Sexual abuse is an extremely selfish crime with long-term effects that go far beyond the final violation or the sound of the gavel closing the sentencing hearing. The psychological and social impact eventually spreads to encompass those who love (or attempt to love) a survivor. It is not a question of if but of when.
Let me explain...
Just over a year ago, I found myself questioning my marriage. We were married just over a year and already, I could feel it slipping away. Anxiety and suspicion had taken over where comfort and security had been. In a relationship I felt was unbendable, let alone unbreakable, a single act of denying a sexual request I was not comfortable with, set me on a journey like nothing I had ever imagined. His request shocked me. In that instant, it was as though I didn't know my husband at all.
The days that followed were very tense. My self-esteem was plummeting. Based on my husband's request, I was either not young enough, attractive enough or just not enough, period. Instead of asking, I unleashed the detective within. I had watched enough I.D. Channel that I knew what to do and what to look for. What I found painted a dismal picture that looked like my husband was either cheating, confused with his own sexuality or was addicted to porn. No matter how I looked at it, I was left longing for love and affection. I had even pointed out to him that even cactus need watering sometimes. That's what I had become, a cactus!
Learning the truth
My husband and I went for our usual Sunday morning ride around town and through the country when I asked him to stop for a few minutes. Once we stopped, my eyes locked on his face because I expected him to lie, but like most people, his expressions tell the truth. I proceeded to ask him if he was cheating, confused or if he would rather watch porn than be with me. He denied all three. In my frustration, I snapped at him, something to the effect of, "Well, the only other explanation would be childhood abuse, but I know that's not it."
My God, the look on his face made me feel like someone reached right into my chest and was squeezing my heart and lungs with brute force. He wanted to know who told me. No one told me — I simply researched marital issues online enough to uncover possible answers.
Shortly after learning of my husband's childhood abuse, we learned that my stepdaughter had endured abuse at the hands of her stepfather for more than 12 years. That is a whole different story or 10, in and of itself that we're not able to discuss too much. I can only say the stepfather has been charged with five felonies and is set for trial in a few months.
While there are so many factors at play in the hearts and minds of the abused, I will focus on the three issues that we (I), along with so many other couples, find most challenging.
When the boundaries of a child are violated, he loses any sense of power he may have had. That sense of power is replaced with the message he is not valued. He may feel humiliated, ignored, isolated and in some cases, he may blame himself for the abuse. The way the victim views the world is sorely distorted. That distortion lingers well into adulthood. Adult survivors often struggle with feelings of shame and self-loathing. Usually a self-hatred emerges in one of two ways: a quest for perfection on the outside, to make up for the bad on the inside — or self-destruction through thoughts or attempts at suicide.
Addictions to drugs, alcohol, and food are a common way that survivors try to self-medicate to escape the haunting thoughts. Survivors sometimes become addicted to sex because they learned they were valued because of sexual acts, or men will use sex as a way to ensure they are not gay, that they are attractive, masculine or in an effort to replace the pain associated with sex with a more pleasurable thought. Self-hate sometimes shows up in more subtle ways like sabotaging healthy relationships, leaving their partner confused and rejected when it had nothing to do with them at all.
Abused children tend to have a distorted view of love, sex and trust. Because of the abuse, the victim develops serious trust issues. When the abuser was in the position of trust, the mind of a victim will often equate love with pain. Trust issues remain a key characteristic, well into adulthood. Many victims live in isolation and in fear of getting too close to someone. When a relationship encompasses love and sex, the victim may become confused and feel threatened. Some survivors will become controlling as a way of feeling safe.
When a child is sexually abused, the normal developmental stages are severed. The child experiences sex outside his own age-appropriate way. He is denied the ability to feel desire and interest, but rather, he has had the desires of another forced upon him. When the abuse includes false affection and nurturing, the abused child may become confused about what real, rewarding affection is. As an adult, survivors are often scared of sex. Some intentionally seek partners who lack sexual desire. Other survivors are the complete opposite and engage in risky sex with many partners. He has learned that sex is a source of power, and by exerting that power, he is able to feel as though his masculinity and authority have been restored.
Not all abuse breaks bones
Some types of abuse break a person's spirit. Many survivors have become masters of disguise with an ability to hide behind a veil of confidence. No one will say the road to healing is easy, but you won't find many who will say it's impossible either. Sexual abuse is a violation of trust. Sexual abuse breaks sacred boundaries and depletes fragile self-images. It is important to remember, sexual abuse is a selfish crime, but all the elements that were broken, stolen or shattered can be restored. Taking that first step toward the proper, trained and experienced help is one-step closer to asserting the power that was thought to be lost.
Signs of abuse
Sexual abuse is extremely difficult to discuss, especially with a spouse or partner. Many survivors would rather remain silent and have their partner feel rejected, inadequate and unattractive than to risk misplacing trust by disclosing their abusive history. However, in many cases, partners have admitted suspecting sexual abuse long before their partners found the courage to tell. When your gut tells you something is wrong, it's usually right.
There are a number of resources for sexual abuse victims and their partners that provide detailed lists of signs that may indicate an abusive past. Rainn.org is a great place to find help, resources and to locate support groups.
Editor's note^We published this article without attaching the author's name because she understandably wishes to protect both her husband's privacy and her step-daughter's privacy.