She was standing right in front of me but she seemed miles away. There was a deadness in her eyes as she gazed off into the distance. It was as if she had developed a survival mechanism to retreat to a safe place in her mind instead of engaging with reality, but even in her own mind she couldn’t escape the memories that haunted her and still caused her so much pain.
Her husband’s expression was different. As he talked to me, there was a brokenhearted frustration in his face. Men want to fix things that are broken. We want to protect our wives. This husband had encountered a situation with his wife where he didn’t know how to fix it and he didn’t know how to protect her. His feelings of powerlessness were combined with the added sting of how her decades-old scars were having a present-day impact in their marriage and their sex life. Everything seemed broken.
The situation at the root of all this pain is the tragically common aftermath of sexual abuse. This woman had been molested by her own brother when she was a child. A child’s mind and heart is like wet cement and the impressions made during those very impressionable years leave imprints that shape our thinking, our identity and our approach to relationships for the rest of our lives. When those impressions are made through any form of sexual abuse, the aftermath can be traumatic.
This woman, like so many others, is facing emotions she doesn’t know how to process. She’s tried self-medicating by overeating. She’s tried retreating to a safe place in her own mind. She’s pulled away from people who love her, because it was someone she loved and trusted who hurt her in the first place. She’s tried replaying the haunting images in her brain to somehow change history or figure out how this happened in the first place. She’s even blamed herself as if this was somehow all her own fault.
Meanwhile, her husband’s compassion for his wife is being tested by his own sexual frustration and lack of intimacy in other areas. He feels like instead of a partner, he’s married to a ghost who will never open up for be vulnerable. Instead of a lover, he’s married to a prude who seems to think of sex (even within marriage) as something “dirty” because of her early, tragic, unwanted sexual encounters. He wants to help, but she won’t seem to let him. His patience is gone and is now replaced with desperation.
Neither of them wants their marriage to end in divorce and become yet another casualty of this past abuse, but neither of them seems to know how to fix the relationship or heal these wounds.
Sexual abuse has reached rampant levels and all of us are impacted in some way whether the abuse has hit us directly or someone we love has been victimized. Whether the abuse has been the result of date rape, unwanted touching, human trafficking or a myriad of other forms of assault, the wounds are deep, and the aftermath can be even more painful than the act itself. The wounds inflicted from sexual abuse don’t always leave scars on the body, but they always leave scars on the soul.
Every situation is unique and there’s certainly no magic wand to erase the deep wounds of sexual abuse, so I’m hesitant to prescribe any formula or “steps” to bring healing. Still, regardless of the unique circumstances in each case, I firmly believe that there are some principles that will help every person who has suffered abuse. If you’re suffering, please know that you’re not alone. There is hope and help available. Please start your journey towards healing by taking the following actions:
1. Get Professional Counseling.
Don’t try to navigate these waters alone. You need the partnership of a professional who can help you process your feelings and create action steps that will empower you to move forward. For counselors that can help both you individually and help you and your spouse together as it relates to your marriage, I’d encourage you to start by contacting the American Association of Christian Counselors at: www.AACC.net
2. Don’t let those past experiences hijack your view of sex.
When someone has endured sexual abuse, they’re likely to go down one of two paths as it relates to their own sexuality. They will often either become very promiscuous as a misguided attempt towards self-empowerment to recapture sex on their own terms and feel in control or they will (like the wife in the story above) retreat from all forms of intimacy because it reminds them of the wounds they’re carrying. Both of these approaches are destructive and create more wounds than they heal. Give yourself permission to cultivate a healthy view of sex and a healthy view of your own body without input or influence from your past abuse or abusers. Sex may have been used as a “weapon” against you, but sex is not a weapon. It’s a beautiful gift created by a perfect God and meant to be shared as a means of cultivating intimacy within marriage. Don’t redefine sex on lesser terms.
3. Know that you are NOT “damaged goods.”
The Bible has many promises from God that remind us who we are and who we are not. God’s limitless grace makes us “A new Creation” in Christ. You may have been victimized, but your identity is not a “victim.” You are an Overcomer! We’re not defined by what we’ve done or by what’s been done to us. Seeing yourself through God’s eyes is one of the most powerful ways to bring healing. A great resource to help you get started is a new devotional book about overcoming Anxiety and Depression from my wife, Ashley. You can check it out by clicking HERE.
4. Don’t push away the people who love you.
We were never meant to deal with our struggles all one our own. We find true healing within community and within loving relationships. Don’t push away the people who love you. Be vulnerable. Invite them in. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a few trusted friends. Talk to a counselor. Get connected into a healthy church. Let the healing that love brings flow from those healthy relationships into your wounded heart. You will get through this!
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