When someone has been a victim of sexual abuse, it is often difficult to separate the past from the present. Though I clearly understood what happened to my past certain things in the present sometimes still triggered unpleasant memories and emotions. It was similar to what happens to war veterans. The technical term is post-traumatic stress disorder. A present event becomes the traumatic stress disorder. A present event becomes the stimulus that triggers a flashback. It can be anything.
For me, it was the way my husband Don touched me at times, or a sound he made when we were being intimate, or his attempts to embrace me when I was sleeping. All of these could flash me back into my childhood bedroom where I would relive a segment of the abuse I endured as a child. It was a frightening experience, one that Don didn’t understand at first. It hit home one night about 3 years into our marriage.
As Don tells it, he wanted to be intimate with me, so he showered, put on some aftershave, did a few push-ups and prepared for bed. We went to bed and he began caressing me. All of a sudden I froze. My entire body became stiff as a board. I couldn’t move. I felt strange. It was like I was there in bed with my husband, but I wasn’t there. I knew enough from being I therapy to know something had triggered this flashback.
Don and I talked for a few minutes and ruled out several possibilities. It wasn’t the way he touched me; it wasn’t the lighting in the room; it wasn’t anything obvious. As I lay there, Don just held me close. The trigger suddenly became clear as I nestled to my husband’s chest. He had put on the very same aftershave my stepfather had worn for years. My memory made the connection before I knew what was happening.
The victim of sexual abuse begins to believe many lies about herself as a result of the abuse. Some of those lies are centered around her value as a person. The victim often feels her only value is determined by her sexuality. Many victims find themselves sexually active prior to marriage, only to marry and then have little desire for sexual intimacy with their mate. Some of this is due to faulty thinking.
My step-dad had told me as I was growing up that young men were interested in me for only “one thing.” The underlying message I received was that only my “body” had any value. When I married, I desperately wanted Don to love ME, separate from sex.
Unfortunately, the only way to gain proof that he really loved ME was to stop engaging in sex to test his love. Don had no idea of my thoughts, nor did he enter into marriage to be celibate. We have had to work through this erroneous thinking through the years. It has taken time for me to really believe Don loves ME. I have had to understand it is possible for me to feel that love without withdrawing sexually.
I do believe there will be times in the healing process when a victim may need to have some space and to be given a choice about participating in sexual intimacy.
It Takes Two
For the first six years of our marriage, I assumed that all the difficulties we had I our sexual relationship were due to my being a victim of sexual abuse. Don had no trouble performing, so it was all too clear who had the problem.
After writing the book, A Door of Hope, I went back to school to get my master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling. That program requires each student to obtain at least 10 hours of individual therapy. I prayed about where I should go for more counseling and felt the Lord leading me to a female counselor who had been one of my professors. At this time, I was doing quite a bit of speaking across the country and had clients of my own. I entered therapy; sure I would have to spend only a month or two in it.
Don and I were still having some sexual difficulties, so I determined this would be the area I’d focus on. At the third session, Dr. Basbas sat down with me to go over some test results. Confidently I asked, “Well how long do I have —a couple or three months?”
Dr Basbas looked across the room at me and said “Considering these test results, you could leave early at six months, or you could stay two years and really let God do the healing He wants to do in your life.”
I’d love to tell you that I said, “Oh, thank you, wise counselor…,” but I didn’t. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You don’t understand—I’m famous. I’ve written a book on this subject.” She calmly said, “Well, it’s up to you.”
I left that session angry. How dare she tell me I wasn’t okay?! I went into a depression. I was ready to call the publisher with instructions to take all my books off the market. I thought, “If I’m not healed by now, I’ll never be.”
Then the Spirit of God seemed to speak to my heart: “Jan, this does not mean I haven’t healed you. It just means I want to do more. Are you willing?” I said, “Yes, Lord.”
I have shared this with victims all over. I spent two years in counseling, and it was the richest time I had spent so far. In the middle of that therapy I told the Lord I would be there five years if that’s what He wanted. He touched areas I had total avoided. God is faithful in our lives to keep “removing the debris.”
Repairing the Damage
To men, we would encourage you to learn to develop intimacy outside the bedroom. How is that done? By being willing to share your feelings with your wife. Sit down at the kitchen table and talk to her about things like where you want to be in your career in five years. Tell her about your childhood; hug her when she’s cooking dinner—no strings attached— and pray with her, sharing your innermost desires; ask her what she cares about most deeply; be willing to spend an evening caressing and kissing—agree in advance that that’s as far as it goes. As you invest in your relationship by sharing yourself, you will begin to see a response.
Be careful not to do these things with an ulterior motive; she will pick it up if you are insincere. You want to create emotional closeness with her. When she feels that closeness, she is better able to respond sexually.
A woman who has been sexually abused needs first of all to feel safe. She needs to know that she can trust you, that you love her for who she is, and that she has a choice with regard to sexual intimacy. If she feels she has no choice, watch out! Be careful of making demands in the name of “submission.” Many men I have counseled have made this mistake, only to inflict more damage and cause more distance and hostility. Remember, Jesus laid His life down for us. In the same way, according to Ephesians 5:25, the husband is to lay his life down for his wife.
To the women, we encourage you to seek help if you have been a victim of sexual abuse. Some women who are going through the healing process need time to withdraw from sexual intimacy; however, you must recognize that men physiologically different and may need your sensitivity as well. Work on recognizing some of the lies you believe about yourself, about men and about sex. Root those lies up with the help of the Holy Spirit, and ask God to replace in your heart the truth about what He intended the sexual relationship between a husband and a wife to be.
This article comes from the book, “WHEN VICTIMS MARRY -Building a Stronger Marriage by Breaking Destructive Cycles” by Don and Jan Frank, published by Here’s Life Publishers. Unfortunately this book is no longer in print so unless you can find a used book somewhere it would be almost impossible to obtain it. But we want to thank the authors Don and Jan Frank for being so open and candid in sharing their stories and reaching out to help others who are victimized in their earlier years which can deeply affect their marriages. As Don and Jan show, you CAN reach out for healing and help so you don’t have to live as victims for the rest of your lives. What the enemy of our faith causes for harm, God can redeem for good!