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

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual Abuse

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?

Continued from last week…

Dear Survivor,

Young children, at a bare minimum, rely on their parents to meet their basic hierarchy of needs. These basic, i.e. survival, needs are categorized as 1) safety needs and 2) physiological needs, e.g. food, water, shelter – for more information please reference Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When a parent abuses a child, there are multiple trust ruptures, violations, and abuses that occur.

Violations of trust and safety. As children, we look at our parents or parental surrogates as all-knowing, all-powerful beings. We trust that they will provide safety and security from the dangers of the world when we are most vulnerable. Safety and security are the foundation necessary to trust our world, our experiences, and the people around us. It is requisite to any healthy sense of curiosity. When this trust is violated, the integrity of your safety and security are ruptured. Life is viewed through this distorted lens of distrust and insecurity. It impacts our attachment models and how we relate to and understand people and relationships. These early traumatizations create a state of arrested development. Another way to think of this is to imagine your life as a house filled with rooms, people, memories, and experiences. Your childhood is the foundation that the home is built on. Homes built on strong foundations can withstand tremendous stress. Once the integrity of that foundation is compromised or violated, the homes can no longer withstand the normal stress of the environment. This leads to foundational and developmental instability, insecurity and dysregulation. These early and critical violations constitute the first, and major, trust rupture.

Violations of self-worth and healthy sexuality. Kids naturally think that everything revolves around them. This ego-centric perspective helps them to focus on growing, learning, exploring, and integrating their life experiences. It is normal and healthy. When somebody perpetrates a trauma against a child, especially a parent, it is difficult for a child to not blame themselves for the act. This inevitably erodes away at feelings of self-worth and taints their view of sexuality. It is common for abused children to think that it was their fault or that their value is inherently tied to their sexual availability and exploitation. These early and forced exposures to sexualization distorts the natural and healthy development of sexuality. Exploring sexuality in the adolescence period then becomes a minefield of triggers and compensations. For some, reclusive, fear-based behaviors (sexual anorexia) becomes the default mode. For others, reckless and risky choices prevail. In some closest to me whom have been impacted by sexual abuse, sex and sexuality became a form of leverage; an opportunity to hold power over instead of being over-powered. It is an attempt to take back the power that was lost or stolen during their childhood and reverse the power dynamic. It takes time, distance, and guidance to be able to extricate a young child’s sense of worth from these traumas and restore a healthy sense of sexuality once these violations have occurred.

Violations of boundaries. Boundaries can be difficult to create, maintain, and enforce – even for adults. But, when traumas are perpetuated against young children, it distorts the healthy development and understanding of boundaries. Without a clear understanding of what boundaries are and how to use them, a child may grow up thinking that everyone has access to them, i.e. their time, their space, their bodies, etc. It may be difficult to separate themselves from others; fertile ground to cultivate unhealthy codependency. Boundaries are a necessary and healthy way for us to push back, to define our limits, to establish independence, and to protect ourselves from dangers. They reinforce our sense of self. The early dismantling of these boundaries can make it difficult or impossible to self-protect and separate ourselves from others.

Abuses of power and authority. The parent-child dynamic is a powerful one and inherently skews to regard the parent as the all-knowing authority. Power and authority can be forces applied to nurture or destroy relationships. The use of power and/or authority over instead of with is a superficial dynamic and not a spiritual one. Benevolent parents want to use their power with their kids to raise them up, grow their inner authority and nurture their development in the world. Abusive and/or manipulative parents seek to use their power over their kids, perpetuating the power disparity and suppressing their kids’ growth. This has nothing to do with intent. Well-intended parents may not realize that their power over their children is actually an incredibly suppressive force. As Maya Angelou said, “if you know better, do better.” However, when abuses of power and authority are intentional, as would be for the sexual abuse of a child, the consequences are grave. The child’s inner authority diminishes, their development can become suppressed and a growing discordance and distrust can develop within themselves.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive, but I think it accurately highlights and encapsulates the major, life-altering impacts of a child who has survived sexual abuse. With all of this said, I still have not answered your question, “How do I support my husband’s needs being the husband of a woman who was sexually abused by her father?”

You can see they myriad of obstacles that the survivor of sexual abuse must endure. Tending to your own needs and healing can be hard enough, but to factor in the needs of your husband might be overwhelming. The simplest answer I have to your question is: it’s not your responsibility to tend to your husband’s needs. I believe the most important thing you can do for yourself, for your husband, and for your relationship is to tend to your healing. Your healing journey will allow you to show up in a way that your husband will notice. If your partner loves and supports you, they will be patient, compassionate, and supportive of the difficult and rewarding work that is required to heal from such abuses and violations.

To be continued…check back next week for part 3 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.