by Christina Enevoldsen, Chris Kuhn & Ron Schulz
Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse believe their family to be supportive and nurturing—until they talk about their abuse. They are surprised to be rejected, ignored, ostracized or even threatened with violence. Ron Schulz, Chris Kuhn and I (Christina Enevoldsen) discussed how we managed our feelings and boundaries after facing family rejection.
Christina: My father sexually abused me and traded me to other men. I repressed the memories for many years, but when I remembered the abuse and disclosed it, my mom pretended it didn’t happen and my father denied it. I was used to adjusting my behavior so nobody felt uncomfortable, so I accepted that we would pretend it never happened. We lived in superficial peace.
Many years later, my adult daughter reported her father (their former son-in-law, my ex-husband) for sexual abuse and everything changed. My mom called Bethany wicked and accused her of destroying the family. My dad justified the abuse by saying, “Bethany isn’t perfect—she’s shacking up with a guy.” They threatened her and offered her a bribe to stay quiet. That opened my eyes and I saw how much of an abuser my dad still was and how much my mother protected him. My daughter and I decided not to expose ourselves to any more abuse and cut off contact with them once they refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing.
Ron: Somewhere around the age of twelve, I was sexually initiated by my older brother. His abuse continued until he graduated high school and went off to college. When I turned twenty-one, my brother died in his apartment mysteriously from a cerebral hemorrhage. After he died, I exposed him, reporting his predatory behavior to the family, however, my family was not pleased. I was ostracized, and later, one of my brothers (who later it would be revealed was also abused) threatened me with violence if I did not stop talking about it.
Chris: My abuser was the adult son of my mom’s best friend, who also happened to be my piano teacher. The teacher’s house was supposed to be a place of safety, but her son routinely waylaid me on my way out after each lesson. The interactions escalated through the course of my tenth year. Toward the end of this period he felt comfortable enough to abuse me in my own home, too. Eight years later I told my mother all about it. At that point I was eighteen and she was somewhere in her forties. She denied that what I was telling her could possibly have happened. “No, Chris. That couldn’t have happened,” were her exact words. It would be another six years till we spoke about it again, briefly. To this day, twenty-eight years later, although I know she’s horrified, she hasn’t asked for any details at all. I love my mother, but this constitutes a painful gap in our relationship.
Christina: It’s very common for families to reject rather than support the survivor. Sometimes parents reject the possibility that their child was abused because to accept the truth is too painful. Sometimes the disclosure brings up pain from their own abuse. They might also feel threatened—viewing it as an accusation that they aren’t good parents for failing to protect their child.
Many victims of sexual abuse are abused by family members. In that case, there may be divided loyalties. The survivor’s family may resist the truth because they don’t want to choose sides. The effect is that they do choose sides—the abuser’s.
In incest families the family system has a culture that protects itself by keeping the secret. They will sacrifice one member for the sake of the system. The person who wants change is often viewed as the enemy.
Ron: I think it is of merit to note the distinct advantages and disadvantages between survivors being raised in non-incestuous and those raised in incestuous ones. Since I belong to the latter class, I can say that one of the hallmarks of type is refusal to validate and foster the health state of the emotional lives of its members, with disastrous results.
Because the incestuous family system is so mired in its own shame, it does not even recognize that its members’ emotional needs exist, and so as a result the subjects of these systems are strangled emotionally at a very young age, and never given the opportunity to learn within its aegis how to defend themselves against offensive behaviors mounted against them. I know this was the case for me, and how it contributed to my own deep seated self-loathing, which I carried with me for many, many years, even into recovery.
Chris: At the time of my mom’s denial, her hurtful response helped to “jail” me. There’s no doubt I’m only liberating myself now, decades later. But what is even clearer is that the door out of this so-called jail is not the same one I came in through. The architecture of the whole building has changed. I cannot leave via some new response from my mom, the response I hoped she’d have given back then. Who knows why she reacted that way. I cannot judge her, even though there are still times that I’m angry that she didn’t (want to) believe me.
Christina: We can’t always know why our family fails to believe, comfort, and support us. Even knowing why doesn’t really solve anything. They can’t undo the harm that was done to us. With or without our family’s support, it’s still up to us to heal.
Chris: I told my brother about my abuse a few months ago. For thirty years he’d had no idea. He was shocked, of course, stunned. Then he said, innocently, “Well, when you’re all better, we can talk about it some more.” It’s very easy, as a survivor, to get mad and feel hurt in such situations. It’s all too easy, in fact, to misread his concern and discomfort about what happened to me as a rejection of me. The real message, though, is that he cares and that he is fearful of saying the wrong thing (thereby immediately saying the wrong thing).
I’m not suggesting it’s like this in all families or all conversations. Surely many if not most families really do shun surviving members, and that is never the survivor’s fault and it’s often a tragedy. But there is room for us survivors to look at and to be conscious of how we receive communication from our families and to ask ourselves about the intention of our mostly-ignorant interlocutors rather than fixate on what actually comes out of their mouths. Words are spoken and then they are heard. The same is true of silence.
Christina: Our family may blatantly reject us in a way that is abusive, but sometimes the rejection is out of insensitivity, fear, and ignorance. They may cause us pain, though they don’t intend to. In the early stages of healing we are very sensitive to other’s reactions. Because we haven’t developed the security in ourselves yet, so much weight is put upon others to respond ‘correctly’. If they don’t provide the response we need, we feel rejected.
When we’re in so much pain, it’s often difficult to remember that others have needs, too. People are their own persons, though we sometimes reduce them merely to the role they play in our lives—or rather the role we want them to play in our lives. That doesn’t make them the enemy for protecting themselves. And it doesn’t make them bad people.
Chris: To some extent I did become my brother’s enemy when I told him about what happened to me. I took his conception of the world and our childhood and shattered it. I transferred some of my burden onto him. I brought my abuse out and said now you have to help me carry this. That’s not my fault. It isn’t his either. It’s life. It is difficult. I can know these things and not be ashamed of them.
But, as we talk about the children in our surviving adult personas—as we try to liberate ourselves from the repressive jails our families built for us—perhaps we ought to think also about the children in the adult personas of those whom we are now asking to help us and suffer with us. It’s delusional to think our inner kids are repressed but theirs are free. They are not. Other experiences have made their inner children captive also. Different reasons, different degrees.
Ron: I’ve found it very beneficial to my own health to not raise myself up by tearing others down. I no longer have a need to do that, and in that regard, I am back at the wheel.
Christina: Ron, that’s a great point. When we get hurt, we have a tendency to judge the other person’s actions as wrong. But we don’t have to label them “bad” to justify setting boundaries. If we have a family member who is hurts us, however innocently, we still have ‘permission’ to withdraw. Sometimes we don’t feel comfortable walking away from a family member or family system unless we can ‘prove’ how offensive they are. Yet the truth is, we can walk away at any time. As you said, we are at the wheel.
It’s difficult to evaluate a situation while we’re in pain, so backing off is needed to see the truth. Those boundaries provide us with a sense of our own control and safety while we assess our feelings and find clarity. Healing is extremely difficult without that. Often, it’s an old wound we are reacting to and we will continue to be sensitive until the original pain is healed. Boundaries enable us to do that.
Learning those boundaries in my own life has helped me recognize other’s boundaries. Just as I can choose to separate from them even if they haven’t done anything wrong, they can do the same with me.
I have friends who have responded to my disclosure by backing off. There’s something about my information that feels threatening to them and withdrawal is a natural response. I don’t take it personally; I recognize it as self-protection. I completely support that, the same way I support my need to withdraw from any real or perceived harm.
Chris: The simplification of a world into us and them, into survivors and non-survivors, into perps and victims, makes me uncomfortable. Life is not static like that. When we pretend it is, I feel we’re really saying we’re done living, done fighting, done surviving. At that point, all we really want to do is fondle simple answers and gloat about how good it feels—we pretend, in other words, to alleviate our pain. But it seems to me more like a rejection of our pain, which is different…and not a viable survivor strategy.
Christina: I agree. That view of “us and them” is useful when we’re in survival mode, but as we regain our personal power, we don’t have that same need for such black and white thinking. Yet in the early stages of healing, it’s a very useful tool. In survival mode, we are in constant fear. Everything and everyone is a potential threat. I think it’s very helpful to set boundaries very high and very far out, to the point that it may seem unreasonable to others. However, it’s not healthy to live there.
As I worked through my anger, I got to the place where I didn’t see my abusers as all bad anymore. I was able to see the good qualities without losing sight of the bad ones. That’s when it got really painful. The anger protected me in some ways from acknowledging the pain. It created a useful boundary that helped me for a time until I was ready to go on to the next stage in healing.
Just because I recognized good qualities in my abusive parents didn’t mean I reconciled with them—I’m not hopeful that reconciliation will happen. But stepping back allowed me so see things clearly, which affirmed my decision to separate.
Ron: Until I resolved the anger and resentment that accumulated through years of reinforced shame I was destined to repeat the cycle of self-blame for failing to yield to their demands that I not ‘rock the boat’. One day, though, I realized that I could never honor that request, and it dawned on me that I had a choice: that I could remain affiliated and continue their denial and refusal to address the issues, thus remain complicit in their attempt to suffocate me by degrees, or I could step away and salvage whatever was left of my life.
I am not saying that I have ruled out the possibility of future interactions, but for now, I cannot condone their need to avoid the pain of growth, and so I have chosen to remove myself from the situation for now.
Chris: Ron, “It dawned on me that I had a choice”: your words are pivotal. I sometimes wish we had a different name for “survivor”—maybe “chooser”?—something that tips the balance of this chapter in our lives always forward. Each situation requires ongoing choices from us, different responses at different times and so on. The common thread is this idea that we are back at the wheel.
Christina: Yes, the bottom line is that we have a choice. We aren’t those vulnerable children anymore, dependent upon others for survival. We don’t have to continue to allow our relationships to be defined by others. We can choose what type of relationship to have with family members and if they don’t want the same thing, we can opt out. We don’t have to label them “bad” to separate from them and if we choose to separate that doesn’t make us bad. Our abuse invalidated our power to choose, but recovery includes taking back that power.
What If My Family Rejects Me? Part 2
What If My Family Rejects Me? Part 3
My Parents Are Dead (To Me)
Unfriending My Abuser
Standing Up to Dysfunctional Relationships
How Do I Disclose My Abuse?
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