by Linda Pittman
When I first met my husband, I was keeping a big secret—the story of my childhood sexual abuse. I couldn’t tell him until I felt safe and sure of his love—if that was possible. He is a good man, gentle, kind, intensely loyal and trustworthy. Sometimes it is still hard to believe that I have such a wonderful spouse.
My husband responded to my history with the expected concern but he really did not understand the impact that this secret would have on him:
• I would need constant reassurance of his love. No matter how many times he would declare it, I could never believe it.
• No matter how hard he worked at the relationship, I was too afraid to let the intimacy happen.
• There would be others who would share our bed, my former abusers and my wounded child in my adult body.
• This adult child inside of me would not know how to control my feelings or my body and sometimes not even be present in my body.
• He would not know what an unworthy, shameful and dirty person he really married. (This is how I really felt.)
I couldn’t let my husband know everything because he would probably reject me if he really knew the real me. I needed him and wanted him so badly. I couldn’t be dishonest; I just would leave out some stuff—it wouldn’t matter—it was in the past anyway.
My sexual abuse does matter and has had such a great impact on all my relationships—especially my marriage. I realized that my husband would not be able to stay with me unless I got help and worked on recovering—serious recovering.
My first husband was physically and mentally abusive, making the damage to me even worse. He needed to leave because he was not healthy for my children and me. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I had a tendency to choose abusive, manipulative and controlling partners since I had not experienced any healing from my childhood sexual abuse. During my first marriage, I could only acknowledge that the abuse had happened to me.
I had to learn to drop the fairytale “happily ever after” crap and realize that all marriages are hard work. As an abuse survivor my second marriage would be even harder work, but it could work. I owed it to myself, and my spouse, to do the healing work.
I was sexually promiscuous and aggressive while in our courtship as a way of hiding, but the business of real closeness presented itself to me now. I couldn’t continue using the excuse of what happened to me as a way to hide from a sexual relationship or emotional intimacy. I truly cared about my husband and I needed to be honest with him. My marriage needed this to survive.
I went to therapy for myself and involved my husband later, to help him understand the impact this had on me, and to teach him how to help me. I even found counselors who worked on a sliding scale basis.
I became aware of the lack of intimacy in our relationship because we had settled into an “all or nothing” way of relating to each other. We got together to have sex but we were not taking the time to talk, touch and just be close without sex. We did not talk about joint goals and how to get to them together. We did not have that deep intimacy that we needed to strengthen our relationship.
I began to feel resentful of this “all or nothing” thing and I realized one day that it felt just like the way my abuser treated me. My abuser never wanted to have anything to do with me unless it was sexual. What a wake up call that was to realize that my husband was nothing like my abuser but I was relating to him as if he was.
I knew that all my talking about my abuse was not enough. I needed help to learn how to relate to my husband and I had to learn how to change my perception of him. I went for individual therapy because I realized that the problem was mine, and that he could not fix the damage from the abuse—only I could do that.
I became aware that my husband was not able to know how I felt because I could not say or show how I was feeling. I wore a mask that had been in place for years to keep others away and to keep me safe. This mask made me feel less vulnerable. If I didn’t show others my true feelings, I couldn’t be hurt so easily.
The trouble was I also did not know my own true feelings. I had learned to “feel” the way others thought I should feel or what I thought was expected of me. My feelings had not mattered for so long. I had buried them so deeply that they were hidden from me as well. I could not let down the wall to trust him or myself.
I realized that to let down the wall between us and to trust him was to take a big risk. I learned all the head knowledge of my abuse not being my fault but I hadn’t accepted it nor had I learned to love and accept my body or me either.
My past taught me that I couldn’t trust anyone. My parents had betrayed me and so I couldn’t trust them. My first husband was abusive to me and had broken my trust again. I stayed behind that wall because I was afraid to trust my current husband fully. This inability to trust my husband would forever limit our relationship to a superficial level unless I dealt with it. The one thing I wanted was to be able to love and trust deeply, and I was the one who kept the wall up.
I went to group therapy for incest survivors, which helped me to go back into my childhood and to heal the child inside myself. I had to look at the ugly reality of what was done to me and how I had adapted to survive. There were memories that I had to look at that were terrible, but I was able to look at them as an adult. I was no longer that helpless child. I also had to get over the shame I felt and the shame of looking at my body.
At the end of the group therapy my husband was given the opportunity to learn about how the abuse had affected my relationships and me. He was able to tell me once again how much he loved me and if I would allow myself to trust him, he would work on giving me the things I needed from him. I had to commit myself to this agreement too.
I also learned that it was up to me to let him know what I needed and wanted and how to communicate by talking in feeling statements. I had to say things like, “I feel scared”; “I need you to just hold me”; “I do not like that”. I finally felt safe enough to trust him.
From time to time, we fell back into patterns where we were not practicing this communication of needs and I would have to stop and talk about my feelings. Sometimes life’s problems would cause us to focus more on them than on us. In the bedroom, I had to learn to tell my husband what I wanted and didn’t want without feeling guilty about my feelings or needs. I had to stop worrying about what he needed and wanted all the time and concentrate on my feelings. I had to do this slowly with little steps, as I felt comfortable to move forward. I learned to let him look at my body and feel safe.
We practiced lots of touching, talking and holding each other that was non-sexual. That was what I needed to build the intimacy in our relationship. I learned that intimacy is not just sexual, but involves the sharing of my whole self with another. This building of intimacy was a necessary thing for me in order to be able to fully trust him and to be more open in sexual intimacy.
I found that my husband really cared about what I wanted and needed. His love and caring was genuine, I just needed to believe it. When we were going to be sexual we had to talk about it beforehand, plan it, and anticipate it. We moved slowly at a pace I could be comfortable with. With each little risk I took, I became less and less fearful of being hurt. I learned that sex is a two-sided encounter, not just what he wanted but my wants also.
I had to learn to experience the thoughts of the abuse and my former abusive marriage and to not allow them to interfere with what was going on in the bedroom with my current husband. When those thoughts and feelings came, I needed to look around me and remember where I was and whom I was with. I gave myself permission to start over with my current husband, to learn a new and better way to be sexual, than what I had learned before.
If my husband had not been willing to be right there with me, I would have had to look carefully at the relationship like I did with my first husband to decide what was best for me. My marriage benefited so much; opening up the communication and my relationship and it gave me the best chance at a solid foundation of trust. There are only two people in our bedroom now, my spouse and me.
I found that to begin to heal my relationship with my husband, I had to start with me first. The most important thing I have learned is that as a survivor, I had to learn to know my feelings and myself. I had to accept myself and then begin to unravel all the false things I learned so that I could begin to heal.
It is hard work to get past all the ways I hid from myself and get rid the untruths I believed. Being honest with myself was the hardest of all because I spent years doing just the opposite. I found it is necessary to really have an identity apart from my abuse, it is there inside me and only persistence would help me find it.
Developing trust has been difficult but trust is mandatory for me in my relationships. I deserve to be happy, but it is up to me to choose happiness. Happiness comes from the inside of me and can come out when I feel safe, and can learn to trust. I have learned how to keep myself safe and to trust again. It is the most wonderful feeling in the world!
Having experienced healing from sexual, physical and verbal abuse, Linda Pittman has found joy in encouraging others in their healing journey and tells people that it’s never too late to start. She’s been married to her husband for twenty-one years and has four adult children.
Does this resonate with you? Please join in by leaving your thoughts and feelings about this topic and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.