As a Clinical Psychologist I am deeply committed to the idea that talking things through can help us heal. This healing effect is not limited to therapy. Most of us have experienced the positive, connected, feeling we get from a deep, intimate conversation. It’s easy to understand why this is. Humans are relational creatures, we strive for connectedness, and seem to thrive the most when we are in community.
Over the past week, in the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh hearing, therapy offices across the country have been filled with women telling their own stories of abuse. Something else has been happening as well. Husbands of sexual assault survivors have been coming in worried and distraught asking their therapists how they can best support their wives. They see what their wives are going through after hearing the testimony and they feel powerless or unprepared to be the support they would like to be.
The best thing husbands of sexual assault survivors can do is make it safe for their partner to tell their story. How that conversation takes place however, can be complicated. Here are some things to keep in mind if your partner is a survivor:
- The most important thing your partner can do is tell their story. This is no small task. It will take courage on the part of the survivor; patience, and a calm spirit on the part of the husband and vulnerability from each.
- The most important thing you can do is show your wife you believe them. One of the most crucial factors to an abuse survivor being able to heal is knowing someone believes them. The experience of feeling shamed or not taken seriously when a person tells their story of abuse can make the effects of the trauma more profound and the healing process that much more difficult.
The process of telling the story of abuse in the context of a couple is a delicate one. It will be a very sensitive conversation. Here are some tips to handling the conversation well:
- Make it clear to your wife that it is okay to tell you about it. Promise you will not judge her.
- Try to not say very much. Focus on listening. Do not rush her. Tell her it’s okay to take her time.
- Pay attention to your emotions. It is not uncommon at all for a husband to begin to feel anger, even rage, well up inside as he hears about what somebody once did to his wife. Breath slowly and do your best to stay calm.
- It’s okay to cry if you feel tears welling up. That is an empathic connection and shows your wife that you love her and get her.
- Ask her if it’s okay for you to ask questions. Avoid the temptation to just start asking questions about how it happened, who she told or didn’t tell, why she handled it the way she did. Questions like those might be saved for a later conversation. Only your partner will know when it is okay. If she isn’t ready for questions, just be with her. Remember that she probably felt very alone when it happened. Being deliberate about not letting her feel alone this time will allow the moment to be a healing experience.
The moment your wife finds the courage to tell you about her abuse may be one of the most intimate moments in your marriage. It can be an experience that draws you together and helps you become even closer. She will find the courage and do the talking, you will set the tone and make it feel safe for her to do this.
Do not be surprised when you begin to feel intense anger. It is a very common experience for husbands to begin to feel anger as they hear details about the assault and the person who did it. You must be prepared for this to happen so that you can manage it. If the husband allows their anger to be expressed the wife who is being so vulnerable will almost always feel like it is directed at her.
If the wife perceives anger from her husband as she is telling her story the healing aspect of the conversation will almost certainly be lost. She will likely interpret the anger as directed at her. She will attribute meaning to that anger in the form of negative thoughts about herself: “He thinks I’m disgusting. He thinks it’s my fault. He hates me now. He will not love me anymore.” Take care to not let that happen.
Instead use phrases to dissipate your anger. Say things to her like: “That must have been so hard. It makes me so mad inside that he did this to you. I am so sorry you had to go through this. You are really brave.” Sharing thoughts with her like these will help her know that you accept her, still love her, and that she is not alone. And when the conversation comes to a close thank her for sharing her story with you. Tell her how much you respect her and look up to her. Help her see that telling you about it was the right thing to do. Make sure she feels loved.
Traumas like sexual assault are events a survivor will carry with them throughout life in one form or another. Talking about it is the only way to not carry it alone. If your wife has never talked about her abuse before, or if she has never processed her trauma with a therapist, you could encourage her to try talking to a professional. Processing trauma in the safety of a therapist’s office will help her continue to heal.