Opening the Door to Healing

When childhood sexual abuse affects a marriage's intimacy
Opening the Door to Healing
Image: ANNA-MARI WEST / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Don'tcha wanna be married? Or have kids?"

I nodded, tears streaming down my five-year-old face, thorns and brambles cutting into my backside.

"You gotta do this, then, or you can't ever be married." The voice—which came from a teenage boy, accompanied by the snicker from his kid brother—would haunt me for 18 years until I got married.

It still haunts me.

The statistics about sexual crime both alarm and numb. According to the Department of Justice, by age 18, one in four women and one in six men have been sexually abused.

I thought if I hid my pain I could magically improve sexually. But not addressing the truth was disastrous my sexual relationship with my husband.

What happens to the titanic number of sexually abused men and women when they marry and enter regular sexual experiences with their mates? One study published in Contemporary Family Therapy estimates that 56 percent of women who were sexually abused as children feel discomfort during sex and 36 percent seek some sort of sexual therapy.

Although I told my husband, Patrick, about the abuse while we were dating, after we were married, I pretended immunity from my past trauma. But keeping up the charade wasn't so easy since sex reminded me of the abuse. I didn't tell Patrick, though, because I felt guilty, as though I were a poor wife.

I hoped somehow I could work out everything through sheer willpower. So throughout our early married life, I tolerated sex, never letting Patrick know how much I was hurting. I'm not sure if I even knew the extent of my pain, at least enough to verbalize it.

When our eldest daughter turned five, however, I began to relive the molestation I'd experienced at her age. I felt the horror afresh. I saw those brothers steal my innocence on muddied nature trails, in secluded playgrounds, and in their bedroom.

I puzzled over the photos my divorced father took of nude women and his insistence that I bathe him while he sat naked in his claw-footed tub. I ached over my mother's lack of protection. I felt abandoned.

Although I grieved, I still didn't realize how much those experiences were poisoning my sexual relationship with Patrick. It wasn't until we went through some marital difficulties and I spent two years in counseling that I finally realized the problem.

Now 12 years into our marriage, Patrick and I see clearly how the past affected our relationship—especially sexually.

Fear of being used. I felt used easily. If Patrick didn't talk enough with me during the day but then initiated sex, I'd remember that frightened five-year-old who was simply a rag doll to be played with. If he touched me in a way that triggered the abuser's touch, I'd grit my teeth and silently recoil.

I'd think, Men want only to use me. I'm just a plaything. My resentment grew toward Patrick, yet I remained quiet, and he grew frustrated that I wouldn't tell him the problem.

A distorted view of sex. It was difficult for me to see sex as beautiful and what God intended. I felt if I enjoyed sex, I was somehow legitimizing my abusers, that they were right in molesting me. But if I didn't enjoy it, I wasn't a good Christian wife.

My view of sex was that it was solely for a man's gratification. I longed (and still long) for the passionate Song of Solomon-kind of abandon.

Guilt over failure to perform sexually. I've often lamented to God, "Why did you give me a man who loves physical touch? Are you setting me up for failure?" I've felt overwhelming guilt over not having enough sex. The Christian marriage books I read and the sexual intimacy seminars I attended further thrust me into shame's cesspool; it's my duty after all—I'm depriving my husband. Couple that advice with a deep-seated ambivalence toward sex and I was a sexually defeated wife.

Part of my denying Patrick sex stemmed from wanting to avoid the deeper problem. When I "gave in," I uncovered prickly emotions I couldn't understand. It was easier if I avoided intimacy as much as I could so I wouldn't rip open a festering wound I couldn't handle.

Isolation and emotional disengagement. Of all the issues Patrick and I have confronted, this carries with it the deepest, most insidious pain.

Patrick once told me about a vision he had in which I was pacing on a high diving board while he and the children beckoned me from a swimming pool far below.

They shouted, "Dive in! The water's great!"

I peered over the edge of the board.

I saw their laughter-infused antics, but I turned away and walked down the ladder. Instead, I settled for putting my toe in the water while the rest of my family splashed and laughed.

I longed to be the spontaneous one who dives into the lives of my family, but I'd disconnected somehow, which prevented me from letting my husband into the recesses of my heart.

Lack of affection and passion. I found myself unable to be affectionate with my immediate family. While I knew I was supposed to demonstrate my love in tangible, physical ways, that seldom came naturally. When my son cried, I had to tell myself to hug him. When my husband came home from work, I had to make myself kiss him.

Coping Strategies

I wish I could say I'm free and the wound of sexual abuse is completely healed. I still have tender spots. But as Patrick and I have explored these areas, we've learned some important coping strategies.

Be willing to be healed. I liken emotional healing to a tunnel that links a barren land with a pristine forest. We'll never drink from the forest's mountain spring if we don't go through the tunnel. But most of us feel too afraid to step inside for fear of the dark; and the barren land—bleak as it is—has a staid familiarity about it. The truth? It's dark in the tunnel. The hurt is intensified, especially when we can't see the other side.

When I became a Christian at 15, I clung to the apostle Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" I decided I'd been healed of all emotional wounds when I became a Christian and viewed others who struggled as lacking faith. But my emotional world fell apart in college and I became a struggler. I cried a lot. God sent many friends who simply listened and prayed for me.

I thought those prayers in college and my grief were all I needed to be whole. After things began to fall apart in our marriage, I realized how much more healing I needed and sought help from a Christian counselor.

Talk about your sexual relationship. As difficult as it might be, Patrick and I had to speak frankly about our sexual relationship.

Through God's strength, I was finally able to tell Patrick, "When you complain about our sexual frequency, I want to give up and never try," or "When you say or do that, I feel used, that I'm only an object."

In that same God-strength, Patrick was able to say, "When you don't place sex and affection as a priority, I don't feel loved," or "When you don't kiss me, I feel distant from you."

We also had to resolve not to hide our anger or our pain. Patrick buried his anger over my lack of response and then quit communicating altogether. I erroneously thought if I hid my pain over my past I could magically improve sexually. But we realized not addressing the truth was disastrous for our sexual relationship.

Heal together. I used to think I was the only one working on issues from my past. When I struggled, I'd turn to my "normal" husband who had a seemingly idyllic upbringing and say, "You're perfect and I'm yucky."

Patrick seldom explored his own childhood issues. Consequently, I felt alone in my grief.

In his book The Wounded Heart, Dr. Dan Allender suggests that one way a marriage can offer healing is if the non-abused spouse will look at where he or she has been harmed from childhood. I felt a sense of comfort when I read: "We all have wounds; some are stab wounds, others pinpricks. The category isn't the degree of bleeding but 'have you ever bled?'"

The camaraderie returned in our marriage when I saw Patrick begin to explore his family of origin issues. When he saw me becoming free from my past issues, it spurred him to look at his upbringing. He began to look at his quick temper, how he saw that modeled as a child, what it did to him to be on the receiving end of it, and how it still affects him. The process for him has been slow. He's quick to dismiss pain from his past, but he's beginning to see how that dismissal has helped him wall himself off from others, including me.

Now instead of feeling like a solitary pilgrim, I have Patrick's hand to grab as we share our past injuries and our future.

I still hear the haunting words of my abusers, and Patrick and I still struggle in our marriage. Last night we spent an hour discussing our sexual relationship and our mutual frustration over my reticence to kiss and his reluctance to share his hurts. Even so, I'm learning to take an emancipated leap off the high dive into our marriage.

Mary DeMuth is author of Everything: What You Give and What You Gainto Become Like Jesus (Thomas Nelson).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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