilderment, these survivors asked themselves:
“Why am I turned on sexually and then I freeze?”

“Why does anything that could lead to sex make me angry and make me want to crawl back in my shell?”

The confusion may manifest in other ways as well, such as around the issue of safety. The survivor will often possess intense feelings of insecurity, or of being “unsafe” during this period of discovery. These may escalate to the level of sheer terror, which is intense enough to be paralyzing. The survivor may be afraid to go out of the house, drive a car or carry, out normal social interactions. Such behavioral changes can alter family interactions, as well as the management of daily life (schedules. tasks, etc.).

Feelings of insecurity can also provoke hypervigilance, an intense watchfulness. This behavior can take on the appearance of paranoia and may thus affect all the interpersonal relationships of the survivor, and most certainly impact the Partner. When such feelings arise anything the Partner can do to make things more secure for the survivor will be beneficial for both parties. She can reassure him of her love, her support, and her constancy, as well as respect his boundaries, and help him to honor and care for his body and its needs.