“Hints for Couples”

“Hints for Couples During the Healing Process”
excerpted from
Survivors & Partners: Healing the Relationships of Sexual Abuse Survivors
Paul A. Hansen, Ph.D.

PART 1

In the midst of the conflicts that arise during the healing process you may frequently find yourself in conflict with your companion. At these times it is easy to become adversaries. Remember, you are in this together. Healing is not just the survivor’s job. If you can adopt the idea that you are fighting together to be well and whole, the battle will be much easier. Remember that the survivor did not create this situation. She was not responsible for the abuse happening. You each need to know that the other is going to be there for you. You need to know that you are teammates as you fight through the phases of healing. Discuss it together and work out ways you can be allies during this time. If you find yourself angry a lot, try directing your anger at the perpetrator rather than at each other.

Make the commitment to heal

The commitment to heal must be a shared one. Of course, the survivor must be the first to make this commitment, but it takes both of you. Full healing requires commitment from the Partner. This may come as a surprise to you as a Partner. If you do not make this commitment as well, you may find that you are unconsciously sabotaging the healing process. You may be frustrated with how long it is taking. You may say: “Why don’t you just forget it, let it stay in the past?” You may put pressure on the survivor to hurry up the healing, perhaps to spend less money on therapy. In many subtle and not so subtle ways you may be letting her know that you are not with her in this healing process. She needs you at her side, now more than ever. She needs you to stand by her, support her, and encourage her in this process. If you can give her that support, she will recover much more rapidly than if you do not.

What to do when the abuse is still a secret

Many survivors have kept secret their childhood sexual abuse. Only recently has it been more socially acceptable to let such information be known. Not many years ago, the psychiatric community was saying that incest or sexual abuse was so rare that the average psychiatrist might see only one or two cases in a lifetime, that the incidence was only one or two per million. Now the world is acknowledging the widespread incidence of sexual abuse and incest, and rather than one or two per million the percentages are one in three women and one in five or seven men. A number of celebrities have come out into the open about their own abuse.

Secrecy around sexual abuse is one of the more difficult areas for a couple to work through. Survivors and Partners may differ about how to handle it. The Partner may want to tell the whole world, and especially want to confront the abuser and his/her family. The survivor may be afraid to do that. Or the roles may be reversed with the Partner being the one afraid to speak of it. Sometimes, neither one may want to talk about it.

It is important for you as a couple to come to an agreement about handling the knowledge of the abuse, handling-the “secret.” This is especially true when dealing with family members and at family gatherings. Try to get beyond the stage of keeping the abuse secret.

End the secrecy

One of the most healing (and perhaps the most frightening) things you as a couple can do is to stop keeping the secret. You cannot complete your healing until you do. As long as you keep the secret, you have to keep parts of yourself in hiding from others, and perhaps even from yourselves. You may not want to broadcast it to the whole world, but make it okay to become a known fact among your family and friends. An essential element of grief work is talking about the loss. This same principle applies to healing abuse. You need to be able to talk freely about the abuse and its effects on your lives. However, each survivor must find her own time and rhythm for revealing the secret. If the Partner reveals some of the secret before the survivor is ready, she may experience one more devastating violation of her boundaries and trust. Work together on this. Continuing to keep the abuse secret creates a tremendous strain for you, both individually and for your relationship.

Especially for the partner

During the process of healing the wounds of abuse the role of the Partner is not an easy one. People have a great deal of compassion for the survivor and her pain and suffering, but few realize the pain and suffering of the Partner. The Partner, usually a male, is seldom considered during the healing process. He is supposed to roll with the punches and be there as a constant support for his spouse throughout the process. But his plight is often like this man who implored: “I don’t know what to do to help.” Now that we are beginning to hear from more Partners, we realize that they too need support, caring and healing. Although books and guides for survivors abound, to date I have seen none for Partners. (Laura Davis’ new book, Allies in Healing, due out in the fall of 1991, should help fill this gap) We are just now beginning to see the emergence of organized support groups for Partners. They are long overdue.

What follows are some suggestions for the Partner during various stages of the healing process. Though I speak primarily to the Partner here, I hope the survivor will read this part of the chapter too.

Don’t take it too personally

In a good relationship that includes a high level of intimacy, I each person identifies with the other to some extent. One of the hazards that the Partner faces is feeling as if the survivor’s anger, distancing, fear, and rage are really his responsibility, his “stuff.” This is not surprising in that much of the rage and distancing behavior is directed at him. The Partner must learn to allow for the survivor’s distortion and projections in dealing with the abuse. The rage more properly belongs to the perpetrator and to those in positions of responsibility who should have protected the
survivor.

My first suggestion, and probably the most difficult to carry out, is: “Don’t take it personally!” You need not feel ashamed of yourself for what happened to your partner many years ago.

You are not alone

Although you may feel isolated and alone in this process, it is important for you to know that you are not alone. With so many women having been sexually abused (some recent studies show one third of all women), many Partners are going through experiences similar to yours. Perhaps even some of your friends and acquaintances are experiencing the same feelings and the same isolation. If at all possible, get the survivor’s permission to talk with others about the abuse and about your experience as a Partner. Once you begin talking you will undoubtedly find other people having the same or similar experiences. In other words, build a support system for yourself. You need one. You deserve to have one. You can create one. It is time for childhood sexual abuse and its healing to come out of the closet. Talk about it at your exercise club, at your church gatherings, or at other appropriate social occasions. Without being obsessed by the topic, give yourself permission to talk about it enough to find people with similar experiences until you build a good support system for yourself. Once you have found those supportive people, use them. One of the principles of Twelve Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is calling others for support when you are in crisis. Use this important tool for yourself.

Unfortunately, our culture has created an independence myth for men. It teaches men not to reach out. Men are the supporters. Try out the idea that this is a myth and not a truth. If you are a male, it does not mean that you should be able to handle all things by yourself. It especially does not mean that you have to cope single-handedly with what sexual abuse does to you and your relationship. None of us has been prepared or trained for such an experience.

Have fun again!

I also want to encourage you to reinvest in yourself. Do things that you enjoy. It is easy to make taking care of the survivor or coping with the sexual abuse your second vocation. Frequently Partners get so focused on working through the abuse experiences in their relationships that they begin forgetting the other things that help them to be happy and maintain balance in their lives. Such things may include exercising regularly, motorcycle riding, fishing, swimming, hiking, camping, horseback riding, gardening, recreational reading, movies, or any variety of sports activities. You need to continue to nourish yourself. Give yourselves permission to nourish your relationship too. Go out on a date with your partner. Take turns planning a relaxing evening or a new weekend outing. Get away from the abuse sometimes. Go out for dinner or go dancing. Try to remember the things you did when you were first dating that you both enjoyed. Do them again!

Communicate!

In living through this time in your lives as in all others, it is crucial that you communicate effectively. Though sexual abuse is probably the hardest thing for you to talk about, do it! Sometimes survivors are very reluctant to talk about what they experienced and what they are going through right now. They feel ashamed or don’t want the added vulnerability of having other people really know how bad they feel. They worry that they will bore their family members, their friends, and especially their Partners. They don’t want to be rejected. Partners, not wanting to make survivors feel worse or have more pain by bringing it up, may refrain from talking about what is happening emotionally for them. You can’t heal in your relationship what you don’t talk about. While it is true with all relationships, that is especially true when one of you has a history of sexual abuse.

PART 2

Ask for what you need

Learn to ask for what you need, such as time off from talking about the abuse or time to talk about it more. Ask for time for being held and cuddled or for just another hug, time for a little reassurance that you are going to get through this thing together.

This was hard for me to learn. As a child I learned that I had to take care of myself emotionally. I am a prime example of the “do it yourself’ school. Thus my tendency was NOT to ask for what I needed from my wife. When I was feeling anxious about our relationship surviving, I found it especially upsetting if she said no when I asked for a hug. There are times when the survivor is in so much pain that she cannot give anything at all. Eventually I could accept that it was not the end of the world when this occurred, that there would be other days when hugs would be available. But it was painful!

Besides asking for what you need, encourage the survivor to ask for what she needs. If she seems reluctant, simply ask: “What do you need from me right now?” When you do this, try to be aware of what you want to give and what you CAN give. Going beyond what you can give only aggravates the situation and becomes abusive to you. A friend of mine once told me of a principle by which he lived: “Try to accept from me what I have to give to you. But don’t try to take from me what I cannot give. It will only make both you and me frustrated and disappointed.”

Be aware of your limitations

Closely associated with the need for communication is the need for limits. Be aware of your limitations and don’t exceed them. When Partners are trying to be helpful and give support to the survivor, it is very important for them to be aware of their limits. If you as a Partner continue to try to give beyond your limits, you hurt yourself and eventually your partner. If you do not set limits you may find yourself angry or filled with resentment, leading to further alienation.

When my wife was needing more space or distance from me in order to feel safe, I often felt rejected and fearful of being abandoned.
When she threatened to leave the relationship or declared “it just feels all wrong,” I became frightened or anxious. I interpreted her statement as an appraisal of our marriage, rather than as a description of her internal emotional state at the time. I have learned to disconnect such statements and thus can hear them from a less defensive position. I now can respond to her from a position of empathy, caring and support, rather than panic.

You can’t fix her pain

Coping with her pain, grief, and possible depression may be the most difficult task for the Partner. You may ask yourself from time to time, “How did I get into this, anyway?” While it is normal to want to heal or fix anyone who is in severe physical or emotional pain, this is one situation you can’t fix! Seeing someone in pain creates discomfort for most normally empathic human beings, but you cannot take her pain away. However, you can be supportive.

Recognize that the survivor may not want your help, at least not in the way you want to give it. Rather than being “fixed,” most survivors want a witness, someone who will not abandon them as they ride the emotional roller coaster of the healing journey. Helping someone often gives the helper a feeling of power or of being in control. If being in control is part of your payoff for helping this person, you are going to be given many opportunities to let go. While this no doubt will benefit you in your own long term growth, the survivor’s increased strength and independence may initially create discomfort and conflict in the relationship, as positions of power shift.

What you can do

If you can’t fix her pain and make it better overnight, what can you do? The simplest (though not necessarily the easiest) strategy is to listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more! When listening, don’t just pretend to listen while you go on with your activities (reading, watching TV, eating, etc.). That doesn’t work! I know because I used to try that sometimes, and it only aggravates the survivor, communicating that you aren’t really interested. Don’t do it! Sit down, look at the person, and give her your full attention. That is what she needs at those moments.

Help the survivor focus. Ask her what she needs from you right now, indicating that you are available to try to meet that need to the best of your ability. Don’t try to ignore it, fix it or even make it better. You probably can’t. Acknowledge her feelings. Acknowledge that it is okay for her to feel the way she is feeling. The feelings may be ones she has carried from childhood, which were appropriate in that childhood situation, though they may not fit today’s reality.

She needs the freedom to feel the feelings … the anger, the fear, the terror, the revulsion, etc., in order to get through them. Feelings, given space, will move on through and be released. All feelings are transitory.

Building trust: a step-by-step process

When a child has all her boundaries violated by someone who was a trusted caretaker, it destroys much of her capacity to trust. Where she once trusted, she has learned it is not safe to trust. Though she loves you, it may take a long, long time to trust you. You can help this trust building process by being aware of her handicap, and by being as trustworthy as possible. Do you keep your commitments? Are you on time and present when you say you will be? Do you follow through with what you say you are going to do? When you are doing planning together, try to clarify her expectations as well as your own. You both have, in your own minds, some very specific expectations, so don’t be verbally vague. To build trust, make those expectations explicit and then honor them. Expect her to honor them too. The survivor needs to experience herself as trustworthy. She needs to be able to trust herself. If she believes that she cannot be trusted, then she will not believe that anyone else can be trusted either.

Provide reality checks

A very strange distortion of reality occurs during the healing of sexual abuse. When a survivor is working through feelings repressed as a child, experiencing those feelings again is part of the healing process, but they will seem strange, because they do not fit the present-day reality. During such a flashback the survivor has temporarily exchanged her current reality for an older historical reality. Fear is the most typical example of an emotional flashback that surfaces in this way, with anger a close second.

Since acknowledging that I too am a survivor, I sometimes have had days of-feeling anxious and fearful, and occasionally terrified. Yet, in my adult mind, I cannot identify anything in my present reality that justifies those feelings.
I have learned that when such feelings occur it does not mean I am going crazy. It merely means I am feeling childhood feelings that were not safe to feel then. I try to remind myself that it is safe now to feel the feelings.

I recall a day not long ago when I was feeling very fearful. I didn’t know whether to cry (which I did), shout, scream, or just go hide in a comer somewhere. It was such a powerful experience of feeling unsafe in the world.

At times like those just mentioned, it may be useful to remind the survivor that you are not the perpetrator. Remember she may be in a different reality than the one you think you are sharing. There probably are some elements in your current situation, no matter how remote or obscure they appear to you, that remind her of that old abusive situation and spontaneously trigger the feeling.

How long will it take?

You may ask yourselves, “Will these wounds ever heal?” The answer to that is: “YES!” How long will it take? That, of course, is unknown and completely individual. I would anticipate that the effects of the sexual abuse will resurface from time to time throughout your life together. But its disturbing influence will be less each time it comes up. The length of time it takes for each disturbance to pass will diminish. You can hope for better times

You are in this together. Acknowledge that the healing belongs to both of you now, not just the survivor. You are healing long held wounds in the survivor, and healing the current wounds to your relationship and to the Partner.