Dear Ann Cannon • My husband and I have been married for almost eight years and about a month ago, he told me that he was sexually abused when he was 6 years old. He’d never told a single person about it before telling me — not parents, siblings, a counselor or a friend. I feel sick just thinking about it and am at a total loss. How in the world do I support him? Also, how do I support myself? I want to talk with close friends and family about this, because that’s where I turn for help, but I understand that’s not my right to do. Where do I go from here?
— A Wife
Dear Wife • First, it speaks well of your marriage that your husband feels safe sharing this devastating information with you. You’re lucky to have one another.
I’m in no way an expert and I do want to make that very, very clear. That’s why I think you should both see a therapist. Separately, in fact. You can’t make your husband do this, of course, and my guess is that he’ll initially resist. He has guarded this secret for years now, which gives it a lot of power over him. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often feel paralyzed by feelings of shame and isolation. The fact that he has brought this up with you, however, could be a sign that he’s ready to deal with this part of his past.
That’s where you come in. Both of you should recognize that you aren’t his therapist. You are his loving wife and that’s the crucial space you should keep occupying. Of course, listening to him is part of being a loving wife. Reassure him that he is, in fact, worth loving and that his revelation hasn’t diminished your feelings for him at all, which (to my knowledge) can be one of the things victims of abuse worry about — that somehow their experience has left them broken and unworthy of affection. You can also let your husband know that his experience is not uncommon. That’s where seeing a therapist would be useful for him. A therapist can validate this sad reality, as well as offer hope and encouragement by sharing strategies designed to help a person move forward.
You should consider seeking help for yourself. You’re very wise not to discuss your husband’s story with friends and family. It’s his information — not yours — to share. At the same time, carrying this information alone is proving to be difficult for you. You’re smart to recognize that fact. Visiting a therapist, who by definition is required to keep confidences (unlike family and friends), can be a good safety valve for you. “But isn’t therapy expensive?” you ask. It can be. However, you may be able to reduce the cost of treatment by checking out services offered by the county in which you live or (if you’re insured) discovering which mental health care providers your plan covers. Furthermore, many faith organizations can direct members to professional therapists.
Finally, it’s important for your husband — and anyone else who has experienced abuse — to know that a person is not defined by that abuse. It’s a chapter in a story. Not the whole story. Survivors can and do go on to live full, satisfying lives.
Wishing you all the best on this difficult and unexpected journey.