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 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,

PART III

“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…”

There is much repair work required to undo the trauma perpetuated against you by the individual entrusted to protect you – your father. I acknowledge and honor that this can be a long and arduous process to endure. However, the freedom, confidence and resiliency from undergoing such a journey is well worth it. I have seen the rewards firsthand with my fiance, and close friends and family.

Living in guilt or with guilt can feel like a prison. Genuine remorse and concern is a healthy component of empathy, and so is guilt. Guilt, remorse, and concern arise because you care. But, guilt can easily turn into shame if you start to believe that you are responsible for your husband’s perceived unhappiness or the burdens in his life. If you find yourself in guilt or shame, you run the risk of creating false narratives and unnecessary separation from your husband. Authentic stories can bring us together, but fictional stories we tell ourselves can tear us apart. Bringing in and nurturing your self-love, self-compassion, and forgiveness can help to release any shame or guilt around these stories. Brene Brown, undoubtedly a queen of story-telling, talks about the power of this statement, “the story I am telling myself…” Tell your husband that you are telling yourself a story and see how he responds. Oftentimes, making this statement out loud and to ourselves is enough to defuse the power of these fictional stories we tell ourselves.

If you are curious about what he is experiencing, create time and space to ask him. Be willing to hear his joys and struggles. Ruminating that your husband would be better off or that his unhappiness is your fault is creating distance and separation from him. You have to trust that he will tell you if he is overwhelmed, struggling, or challenged with how to support you or be in your marriage. Trust your intuition if it is telling you that something is off, but also trust it if it is telling you that everything is okay. If you’re having a hard time attuning to your inner guidance, invite him into a dialogue to explore this topic gently. Be honest about your feelings and ask the same from him.

Creating a container of safety is always a good idea when exploring the wounding around your sexual abuse, especially if there are elements that are still unprocessed. Unprocessed trauma can be nuanced and tricky because there will still be unidentified triggers that can cause re-experiencing of the past traumas, flooding and overwhelm, dysregulation, and an autonomic response that puts us into a fight, flight, freeze or submit response. If you or your husband do not know or haven’t named your triggers, you may be walking into a minefield. Even with the best intentions, once triggered, you could shut down, react, shutdown and/or create reprocessing trauma. Oftentimes it is best to incorporate a skilled professional to help with these discussions until you have built the requisite skills to navigate them on your own. Each time you name and process a trigger, integrate a piece of your abuse history, and deepen your understanding of your inner environment, the discussions become less treacherous. For your husband, if he is openly and honestly sharing his experience, or shares some raw, unfiltered thoughts, it could be triggering and render the discussion ineffective. Once the autonomic system is activated, it is difficult to regulate and bring your awareness back into the present moment without practiced skills, understanding, and support. My comments are not to suggest that you cannot do it, but rather to minimize any reprocessing trauma and hurtful misunderstandings that come from opening delicate conversations with our best intentions.

To be continued…check back next week for part 4 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.