Overcoming Child Abuse

Reflections on recovery.

The Trials of Marrying an Incest Survivor

Helpful aids for the challenges you face.

Peter and I are celebrating our 42nd wedding anniversary today. I remember when we visited one of his older brothers shortly after our engagement. “Peter,” he said, affectionately reaching his arm around my then fiancé’s shoulder and looking him in the eye, “always remember that when you marry Cathy you’re also marrying her family.” If life were lived with an accompanying soundtrack, at that moment we would have heard the ominous warning sound of "dum da dum dum" in the background. But even then I doubt that we would have changed anything—we were in love. And besides, there are some realities in a couple’s life that simply cannot be prepared for. The phenomenon of the lingering, often delayed, painful effects of incest on a spouse is certainly one of those realities.

 If you’re the spouse of an incest survivor it’s important for you to understand the basics of both the psychological injury your spouse has experienced and the healing process. You’ve also got to get a grasp on how to deal with crises and the nuances of sexual issues, family issues, and communication challenges that are specific to incest survivors. Consider seeing a competent therapist. Individual, marital, or family therapy may be the best resource for you at different junctures of your life. Support groups for partners of sexual abuse survivors are an excellent option as well.

I also recommend that you read about these topics; study them. "Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child" by Laura Davis was published in 1991 and is still an excellent resource. More recently, "Outgrowing the Pain Together" by Eliana Gil (which I have not yet read) has been positively reviewed. Wendy Malz is an internationally recognized sex and relationship expert and the newly updated third edition of her book, "The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse" has just been released. Chapter 9, "Healing with an Intimate Partner"and Part Three, "Getting There: Creating Positive Experiences" are particularly valuable for you to read.

I like to recommend memoirs because I think that reading about someone else’s life is often a more powerful, somewhat experiential learning, but I’ve not been aware of any memoirs written from a spouse’s perspective until the recent release of "The Moose’s Children: A Memoir of Betrayal, Death, and Survival" by cardiologist David Mokotof, MD. There is much to learn from this book, both in the lessons of the story and in the way he intersperses clinical statements about the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse on his wife. He describes her journey and his own with a sense of honesty, diligent self-examination, and sensitivity. The book is clearly a labor of love—love for her; love for their daughters; and love for her siblings. It’s complicated. Everyone in the family system is affected.

If you’re the spouse of an incest survivor your love will be tested, but love can find a way. Reach out for resources that can help you to navigate through the rough waters of recovery with tenderness and competence, so that you and your spouse can develop a mutual sense of emotional safety and joy within your marriage.

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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