There’s no doubt in 2018 that sexual abuse is a real issue and also one that is not uncommon. 16% of men and 25% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse[i]. While a lot of the focus in recent months has been on bringing perpetrators to justice, what about the impact of sexual abuse on married life? Not only that, but how can you facilitate the healing and wholeness of your spouse if he or she has been sexually abused?
As a society, we’re getting better at talking about sexual abuse and recognizing it as a serious issue that impacts a huge number of men and women. But the impact of sexual abuse on a person doesn’t go away once the perpetrator has been caught. Abuse carries on affecting a person for their entire lives and can impact all future relationships the abuse survivor forms, including their marriage.
How Sexual Abuse Affects a Person
I think it is important to talk about this part because there may be some of our readers who either know their spouse has been sexually abused but don’t really see exactly what the impact is, or maybe they see symptoms but don’t know what the underlying wound is. Perhaps this may open a conversation that could help your spouse on their healing journey.
A study in 2005[ii] studied a sample of 9000 American adults and found that prior sexual abuse as a child increased the risk of several issues in adulthood:
- Increased risk of alcohol problems: 19% of abuse survivors compared to 12% of normal population
- Increased risk of substance/drug abuse: 24% compared to 16%
- Suicide attempts: 4.1% compared to 1.5%
- Depression: 11.8% compared to 7.9%
These effects are similar for both men and women: sexual abuse increases your likelihood of experiencing all of these issues.
What I hope you see is that the increase over normal population validates the severe emotional distress that sexual abuse brings. Of course, the good news is that healing is possible. Even though history cannot be rewritten, it is possible to recover from the trauma of sexual abuse.
Let’s look at some specific issues and behaviors that often form as a result of past sexual abuse.
Helplessness and Sexual Abuse
Helplessness is a very real impact that comes from sexual abuse.
Experiencing sexual abuse is a traumatic situation over which a person often has no control. Or at least, they don’t have the adult wisdom and knowledge to have said “No” back when they were a child.
The person may then learn a sense of helplessness which affects their expectations and judgment for years to come[iii]. Helplessness and perceived lack of control over your life can lead to alcohol and substance dependency, and are also a cause of (and symptom of) mental illness such as depression.
Other Kinds of Trauma
If childhood sexual abuse occurs in conjunction with others traumatic events in childhood, such as physical violence, neglect or being taken into institutional care, these all dramatically increase the risk factors for mental illness over and above what these factors individually would cause[iv].
How Past Sexual Abuse Affects Marriage
I want to be careful when going through these issues. There’s a fine line between acknowledging the impact and, from that, honoring the difficult journey that survivors face versus really pathologizing all the effects of sexual abuse and making the survivor really feel like they are damaged goods.
I guess in light of this I would say that we are all broken. While the abuse was not your fault and should not have happened, healing is your choice and something that you can make happen. So we acknowledge the past but also really want to honor the healing ability and resilience of survivors as well. Perhaps you are seeing some of these effects in your marriage. If so, think about what you might want to do to help yourself overcome these challenges and create a new chapter in your story that celebrates victory and healing.
Research in 2005[v] found that childhood sexual abuse can increase the risk of marital problems as an adult: 7.8% of abuse survivors were experiencing marriage problems at the time they filled in the research questionnaire, compared to 4.6% of the normal population. Note this was only investigating current marital problems, so rates of having some kind of marital problems during the whole length of the marriage may be higher. Even so, it’s not like every person who endures abuse ends up in a struggling marriage. So don’t feel like you have to be experiencing these things or that you should necessarily expect them.
Others have reported that survivors of abuse may experience lower marital satisfaction, lower stability (higher likelihood of divorce), higher rates of conflict and hostility, and higher levels of mistrust and feat of their spouse[vi]. Abused men/women may also find it hard to confide in their spouse and be vulnerable with them, leading to low intimacy.
Research suggests prior sexual abuse can affect current sexual functioning in one of two ways[vii]:
- Increased high-risk sexual behaviors, such as having lots of sex partners, being less likely to use contraception, and higher likelihood of taking part in prostitution
- Reduced sexual satisfaction: arousal disorders, difficulty/inability to orgasm
Again, there’s help in both of those areas by seeing a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist or by seeing a sex therapist.
Past sexual abuse may also affect the kinds of partners an abuse survivor seeks out.
Survivors of sexual abuse were more likely to marry an alcoholic than those who had never experienced abuse (12.5% of sample compared to 7.9%)[viii].
Moreover, women abused as children are much more likely to later be psychically or sexually abused by their husbands (49% of women abused as children, compared to 18% of general population)[ix].
That’s evidence of what we call traumatic reenactment, where the survivor recreates past scenarios in an attempt feel some greater agency or power in them, not realizing that s/he is taking his/her brokenness and actually breaking it some more. That’s hard to acknowledge but it is also something that a person can heal from and find new ways to feel a strengthened sense of self-efficacy or self-determination that are adaptive and wholesome.
Sexual abuse as a child can lead to women viewing themselves as worse parents, and can also lead to more use of physical punishment when your children misbehaves[x]. So it is possible sometimes that the pain of abuse can be passed on to little ones.
Helping Your Spouse Cope With Past Sexual Abuse
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. Today’s bonus guide is all about helping the spouse of a sexual abuse survivor look at your own beliefs and actions and how they affect your marriage. This guide will empower you to do more to assist your spouse in his or her recovery. Definitely a good thing to work through if you want to help your spouse overcome the awful things they’ve endured but don’t know where to begin. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How Does Sexual Abuse Translate Into Marriage Challenges?
Having looked at some of the ways sexual abuse impacts marriage, it is also useful to think about how those impacts are realized. What are the connections? Why does this happen?
Past trauma teaches people certain habits and ways of relating to people, which can impact the way they act and inform the people they choose to interact with. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may be unconsciously drawn to find a spouse who will repeat these same cycles of abuse.
Abuse may negatively impact a person’s self-esteem and sense of control over their life, such that they see themselves as deserving of further abuse and as unable to prevent it. These are very subtle beliefs that may be active in guiding the survivor’s choices as an adult.
Being abused by a family member or other close individual is an extreme betrayal of trust- the abused person will then find it extremely hard to trust people in the future. This lack of trust often leads to emotional distancing or even defensiveness and outright hostility in all future relationships, including marriage[xi].
Just to be clear here: we are talking about how abuse impacts marriage. We are not talking about a permanent disability. Just acknowledging the impact and if you are reading as a survivor I want you to know there is hope and healing from the wounds of sexual abuse, so that even for something like trust, you can learn to gain the skills to know who you can trust and who is safe so that you can safely and wisely let your guard down when it should be down.
Being abused by close family members as a child impairs the attachment bond those children are able to make. Children learn that those closest to them are capable of doing terrible harm to them and this becomes their expectation for all future relationships. Because they see abusive relationships as normal or as a “blueprint” for how relationships are supposed to function, they often end up choosing partners who conform to these expectations.
Resiliency Factors for Survivors
Now let’s look at some of the ways you can deal with all of this.
Many survivors of sexual abuse go on to thrive in adult life: having healthy relationships, successful careers and well-adjusted personalities. A study in 2007[xii] identified several “resilience factors” which helped abuse survivors to recover and thrive:
- Ability to find emotional support outside the family, as well as within
- High self-esteem and the ability to think well of oneself
- Faith or spirituality
- External attribution of blame- believing the abuse was not their fault
- Internal locus of control (defined this in episode on assertiveness)
So for spouses married to abuse survivors this gives them a good list of ways to help: providing emotional support, help with building self-esteem, engaging with faith together, helping survivors deal with issues of blame and encouraging them to feel in control of their lives.
Pay Attention to Attachment
A study in 1999[xiii] found that attachment style mediated the link between childhood sexual abuse and mental distress in later life. Attachment style accounted for almost of all of the effects of sexual abuse.
Abuse as a child is likely to create an insecure attachment style, which causes distress and relationship dysfunction in later life. But it is possible to form a secure attachment with your spouse, which reduces the impact of all kinds of past trauma on your current relationship. The bonus guide we created for our recent episode on overcoming your parent’s alcoholism looks at this, and the same principles apply here.
Or if you want to dive into more detail this is one of the reasons why we find it so effective to use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy in our virtual counseling agency at OnlyYouForever. EFCT focuses on creating the conversations necessary to shift and heal attachment so that you can create a stable, trusting, safe connection in your marriage.
Watch For Stinking Thinking
Finally, a study in 2001[xiv] found that spouses of abuse survivors often display forms of negative behavior, such as being emotionally distant or subconsciously blaming their spouse for the abuse and all the marital problems which it has caused. Working on these issues can help repair the marriage and create a secure attachment, which allows the abuse survivor to heal. There’s more on this in bonus guide and of course if you would like to speak with one of our specialized therapists we would love to be able to help you guys create a thriving, passionate marriage no matter what your story has been to date.
[i] Shanta R. Dube et al., “Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of Victim,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28, no. 5 (June 2005): 430–38, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2005.01.015.
[ii] Dube et al.
[iii] Dube et al.
[iv] A. Bifulco, G. W. Brown, and Z. Adler, “Early Sexual Abuse and Clinical Depression in Adult Life,” The British Journal of Psychiatry 159, no. 1 (July 1991): 115–22, https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.159.1.115.
[v] Dube et al., “Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of Victim.”
[vi] D. DiLillo, “Interpersonal Functioning among Women Reporting a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Empirical Findings and Methodological Issues,” Clinical Psychology Review 21, no. 4 (June 2001): 553–76.
[viii] Dube et al., “Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of Victim.”
[ix] DiLillo, “Interpersonal Functioning among Women Reporting a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse.”
[x] Victoria L. Banyard, “The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Family Functioning on Four Dimensions of Women’s Later Parenting,” Child Abuse & Neglect 21, no. 11 (November 1, 1997): 1095–1107, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0145-2134(97)00068-9.
[xi] DiLillo, “Interpersonal Functioning among Women Reporting a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse.”
[xii] Lanae Valentine and Leslie L. Feinauer, “Resilience Factors Associated with Female Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 21, no. 3 (June 1, 1993): 216–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926189308250920.
[xiii] Deborah L Shapiro and Alytia A Levendosky, “Adolescent Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Mediating Role of Attachment Style and Coping in Psychological and Interpersonal Functioning,” Child Abuse & Neglect 23, no. 11 (November 1, 1999): 1175–91, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0145-2134(99)00085-X.
[xiv] DiLillo, “Interpersonal Functioning among Women Reporting a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse.”