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,

If you want to help your partner, and your relationship, my best advice is to focus on yourself and your healing. I don’t mean this in a selfish way; I mean it in a self-care way. Your partner’s feelings are his own, and only he can own them. Taking on his feelings robs him of understanding your true feelings and prevents you from sharing your authentic self. There are developmental and valid reasons for this given your history of sexual abuse at the hands of a parent, e.g. violation of self-worth, violation of boundaries, codependency as a means of survival, etc. I imagine that adopting an agreeable, people-pleasing persona is how you coped with and survived a household of abuse. These adaptations and coping mechanisms can become entrenched patterns long after they’ve helped you to survive. Understanding this with self-compassion can help unburden you from the guilt that may come with co-opting other’s feelings in your adult life. By embracing your sovereignty, you’ll realize you are entitled to your own feelings and experiences, living unburdened from the responsibility of taking on or managing anyone else’s emotions.

Lastly, understanding your triggers is an ongoing process. Triggers are reminders of your past trauma. When a traumatic event occurs, people often dissociate from themselves to survive the event. This creates a dis-integration in our life history – oftentimes a blockage of our right and left cerebral hemispheres or brain halves. When these dissociated experiences are held in our memory, the two halves of our brain cannot communicate – the left holding our facts, time, and linear events of the memory while our right holds the self, emotions, and autobiographical memories. These unintegrated memories in the form of emotions, sensations, images, and impulses can flood the individual when triggered without any sense of time. It literally feels like they are re-experiencing the traumatic event right now. This is often why traumatized individuals’ reactions may be out of proportion to the triggering event – it is because they are releasing all of their repressed and unintegrated memories at once without any control. But, through careful work, integrating these experiences back into your psyche can stop the triggers from impacting you because they will eventually have a time, place, and accurate context to separate them from the present moment. Your husband also has his own history and traumatic experiences, and along with it, his own set of triggers. My partner and I have created a safe word, “misfire,” for those moments we stumble into a trigger unintentionally. It can be very grounding to stop the flood of emotion that ensues when one of these landmines is triggered.

By no means are these answers intended to be comprehensive, complete, or to encapsulate the entirety of your story and being. There are many nuances to navigating trauma, abuse, and the multitude of obstacles layered into these complicated experiences. You are courageous and brave to be doing this work. You are offloading the guilt and shame that was unjustly put onto you as a small child. If you love your partner and your partner loves you, you can find a way to navigate this together, respectfully and gracefully. When you open yourself up intimately and vulnerably, it requires taking down your protective armor, lowering your defenses, and risk being truly seen. This is a raw place to be and it may feel scary navigating this terrain. There will be mistakes and missteps along the way. But, if you trust your partner, continue to show up and do the work. As Michael Beckwith says, “the safest place to be is in your own unfolding.” Stay open, stay curious, stay respectful, and stay kind. Your heart is meant to be wild and free. Thank you for your trust and courage to be seen and heard.

With love and light,

John Moos, MD