Editor’s note: the following column discusses sexual abuse and may be difficult to read for some people. 

Dear John,

How do I support my husband’s needs being the husband of a woman who was sexually abused by her father?

How can I better understand his experience and not get overwhelmed with the feeling of guilt that it is my fault & that if he weren’t married to me he wouldn’t have to deal with this…feeling like it’s my fault and if I removed myself from the equation, then my husband would be better off…

How do I talk about it with him and not take on his feelings & being triggered?

Dear Survivor,

Thank you for your vulnerability and willingness to share your experience. To put this into perspective, 4 out of 5 women have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at some point in their life. Your question is relatable and pertinent to the vast majority of women in the world. I am going to answer your question in parts to ensure I identify and untangle as much as possible. Thank you for your trust!

PART I

“How do I support my husband’s needs being the husband of a woman who was sexually abused by her father?”

I don’t know your experience of being a woman and daughter abused by her father. However, I do have personal experience holding space for and supporting my partner who was abused by her father in childhood. In a partnership, there is always going to be a mutual-supporting of each other’s needs. Fundamental to any discussion about wants and needs is the work of establishing a safe, secure, and transparent method of communicating. When my partner and I talk about delicate topics such as these, we create the time and space for it. We center ourselves, disclose any requirements we may need for the conversation, and ground ourselves in our mutual love for one another. Creating a safe container is paramount to mutually supporting each other and to work through delicate issues such as these. If you cannot create a safe space to openly explore these topics, my concern is that it will not be productive. Armor will stay up, guarding will occur, resentments will develop, and misunderstandings will prevail. Without an appropriate container, language, or support, you also run the risk of retraumatizing yourself sharing these experiences if they are not handled and received correctly despite your best intentions.

In my particular situation, I feel it is my responsibility to unburden my fiance so she doesn’t have to tend to my needs when sharing openly and vulnerably. It is my responsibility to understand and hear her as well as communicate my needs to her. This can be tricky without a delicate, guided or trauma-informed approach as there are many ways to trigger survivors of abuse. Once that occurs, it may be difficult to open back up due to the sensitive and traumatic nature of those triggers. Having the right language is imperative to being able to navigate this terrain. It is not necessarily yours or your partner’s responsibility to have this language – that is why there are professionals to help guide these conversations. For myself, I dove into educating myself about sexual abuse and trauma, understanding the coping skills required to survive such abuse, and learning how to compassionately hold space for my fiance and her healing process. I approached her with love, curiosity, and tenderness so she never felt judged, ashamed, or conflicted about what she was experiencing or sharing. I took the responsibility of tending to her needs so she could move through the healing at her pace knowing she was loved and supported along the way. At baseline, our foundation is safety, transparency, and love – even when things go wrong or we have a misfire.

I admire your sense of empathy and compassion to look after and tend to your husband’s needs. Survivors of sexual abuse are often left with complex PTSD from the repeated and chronic violations of boundaries and abuses of their bodies. Sexual abuse is rarely an immediate or quick act; there are repeated trust ruptures and violations along the way that impact every dimension of the survivor. Oftentimes there are long periods of grooming of the survivor before any physical and sexual violation occurs, complicating and layering the traumatic experiences over time, making it an intricate process to untangle. However, it is possible to live free from the burden of those wounds and with a sense of abundance.

I feel it is important to name and acknowledge several things to put them into perspective and give language to a survivor’s experience. As Brene Brown says, “language is a handle.” Using the correct language is important so we can get a handle on our experiences and accurately work through them. Without precise and accurate language, we are left swimming in the ambiguous, unknown, and incomprehensible. You may also notice that I have not and will not use the word, “victim” here. You are a survivor and will be honored as such!

To be continued…check back next week for part 2 of this 6 part series.

With love and light, John Moos, MD For More Resources: RAINN – Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis The Courage to Heal Workbook: A Guide for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Laura Davis The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.