Free to Say Yes

Choices for sexually abused women and their husbands

Our smoldering 15 year conflict over sex flared into flame one night in the fall of 1986 when my husband, Jerry, began to touch me.

"Not tonight, okay?" I said.

He rolled over without a word.

Heart pounding, I turned my back too. If I can't say no, how can I say yes? I thought. I felt like a prostitute. And that felt too familiar. Several times, beginning when I was four years old, my father had molested me.

Uncharacteristically, I stayed angry for three days, barely talking to Jerry. He spent the next three evenings in our detached garage. The fourth night, as I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes after an uncomfortable dinner, I watched him through the window as he walked away.

Am I so angry I don't want to resolve this?

I dried my hands and followed him to his shop.

"Can we talk?"

He glanced up from the workbench where he was building a birdhouse. "If you want to."

"I don't want to be mad at you," I explained. "We keep coming up against this sex thing. I have to be able to say no, do you see that?"

"Yes, I do," he said. "But do you see I want to make love with you? You're the only one I can have sex with. If you want to talk theology with someone, you can have breakfast with Pastor Paul. I can't go have sex with anybody else."

"Yes, I get that," I said. "I want to make love with you too. I'm working as hard as I can on being available to you. But I don't think you have any idea how much sex feels like abuse."

Though I understood Jerry's logic, I didn't feel he understood the repulsive effect of the molestation images that flickered in my mind during our lovemaking.

"No, I know I don't." He stared at me for moment before his face softened. "I'm so sorry. Sorry for you. Sorry for us."

He reached for me. I stepped into his embrace. We held each other and cried. My father's sin penetrated not just my heart, but the heart of our marriage.

Father-God seemed to wrap his arms around us as Jerry and I wept together. After what felt like a year, I said, "I'll be waiting for you."

"I'll be there in an hour or so. I want to finish the roof on the birdhouse." Through our tears, we smiled at each other.

Although that episode wasn't the end of our sexual troubles, it was the beginning of our peace.

Sex is God's wedding gift. He wants married couples to unwrap the gift together, with joy. But for millions of women, the consequences of childhood violation threaten to destroy the present. As a psychotherapist, I've talked to many women like me. The healing process can be challenging. Survivors need strategies to deal with intrusive images of the abuse. And husbands can choose helpful attitudes. Here are some decisions Jerry and I made.

A Woman's Choices

Abuse, even though it inhabits the past, can feel like it's happening in the present. In my father's grasp, I'd felt helpless, objectified, and terrorized. During lovemaking with Jerry, images of the abuse, called flashbacks, brought up those old emotions. I learned to fight those feelings with specific self-talk that grounded me in my current reality.

I would repeat these phrases, I am safe in Jerry's arms. This is my husband, not my father. Jerry wants to give me pleasure, not take his pleasure at my pain.

Choosing to speak these statements and others like them grounded me in the moment rather than letting those feelings pull me into that old terror. Satan means to re-victimize us, obliterating our enjoyment of God's gift. God means to heal us.

Opening the gift also requires grasping deeper truths. My self-talk derived from what sex therapist Wendy Maltz writes in The Sexual Healing Journey, that sex is not abuse. Although Maltz isn't a believer, her classic book does the best job I know of defining specific differences between healthy sexuality and abusive sexual contact. If Christians can tolerate some non-Christian examples, they'll find her chapter on relearning touch particularly helpful.

Maltz clarifies that unlike molestation, sex is private but not secretive; a giving of pleasure, not an exertion of power; and meant to strengthen a bond rather than break a victim's heart. These concepts helped clear my confusion between God's blessing and Satan's violence. Reminding myself of the emotional connection I felt after our intimacy also helped me push through my initial resistance. That warm bonding is part of the gift.

The meaning of intimacy often differs for a man and a woman. For many men, including Jerry, sex touches the center of how they feel loved, while women often feel loved in other ways. In my practice, I sometimes saw individual clients for marital problems. I once suggested to a client that for many men sex means, "I love you." She doubted me, until she asked her husband.

"Duh," was his response.

"I had no idea," she said with a sigh. Financial support felt like love to her, something at which her husband was failing.

Understanding that my sweetie equated sex with love motivated me. He served and affirmed me in many ways. I felt his love. I wanted him to feel my love.

Consciously or unconsciously, though, some women decide healing is just too difficult. Perpetual victims, they remain tied to the old trauma and immersed in fear.

But overwhelming fear is a cue to ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts. And most sufferers need the help of a believing counselor to find healing because the wounds from sexual abuse go deep. Seeking help doesn't mean something is wrong with us. Admitting our need shows both self-care and obedience to God's call.

It's easier to remain stuck than to press on to wholeness, yet God calls us to love our spouses with our bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4). If we want to live an obedient life, a regret-free life, we'll keep seeking a way through. Many times, tempted to say no, I persuaded myself with: Will I regret this on my deathbed?

A Husband's Attitudes

Jerry, my partner on the path of healing, also adopted some helpful attitudes. First, he worked to understand. In the garage that day, he got it. But he'd been taking my pain seriously from the beginning. He often said, in the midst of lovemaking, "I don't want to hurt you." Those words helped heal my heart, allowing me to give myself to him.

In addition, he never even glanced at other women. He said, "I want only you." Knowing God meant to give us this gift, he kept himself pure for our marriage bed. He treated me as someone special. He never looked at pornography. In his faithfulness he valued me. That fidelity helped me value his needs.

We both prayed for my sexual healing. Occasionally, we prayed together, outside of the bedroom. Regularly, during our intimacy, Jerry prayed silently for me asking for deliverance, restoration, and joy. Those prayers helped me receive the gift.

Patience—Jerry's patience with me and my patience with the process—was crucial. Deep healing takes years, not months. Small steps of progress and staying focused on the hope of deliverance carried us through.

As we worked and waited, God helped us understand ourselves and each other. I needed Jerry's sensitivity. He needed my physical love. And in our joint grief, that day in the garage, weeping together over the lost years, God strengthened our bond. Most of all, it's that emotional bond that has freed me to say, "Yes!"

These days, we're relaxed and playful together, enjoying God's gift. We've worked hard for today's joy. Paradoxically, the flames of that early sexual conflict helped forge the peace.

Karen Rabbitt is a retired psychotherapist. She is the author of Trading Fathers: Forgiving Dad, Embracing God (Winepress). www.tradingfathers.com.

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

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