Healing Steps for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a form of trauma and needs deliberate effort in order to heal. It is a profoundly damaging experience that erodes a child’s sense of value and distorts his or her sense of self and ability to trust. The damage is inflicted by the perpetrator of the abuse, as well as by caregivers who do not believe the child or who knowingly allow the abuse to continue.
Being victimized as a child at the hands of a sexual predator is injurious beyond what words can fully capture. Not being rescued is a devastatingly awful experience that compounds the injury and further complicates the trauma of sexual abuse. If you have been victimized by any form of sexual abuse, which can include rape, incest, inappropriate physical touch, fondling, inappropriate conversations, non-verbal communication of a sexual nature, voyeurism, manipulation and threats, healing is possible and available. It will be a journey, but a very worthwhile one that can dramatically change your emotional health and your life.
Following is a series of steps that can help create a powerful pathway to healing and recovery.
1 Tell Your Story. I know this can be so hard to do. Though sexual abuse is in no way the fault of the child, the shame that a survivor feels makes secrecy seem like the only safe option. It is understandable if you have no desire to ever talk about what happened to you. However, finding your voice and being your own advocate by giving voice to how you were violated and dishonored is a tremendously powerful way to begin the healing. Find a safe person who you can tell. This might be a mature friend who is trustworthy, or a mentor, or a counselor.
2 Write Your Story. Journaling regularly about the impact of the abuse is a truly therapeutic process. Write about what happened to you and how you were betrayed by the perpetrator and by others who were supposed to protect you. List what the abuse has cost you emotionally, physically, relationally, mentally and in other ways. What did you lose because of the abuse? Acknowledge those losses by writing about them. Also, if you were rescued and protected by someone, write about that. Journaling helps with the very important step of accessing and facing the damage caused by abuse, which is a necessary part of healing.
3 Acknowledge the Shame Imposed on You. Perpetrators of sexual abuse unleash terrible shame on their victims. That shame keeps many survivors shackled to the abuse. Talk about your feelings of shame, humiliation, and guilt. This helps to unhitch the shame from your shoulders and to remove from you a burden that does not belong to you. It belongs to the perpetrator. Facing the shame by acknowledging its presence and by owning the truth of why it is not yours to carry requires a vulnerability that will help you being to see yourself with fresh eyes.
4 Grieve your Losses. Recovering from abuse means doing the very important work of grieving. Knowing that you are in pain is not enough. You need to own and acknowledge the pain by exploring the losses and wounds that are causing the pain. Some of the losses may include the loss of childhood innocence, the loss of a carefree childhood, the loss of safety and trust, the loss of being valued, the loss of the ability to trust now that you are an adult, the loss of peace and instead the carrying of a great deal of anger. Some of the wounds you live with might include living with a sense of fear, finding difficulty in having truly vulnerable adult friendships, experiencing the inability to enjoy sex and intimacy with your spouse, feeling dirty or guilty, feeling a profound sense of worthlessness, and the pain of strained family relationships. Give deliberate thought to your losses and wounds, acknowledge them, write about them, talk to someone safe about them, cry through them, and say goodbye to the losses. An important part of grieving is considering how you can begin to meet, in a healthy way, the needs that have gone unmet in your life. How can you connect more, trust more, love yourself more? This takes time and is difficult to do without some help. A trusted and mature friend or a counselor can be of great value.
5 Be Patient with and Kind to Yourself. You need to treat yourself with compassion. Your needs are valid and your struggles are real. Learn to honor those needs in healthy ways and to work through the struggles in a way that is healing and helpful. Pay attention to your self talk, exchanging self criticism with understanding and kindness. Recovery is a journey and self condemnation will not help the process. Pray and spend time in God’s Word learning of His deep love for you and who He says you are. Live into that truth. Also connect with a community of Christ-filled believers where you can find encouragement, kindness, and truth.
Because sexual abuse is a form of trauma, survivors may experience post-traumatic stress. The good news is that post traumatic stress is treatable and healing is very possible. While as a child you needed a protector and advocate, now you are an adult and can become your own advocate by taking the steps to begin your healing journey. Understanding that it is a difficult journey to make alone can help you reach out for help. You are valuable and worthy of living a healed and restored life.
Read Part 1 here.
Healing Words for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
(For adult readers only.)
If you have experienced sexual abuse as a child, even the words awful and horrendous do not fully capture the insidious nature of what was done to you. Childhood sexual abuse is vicious and vile. It defies your vocabulary. It has tentacles that continue to invade and violate your being and your psyche long after the physical abuse ends.
If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, then sadly, what you needed to hear over the years is likely not what has been said to you. If you are like the vast majority of sexual abuse survivors, your abuser or abusers have never acknowledged their wrong. You never heard from them the acknowledgment of the trauma they inflicted on you. If you confided in someone, you may have been met with help and support, but maybe not. You may have, instead, been met with reprisal, or shaming, or blame. Or maybe you have never found the voice to cry out to another for help.
Today I want to say some of what should have been said to you. These are words you should have heard a long time ago but may not have. These are words I am able to speak to my clients face to face as we talk and as they share their painful stories. Though you and I are not sitting face to face, I pray these words will bring comfort and a measure of healing to you as well.
Thank God that your story need not end in the horrible shadows of childhood sexual abuse. Healing and freedom are possible. I’ll talk about that healing and freedom in the next blog post. But today I just wanted to say, what happened to you was not your fault. You should never have been abused. You should have been protected. You should have been kept safe. There is absolutley no less worth or value in you than in those who you deem as worthy or valuable. Your worth is intrinsic and unchangeable. Your pain, your wounds and the abuse you suffered do not lessen your preciousness. You have been wounded and you need care.
The abuser holds the blame for every single iota of the abuse and for the psychological and emotional turmoil and chaos he unleashed in your life. If those who were meant to keep you safe placed you intentionally in harms way or refused to listen to your appeals for help, they are responsible, too! You were not responsible for your safety and security as a child. You were not responsible to make adults believe you. You were not responsible for creating a safe world for yourself.
Thankfully, you no longer need to be the victim of childhood sexual abuse. There is hope. You are an adult now. You can take hold of the healing journey in ways you could not have taken hold as a child. Childhood sexual abuse if very, very difficult to recover from on your own. But now you are able to reach out for help and to allow a truly joy-filled life to be yours. I'll talk more about that in the next post. I hope you'll join me.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3 NIV)
Couples who acknowledge and engage each other tend to have greater couple satisfaction and are more likely to stay together. That's what relationship research* has found. It has also found that one of the greatest predictors of relationship success is a couple's ability to, and habit of, turning toward each other rather than away from each other. The intimacy bond can be improved tremendously when one spouse makes an effort to connect by reaching out and the other spouse accepts the effort and responds accordingly. It's what I call acknowledging and engaging.
Acknowledging and engaging can include a simple gesture such as a brief verbal response, or it can involve a spouse "moving to action." Here are a few examples:
Those are all examples of a spouse acknowledging and engaging. So simple. Yet the opposite can easily become a habit in marriage. Spouses can begin to ignore their spouses' attempts to connect. They begin to overlook opportunities to deepen intimacy through the simple gesture of acknowledging and engaging.
A research* study conducted with newlyweds found that six years after the wedding, the couples who had stayed together were the ones who had turned toward each other 86% of the time. If you were to take an inventory of your responses to your spouse, what percentage of the time would you say you acknowledge and engage?
There's no time like the present to begin!
*Findings based on forty years of research conducted by Dr. John Gottman.
While men tend to naturally think in terms of respect, women tend to think in terms of security and nurture. For example, when a man leaves a room because he is frustrated, his male friend will not follow him because, to men, that would (generally speaking) be seen as disrespectful. For a wife, however, following her frustrated husband out of a room is a demonstration of care and concern. So right there we see how a woman's attempt to give nurture and reassurance might be interpreted by her husband as disrespect.
This is helpful for a husband to keep in mind so that he becomes better at recognizing his wife's heart, appreciating that some of what he may experience as disrespect is really an attempt to express concern and to reconnect.
"But what about if my wife's tone, words, and actions are not about care and concern? What if they are clearly disrespectful, like name calling, rolling her eyes, or putting me down to others?" While there is no justification for disrespect, it would be helpful to keep some important truths in mind.
Firstly, your wife likely longs for security - and she is is not alone in this longing. Many wives deeply desire emotional, physical, relational and financial security. This does not mean she expects you to be perfect. Nor does it mean you need to have the biggest bank account or understand her emotional needs with detailed perfection. But if you are indifferent to this need for security, she unfortunately may respond with disrespect. While this does not justify her actions, it helps you to live in understanding with her and to love her in meaningful ways.
Secondly, when you tell your wife she is being disrespectful, what you mean might not resonate with her. This is because many women do not understand what men really mean when they speak of respect. This is especially the case if a wife did not see respect for a husband being modeled as she grew up. So be specific and detailed about her actions. Rather than saying, "You're being disrespectful," you might want to try something like, "When I am compared to other men and criticized for how I do things, I feel disrespected."
Thirdly, remember that it is very likely that you might be failing to love your wife in ways that are meaningful to her just as she is failing to respect you. Again, this does not justify her disrespect, but it does provide an opportunity for you to extend grace. Why be ungracious toward her for missing your needs when you yourself might be missing hers? Instead, endeavor to be patient with her, while also sharing your need for respect. (And like I mentioned above, share those needs in specific and detailed ways.) Also, even as you share your needs with her, give priority to asking what she needs from you and to meeting those needs as best you can.
Finally, reach out to a counselor or an agreed on individual for help if needed. But make sure that the person you reach out to has an understanding of both your need for respect and your wife's need for security.
Your Questions Answered: "What Do I Do Since My Spouse Is Not Invested in the Spiritual Growth of our Children?"
"I am further along in my walk with God than my spouse is. I am trying to teach our children to walk with the Lord, but there is no support from my spouse. What do I do since my spouse is not invested in the spiritual growth of our children?"
It is challenging when a spouse is not invested in his/her own spiritual growth or the spiritual growth of the children. Yet, if that spouse is not trying to prevent you from nurturing the children in their spiritual growth, rejoice! It would be much more difficult if your spouse were actively resisting. As it stands, if you have the freedom to train your children according to God's Word and nurture them in their relationship with Christ, do it with joy and thankfulness.
Yes, it would be wonderful if you and your spouse were both active in leading your children spiritually. But as it stands, you still have the opportunity to help them develop their own relationship with the Lord without the added dynamic of a spouse actively resisting you.
Continue to nurture your children in their relationship with the Lord. And be sure to pray for your spouse and your children, and of course for yourself. God is able to change dynamics and transform lives.
"Is it okay to voice a difference of opinion? If I voice a different opinion from my husband's opinion am I being disrespectful?"
Yes, it is ok to voice a difference of opinion. A difference of opinion does not automatically mean you are being disrespectful. It is to be expected that in marriage there will be differences of opinion. But how, when, where and why that difference of opinion is voiced matters.
How are you voicing the difference of opinion? Are your tone of voice, your body language, and the words you choose reflecting a godly posture? Are they constructive and helpful? Are you speaking the truth in love?
When are you voicing the difference of opinion? Are you being wise and selective in your timing? Are you patiently waiting to broach the subject at an appropriate time, instead of being reactive, impulsive, and/or impatient. Timing is a significant key in issue resolution.
Where are you raising the difference of opinion? Location. Location. Location. Are you in an environment where you and your spouse can openly share and discuss the issue? And is that location somewhere where you really want to bring up the issue? For example, the romantic restaurant may not be the place to wax eloquent on a difference of opinion. Enjoy your candle lit dinner.
Why are you raising the difference of opinion? Motives matter. Sometimes we are so close to the issue we fail to be objective regarding our true motives. Are you seeking a win-win with your spouse? Are you seeking to build your union and partnership? Not every difference needs to be expressed, and if your motives are not pure, that might be a good time to do some soul searching before mentioning your opinion.
Finally, who you are married to matters in how you approach voicing your difference of opinion. Husbands are not all the same. Some husbands are mature enough to value the thoughts and perspectives of their wives. Some husbands, however, are more defensive or argumentative. Sharing a difference of opinion in even the gentlest of ways can stir up anger and resentment in such husbands. Prayerfully try to know and understand where your husband is so that you can be wise in how you approach differences.
If we assume that this past issue is something which occurred during your marriage and has damaged the relationship, there are a few key considerations:
When you are compassionately, humbly, and deliberately taking steps that encompass the above considerations, you are helping to create a healing environment for your wife and your marriage. It is important to remember that breaches can take time to repair. Sometimes the offending spouse wants the injured spouse to "hurry up" and get over it so that he (the offending spouse, which in some cases is a she) does not have to be inconvenienced by the pain he has caused his spouse. Do not let that be the case with you. Just as you played the main role in causing the hurt, you now have the opportunity to play a main role in expressing the love, care, and compassion that will help to bring healing.
"My question is about communication. How do I get my husband to say what he means and mean what he says so that we are on the same page, and so that we understand what we have agreed on? There is too much verbal confusion and he does not stick to what we have agreed."
What you are experiencing in your relationship with your husband may be more than a communication issue. One possibility is that you may be dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse. Though the term passive-aggressive is quite commonly used, it is often misunderstood. So let's first have a look at some of the characteristics your husband would likely exhibit if he has passive-aggressive tendencies. (You will notice that communication issues are threaded throughout the listed characteristics.)
So what do you do? First, let me assure you that you are not "crazy". Living with a passive-aggressive spouse can be extremely disorienting. And the more you try to get him to "say what he means and mean what he says" the more you will be caught in the vortex of confusion.
A first step is to understand that his confusing communication did not begin with you and is not about you. It is an issue that likely runs deep. For change to occur, he will need to acknowledge and work through the issues.
A second step is for you to carefully choose how you will respond to him. Being reactive and engaging in power struggles will propel you into that confusing vortex. Control yourself; do not try to control him (how he thinks, how he sees the issue, how he communicates.)
A third step is to keep life simple. That might seem too ... simplistic. But it can be very powerful. The passive-aggressive person tends to be resentful and can have unspoken hostilities. The more balls you have in the air requiring his help, the more likely it is for that reservoir of resentment to be stirred and for his tendency to sabotage to be fueled. So keep decision making simple. Keep agreements simple. Think in terms of bite size pieces.
A fourth step is to actively move toward connection. It can be tiresome in that crazy vortex, and you might feel drained, empty and unenthusiastic about connecting with your spouse. But this is where you need to cast your burden on the Lord and allow Him to revive you and your marriage. This is where you must first truly connect with the Lord, before you can fully connect with your husband. Let this difficult dynamic in your marriage allow you to seek God and His precious will in new and fresh ways.
There can be several reasons your wife has a negative attitude. One possible reason is that your spouse more naturally leans toward pessimism than optimism, so she sees problems before seeing opportunities. Tied to this is the possibility that your wife is a "detail oriented" person and tends to see what needs fixing (which can be an important strength) without seeing what there is to celebrate (which can be a problem.) Another consideration is whether your wife has had positive reinforcement in her life. Perhaps she grew up hearing a great deal of criticism or being molded by people who themselves were complainers and blamers.
Whatever the case, being transformed in one's attitude takes time and deliberate effort. If your wife were asking the question about herself I would give her some effective ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order for her mind to be renewed. However, as your question is how you can help her, here are a few keys:
But what if your wife's negative attitude is aimed at you? From her perspective you never seem to handle a situation correctly. You are not praised, but consistently criticized. This is where your maturity as a believer will show forth. Instead of lashing out or withdrawing, are you able to move toward your wife and speak the truth in love to her? Let her know how her attitude is affecting you, while also being mindful to offer hope and to validate the areas where she may be right, even if her attitude is wrong.
Also, praise her often. Her cup may have endured a lifetime of emptiness, depending on her background, and you can be the one who helps to fill and revive her. This also means being honest with yourself about the ways in which you might be draining your wife. While your shortfalls are not an excuse for her negative attitude, her negative attitude is not an excuse for your shortfalls to remain unchecked. This does not mean that you are to be perfect. It means that you are to be actively growing and using even this difficult area in your marriage to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in how He wants to transform you.
Since our minds are transformed by being renewed (Romans 12:2), initiate daily devotional time with your wife where you read the Word together. Elector and I have a friend who is 90 years old. He and his wife have been married for decades, and one of the things he has practiced everyday for their entire married life is to, as he puts it, "wash her with the Word" daily. Everyday he reads the Word to his wife as just one of the ways he covers her and cares for her. It's a precious act of love and devotion on his part. Perhaps you are willing to do the same and see how your wife blossoms. And remember, it's not a matter of her blossoming for your benefit first and foremost. It's a matter of her blossoming for the glory of God, from which you will benefit.
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