Helping Your Husband if He's a Sexual Abuse Survivor

Helping Your Husband if He's a Sexual Abuse SurvivorToday’s post is a guest post from Jennifer Degler, psychologist, speaker, and life coach. She operates the website CWives, which gives women dares every month to keep their marriages sizzling! I asked her to write a post on something that I don’t feel equipped to handle: helping your husband if he’s an abuse survivor. She graciously agreed to do so:

One in six boys will be sexually abused before age 18. Apply this statistic to marriage, and you’ll quickly see that almost 20% of husbands have been sexually abused as children. How can a wife help her husband if she suspects (or knows) he was sexually abused?

First, let go of these false beliefs:

  • “If I love him enough, I can fix him.”
  • “I can make everything okay if I can find just the right words to say.”
  • “I need to get him to admit he was sexually abused.”

He doesn’t need you to “fix” him. There is no perfect combination of words which magically erase the negative effects of childhood abuse, and pushing a man to admit he was sexually abused (before he is ready to face this) may humiliate, panic, or enrage him. Remember, abuse victims were manipulated and coerced as children—the last thing they need as adults is someone forcing them to open up.

Second, educate yourself. While boys and girls react in many similar ways to abusive sexual experiences, there are gender differences. For example, female survivors often struggle with feeling like “damaged goods,” while male survivors struggle with feeling like they aren’t “a real man.” Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by males (although females can be perpetrators too). Thus, a girl is being assaulted by someone of the opposite sex while a boy is being assaulted by someone of the same sex. This creates in male survivors many fears about being gay or being targeted because the perpetrator “saw something gay” in him. Two excellent resources to educate yourself are:

  • One in Sixwww.1in6.org. Online resource with helpful, up-to-date information for survivors, family and friends, and counselors. Offers movie and book recommendations, and even a lending library.
  • When a Man You Love Was Abused: A Woman’s Guide to Helping Him Overcome Childhood Sexual Molestation by Cecil Murphey, 2010. This beautifully written book is for Christian wives and girlfriends of men who were sexually abused as children. In the first part, “Who He Is,” Murphey writes about his own experiences of abuse and healing, as well as the experiences of other men. The second part, “How You Can Help Him,” provides practical, compassionate advice on over 20 topics, including “Believe Him and Help Him Believe,” “Help Him Honor His Body,” “Accept His Shame,” and “Let Him Move at His Own Pace.” The author has also created an online site where hurting men can connect with other sexual abuse survivors: http://menshatteringthesilence.blogspot.com

Third, don’t become his therapist. He has much pain to work through, and this is best done in the context of group or individual counseling. While you should listen to him, if you are his sole source of support for a long time, you may find this straining your marriage. Encourage him to join a support group such as Celebrate Recoveryhttp://www.celebraterecovery.com or Christians in Recovery (an online support group,http://christians-in-recovery.org) and to seek individual counseling as well. Let him know he is worth the time, money, and energy required to heal.

Fourth, be patient and keep your expectations realistic. Recovery takes a long time and often is “two steps forward and one step back.” He may get closer to you emotionally and then create distance unexpectedly for a short time. This is what recovery looks like. This process can be hard on wives, which leads to the final suggestion below.

Fifth, take care of yourself. You, his wife, are the other victim. He was molested and now you’ve been affected by the fallout from his abuse. You will need extra support because his recovery from sexual abuse will be a marathon, not a sprint. Get counseling for yourself and practice good self-care (get 7-8 hours of sleep, eat healthy food, exercise regularly, have fun with friends, feed yourself spiritually).

What suggestions do you have for helping a husband who has been sexually abused?

Jennifer Degler, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, life coach, and co-author of No More Christian Nice Girl: When Just Being Nice—Instead of Good—Hurts You, Your Family, and Your Friends. A frequent speaker at women’s events and marriage retreats, she also
maintains a counseling practice in central Kentucky. She is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and the founder of CWIVES, an organization devoted to helping Christian wives enhance their sexuality (www.cwives.com). She has been interviewed by Women’s Day.Com, Moody Radio, and numerous other media outlets. Jennifer and her husband, Jeff, live in Lexington, Kentucky, with their two teenage children. Visit her Web site at www.jenniferdegler.com.


Forgotten How to Blush

Forgotten How to BlushEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week, I’m sharing thoughts on things that perplex me.

I think guilt has received a bum rap. We seem to believe that it’s the worst of all emotions and must be avoided at all costs. Personally, though, I’d sleep better knowing that my neighbour would be plagued by remorse if he looked at child porn, or did something inappropriate to one of the kids on the block, or even cheated on his wife. I like the fact that people feel badly if they do bad things. After all, if we don’t, then what is to prevent those bad things from happening? All that’s left when guilt is gone is punishment, and let’s face it: most people will never get the punishment they deserve in this life for the things they do wrong. If your spouse cheats on you, they’re not likely to be sentenced to a future of nothing but impotence and working as a telemarketer, much as you may think that’s appropriate. The world just doesn’t work that way.

In spite of this obvious necessity for some degree of guilt, though, our society seems to be moving towards less shame, rather than more shame. No one is supposed to feel badly about anything. Everything we do is simply a step towards self-knowledge or self-actualization, so don’t shun the bad things. Embrace them as part of who you are.

What a load of you know what. I once read that we as a society have forgotten how to blush, and I think that’s about right. I know I sound like an old codger, but I do envy my great-grandparents, who at least lived in a time when if someone had an affair, or abandoned their kids, they would be sanctioned by the community and their own family. They wouldn’t be clucked over and told “well at least you’re happy” when they’ve broken countless hearts that they were responsible for. Shame and guilt prevented far more heartache than it ever caused.

Indeed, a recent study by a professor at George Mason University found that guilt feelings are actually associated with better, safer, and more positive behaviour. Those teenagers who are more prone to feeling guilty are also less prone to use alcohol or drugs or to break the law. They are also less likely to kill themselves and more likely to practice safe sex. If that’s true, I’m all for guilt!

A certain amount of shame, then, has to be healthy. It urges us on to better, more moral behaviour. Of course, our kids shouldn’t feel shame because we shame them by telling them that they’re worthless, or disgusting, or a big disappointment. They should feel shame only out of an inner conviction that they have somehow failed their own moral code. It’s our job to help our kids find that moral code, by identifying one and urging them to work towards it. It’s their own job to feel the guilt, not ours to impose it (though it may be ours to punish). But let’s not forget that guilt can be a useful thing.

When guilt and shame go out the window, honour often follows. Honour means taking responsibility for your actions, and standing up for what’s right. Today, feelings matter more than actions, and the greatest good no longer is doing what’s right, but defending what one does, whatever it is, passionately. That’s our new barometer for whether or not something is appropriate—whether we can justify it earnestly enough. Someone can be completely hypocritical in their actions, but as long as they’re earnest in what they say, it no longer matters.

All of us need some sort of personal ethic to live our lives by, and it needs to include something far deeper than “whatever makes me feel good at the time”. If our society were composed only of people who were trying to maximize their own happiness, regardless of the effect on others, imagine the chaos and heartbreak that would ensue. Moral values seem to have gone out of style, but we forget that we cannot exist in a vacuum. Without those values, immaturity and selfishness will take over, as is already evident when one looks at the state of the modern family. As a society, let’s remember how to blush.

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Overcoming the Effects of Sexual Abuse: It’s Nothing but a Neuron!

Today’s guest post is from psychologist Rachel Grant, explaining why bad stuff in our backgrounds can leave us super-sensitive and jumping to the wrong conclusions today. Here’s Rachel:

Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a freshly baked pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you recall being held down by your abuser? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from abuse?

There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. When we smell the pumpkin pie, what is actually happening is that a particular neuronal pathway is ignited. Think of it like a big highway in your brain with a bunch of intersections, on ramps, and off ramps.

Whenever we have an experience, it is like we are building a highway, and that highway might be connected to an already established road or be a brand new one. So, in the example of smelling a pie, our memory (highway) the initial memory of Thanksgiving with family now has an additional road leading to the current experience of the same aroma when walking by the store. Thus, the neuronal pathway (highway) is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation.

Now, the more often we travel a road, the more readily we can get to that road and the more it becomes a part of our personality. In this way, our lives can become shaped by reactivations of memories, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We simply experience them as the reality of our present experience.

The result is that we respond to our significant other in the moment with fear and anger thinking that what s/he is doing is the problem, when, instead, a neuronal pathway has been triggered and the memory of our abuser restraining us is activated. The same thing occurs in response to stressors. If our experience makes us feel trapped or scared, we may respond in the same way we did when needing to survive the abuse rather than in a way that actually addresses the present day stressor.

Will we always be held hostage by these firing neurons? Absolutely not! “Each day is literally the opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the anticipated future” (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!

The first step is to simply absorb the fact that many of our present day responses, thoughts, and emotions are nothing but a neuronal highway lighting up! Recognition of this creates space for us to consider the possibility that what we think or feel is going on may not be what is, in fact, really happening.

Secondly, when we successfully avoid getting on the road most traveled and instead respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new way, the neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes, and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.

Finally, developing the ability to separate what is actually happening from the interpretations or emotions that follow plays a critical role in our ability to respond to situations in a new way. There are other steps to complete the work of re-wiring, but this initial step is critical.

So, let’s practice! See if you can identify what happened and the interpretations in this story:

Karen recently shared with her husband that she wanted to travel more. Her husband responded by saying he needed to do some research before he could make a decision. Immediately, Karen began thinking about how she never felt like she never got to fulfill her dreams and always ended up doing things on her own.

What happened?
What is Karen’s interpretation?

Now, the very next day, Karen’s husband pulls her aside and says that he was glad to have the extra time to think things over; it really does suit him to take some time before making decisions, and now he would like to talk about planning a trip. I bet Karen wishes she hadn’t spent so much time wallowing in her interpretations, which might have been thoughts such as “I’ll never get want I want; people always let me down,” etc. Worst of all, she was reinforcing old negative neuronal pathways the whole time!

I have come to affectionately think of these interpretations as “stories” – our little efforts at trying to explain or understand why something has happened. Unfortunately, most of the time – like 99% of the time – the story we come up with is really just an old neuronal pathway begging to be fed. We usually quickly oblige and find ourselves mired in negative self-talk and self-thought. Our practices of right speech and right mindfulness are tossed out the window.

It is not always easy to separate what happened from our interpretation, but that is okay! You can begin by writing down just the facts of what happened when thinking about an experience. Then turn your attention to what your interpretation was, what story you told yourself about why things were happening the way they were.

Sheila says: I think this is excellent advice, similar to what Paul says when he tells us to “take every thought captive”. When you’re thinking something that’s not true, take out that thought, examine it, and replace it with the truth. And God says: you’re valuable. You’re lovable. You’re a new creation. I know that’s hard, but the best way to get over our pasts is to look to the future, and look to the truth that God tells us!

Rachel Grant is the owner and founder of Rachel Grant Coaching and is a Trauma Recovery & Relationship Coach. She is also the author of Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse. With her support, clients learn to identify and break patterns of thought and behavior that keep them from recovering from past sexual abuse or making changes in their relationships.

Rachel holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. With this training in human behavior and cognitive development, she provides a compassionate and challenging approach for her clients while using coaching as opposed to therapeutic models. Rachel is a member of the International Coach Federation & San Francisco Coaches.

Purchase Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse (available in paperback or Kindle)


Rocking the Boat

Rocking the Boat: Resolving Family Conflict
Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s is on resolving family conflict, and is a reprint from 2007.

We’re a week past Christmas now and as we take down those lights and dismantle the tree so we can sit in the living room again many of us are breathing a sigh of relief. We made it through a family dinner without any fights! Hallelujah and pass down that Christmas angel.

Families often pride themselves on the absence of conflict, as if not fighting means that we’re close. But I wonder, instead, if the opposite is actually the case. Think about it this way: in order to have a close relationship with someone, you have to be sharing your true self, which the other person then has to accept. And, of course, this sharing goes both ways. Sitting in a room together as you chat about the weather and the price of gas and did you see the colour Aunt Ruth dyed her hair? is not sharing yourself. It’s passing time. And the more we engage in this kind of surface relationship with people with whom we should have more intimacy, the more we build walls between us. It may buy us time, it doesn’t buy us peace. That’s because real peace isn’t not fighting—remember the Cold War?—it’s knowing someone and accepting them anyway.

Serious as this problem may be with extended family, it’s even more grave with our immediate family. We don’t confront our spouse on things that we consider serious, because we’re scared of the reaction. Instead, we bottle it up, pretend nothing’s wrong, and add more bricks to that wall. But is this really what we want for our relationships? If we want true intimacy, we’re going to have to share what’s in our hearts, what’s bothering us, even secrets that we’re afraid may cause that boat to keel over. There’s little lonelier than sharing your life with someone who doesn’t even know you.

Spouses, though, aren’t the only ones we hide from. How many of us really fight for that relationship with our kids, especially our teens? Too often we allow them to push us away, because we’re afraid that if we confront them, we’ll find out how alienated they really feel from us, or we’ll push them away even farther. We’d rather have the semblance of a relationship than acknowledge that there are severe problems. But how can we deal with those problems unless we name them? And most children, though they may not admit it, appreciate being fought for, rather than being allowed to do anything and everything just so you don’t have conflict.

Of course, some of us aren’t in the position to open up and share what we’re thinking and feeling. The relationship itself seems so fragile that sharing may be the final straw. When you’re afraid the person may bolt, opening yourself up just doesn’t seem worth it. But I wonder if settling for the shell of a relationship is really the better course? Only you can be the judge of that, and waiting for the right time to deal with something big may be appropriate. But putting something off indefinitely won’t build you the kind of relationship that your heart dreams about. Sometimes we need to go through a period of conflict in order to get to the other side. Taking bricks down is messy, but think about how wonderful it will look later on.

Nevertheless, while rocking the boat may be necessary, it shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself. We want intimacy, not just fights! So as you share, remember that you don’t get extra points for being loud or angry or making the other person look like a fool. That’s not removing bricks; that’s adding more. So calm yourself down, search your heart, and figure out what you want. Then decide how you’re going to get there. Letting things go on as they always have isn’t necessarily going to help. It’s going to build more walls. And then, who will be there to help you tear them down?

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What Do You and Your Husband Have in Common?

What do we have in common anymore?

Christmas is the time of goodwill and joy and cheer, and yet I know for many people it’s also a vivid reminder that your life is perhaps not going as planned. When everything around us is joyful, it’s that much more of a stark contrast when we are not.

And so I have asked Poppy Smith, author of Why Can’t He Be More Like Me?, to guest post about a difficult time in her marriage today.

The advertisement for a marriage seminar caught my eye. It asked the question, “What do you and your husband have in common?” An anonymous woman had scrawled across it in red ink, “We were married on the same day!”

I burst out laughing. But early on in my marriage, I probably would have burst into tears.

My American husband, Jim, and I met in Nairobi, Kenya. I was twenty, lonely, on the rebound from a broken relationship, and had no family in the country. My parents had returned to England because my father’s tour of duty with the Royal Air Force had ended. Instead of going back to England with them, I decided to stay.

Shortly after that I met Jim. He strode into the small, English church I had attended since becoming a believer three years earlier, and all my female senses went crazy: Who is this man? Is he single? Is he passing through town or is he going to be here for a while? How do I get to meet him? Well over six feet, dressed in a tan, tropical suit, Jim’s physical appeal oozed out of him. The fact that he pulled out a small Bible and joined in the singing only heightened my determination to find out who he was.

Two years later we married in the same church. Arriving in America six weeks after the wedding, Jim began a rigorous five year surgical training program. When I did see him, he was exhausted. Sleeping and studying filled what little time he spent at home. When we talked, we clashed. Issues we’d never seen as potential problems tore at our relationship: different backgrounds, opposite perspectives, and incompatible personalities. Neither of us knew how to respond to the pain we both felt.

In my early twenties, unhappily married and with no family or friends to turn to, I wanted out. My dream of living an exciting adventure as a newlywed in my adopted country had become a nightmare. I was more lonely and miserable than ever.

Crisis Point

After several years of constant blaming and fault-finding, ping-ponging between frustration, rage, and depression, I came to the end of myself. I was emotionally exhausted. Instead of my incessant pleading with God to change Jim, the Holy Spirit impressed on me “Poppy, look at yourself.”

What I saw wasn’t pretty. But it was the best thing I could have done. My attitudes were not loving or kind. I was not patient. And I allowed my negative thoughts to influence my mood which produced my less than godly reactions and words.

Moved by the Holy Spirit, I sobbed “Lord, please change me. I have become someone I never wanted to be—bitter, angry, sarcastic, and hurtful. I need You to touch my mind, my moods, and my mouth if I am to ever become the woman You want me to be”.

Did this miraculous transformation happen overnight? Did God wave a magic wand, suddenly turning me into a sweet, submissive wife who never disagreed with her husband ever again? Nope. In fact, the inner transformation I needed is still going on decades after that crisis point. But change has happened.

How about you? What does God want to change in you and your marriage? He will go to work when you invite Him to keep working in your heart, attitudes, and actions (Phil. 1:6).

For practical helps to understanding yourself and your husband, check out my newest book, Why Can’t HE Be More Like ME?

Poppy Smith inspires women to grow spiritually, emotionally, and personally through her inspirational Bible teaching and books. To know more or invite Poppy to speak, visit her at: www.poppysmith.com