My wife confessed to being molested as a child and I am not sure how to respond
May 17, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I've been married to my wife for a few years, but she confessed to me recently that a neighbor molested her when she was a child. How can I respond to this in a helpful, supportive way?

My wife is extremely adverse to seeking therapy for any reason, and says that she hardly ever thinks about what happened to her so she doesn't need therapy. This came up sort of out of the blue when I was asking her if we could both seek some therapy for our anger management issues before we have children.

I'm not sure what to make of what she told me. She says she has only ever told one other person. She said she didn't really want to talk about it, but that I could ask her questions. I don't want to dwell on a painful memory, but I also don't want to ignore this and try to shove it into the background like it never happened to her. Is there anything I can do as a caring partner? Anything I should know? It really upsets me to hear that this happened to her and I want to be supportive, but I'm really unsure as to how to respond. I'm not currently in therapy myself...if I was I'd be tempted to ask a therapist how to respond, but I'm almost certain my wife would view this as a betrayal of her trust, so I don't think that's an option for me. She is really, really adverse to therapy, so I think she would not react positively to yet more badgering about seeking therapy.

I have a hard time parsing that my wife thinks this has had almost no effect on her, but I also don't want to invalidate her experiences, whatever they may be.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If someone told me that they didn't really want to talk about something painful in their past, and that they had moved on, I'd probably just believe them.

What you talk about with a therapist is private, though, and I don't think you need to disclose what you talk about in therapy with anyone, including your wife, if you did wind up talking to one about the impact of this revelation on you.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is she so averse (the word you were looking for, but maybe your device miscorrected you?) to therapy that she wouldn't want you to go to therapy yourself?

From my own perspective as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, your wife's behavior SCREAMS that she needs therapy desperately. Often our brains sabotage us by telling us that the very thing that's best for us is something we should avoid.

Her anger management issues might well stem, at least in part, from her not having expressed her very valid anger about being abused as a child. If she's not going to open that box, it seems unlikely that the anger management issues are going to go away, doesn't it? Which doesn't promise that she'll have optimal parenting skills if you do choose to have children.

If I were in your position, I would see a therapist on my own and talk about my own stuff and my wife's aversion to therapy, which you can certainly do without divulging the specifics of your wife's story (assuming she wouldn't give you permission to share any of it). You can work on your own anger management without her doing her work, after all.

But I would be very leery of becoming a parent with someone who was in a place of denial about something as significant as your wife's experience. On the other hand, that's me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:22 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Possible molestation?
Anger management?
I'd continue to press for therapy, yes.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:22 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

You could just ask her "how would you like me to respond to this? What would be most helpful?"

It's not something that is devastating in the same way for everybody. I think your best bet is to nurture your relationship with her. There's a chance she has unresolved issues that may impact your relationship, but you can't know that. You may be tempted to speculate on it, but when problems arise, it could just be that problems are arising, or she has some other issues that are affecting your relationship.

Going forward, it's okay to demand a healthy relationship, to ask her to work on it. If she identifies that they're related to the earlier abuse, its okay to ask her to work on those issues in order to improve your relationship.

As always for everyone everywhere, at any time, it's ok to want a good relationship.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:23 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there anything I can do as a caring partner?

Make sure (as in "tell her") that this changes absolutely nothing. You're not going to look at her different, you're not going to think differently about her, you don't think it's weird or gross or piteous, and so on. Just do a really thorough job of reassuring her. After you're sure that she knows for a fact that telling you this didn't just destroy the marriage, ask any questions that will keep you up at night.
posted by griphus at 10:24 AM on May 17, 2012 [17 favorites]

Support for Partners is a resource center for partners of people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

I think respecting your wife's current boundaries is important. And not working on your own issues because she doesn't appear to you to be working on her issues doesn't make sense.

If you want therapy, and it's feasible for you to do therapy, seek therapy. It sounds like it would be useful to you right now.

For once I am going to disagree with griphus. I really really really don't think you should ask your wife any questions about her experience. Telling her you're open to hearing about it if she ever wants to talk about it, on the other hand, seems like a fine idea.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:32 AM on May 17, 2012

Hmm. I am not trying to cast aspersions on her motivation for telling you this, but it worries me that it seems to be something that is coming to the foreground as you ask her to do something she doesn't want to do (seek therapy), and that it is something that you are not "allowed" by the unspoken rules of your relationship to talk about with your own therapist.

My advice to you is to think about yourself and your future children and keep your eyes on the prize. If you think therapy is necessary for one or both of you, then keep firmly insisting on it, despite this disclosure. If you get a therapist, which I think you should, then go ahead and tell them anything that you need to tell them in order to improve your ability to be a good parent. You don't have to tell her what you're talking about in therapy, and frankly, she shouldn't ask--if she does, you have every right not to tell her. If this is something you need to discuss in therapy, do.

Other than that, there is great advice about supporting her above. Just remember that supporting her should not mean foregoing your own support.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:34 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I know she said you could ask her questions, but I still think it's a bad idea. I am all over the survivor-of-childhood-sexual-abuse activist community, I've been in support groups, I've written about the issue a lot, and my husband hasn't asked me anything about it and I would be uncomfortable if he did.

But again, clearly I am seeing this through the filter of my own experience, and I could be totally wrong. I just don't see your asking her questions about this going well for either of you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. As far as how you relate to her, tell her it changes nothing for you, but that if there's anything she needs from you that she hasn't been getting, to please let you know.

2. As far as what you discuss with your own therapist, that is none of her business. And it's fine for you to say "I'm going to see if a therapist has anything helpful for me to consider before we have kids" if she's wondering why you suddenly want to see one now. It is up to you whether to share with her about your therapy.

3. It's not unreasonable to seek help for anger management BEFORE having kids. In fact, it's crucially important. Nothing is more infuriating than an uncooperative kid can be and bringing one into your life is an irrevocable step.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:48 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Denying that abuse has an effect on you is a shockingly common phenomenon. Seriously, there are all sorts of addicts out there that say that the fact that they were abused has nothing to do with their addiction. Fact is, our experiences and childhoods affect us. I'm not saying this because I think you should challenge her, just to say it's normal.

It's also shockingly common to have trauma and abuse in childhood. While it surely affects your wife today, it doesn't necessarily mean that she is "damaged" or "broken" any more than the rest of us. Therapy and support for you would be helpful, and if she ever wants to join you, more the better.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:49 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You ask: "how should I respond?"

Your wife of a few years has just told you that she was molested, a devestating revelation. She told this to you. You now need to decide how you may want to confront the molester, as she may have told you since you are her spouse and one of your roles is to protect her. Part of her personal therapy will involve the actions you take towards her, as well as the actions you take in confronting that terrible human being who did this in the first place.

This is not a time to be unsure and unclear, but active in the pursuit of healing your wife on all levels.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:09 AM on May 17, 2012

You now need to decide how you may want to confront the molester

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

This is not something that he should even contemplate, unless his wife specifically says that this is something she wants to do and would like his support on.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:14 AM on May 17, 2012 [25 favorites]

I was molested as a child. I am pretty open about it. My view is that therapy is only helpful when someone is offered it as an option they can pursue. It seems to do a lot of harm when pushed as something they "should" do, like they are a broken car and you are trying to send them out to get repaired.

I did a lot of therapy in my teens and twenties and my ex and I did couples counseling briefly. My ex was extremely introverted and hated talking to a therapist. One day I told him I did not care whether or not he went to counseling with me. I only cared that our marital problems got better and he was free to work on them any way he wished. He dropped out of couples counseling. I continued seeing a therapist for my issues. After he stopped counseling, he made more real effort to work with me on our issues.

Letting him choose a path that worked for him -- I.e. respecting his boundaries -- was one of the single best things I ever did for my marriage. But you have to really mean it. I never brought it up again. I never threw it in his face that he had stopped. Etc. I genuinely respected his right to choose. My emphasis was on working our crap out, on getting results, not on a particular means to an end.

A final thought: Child molestation almost never begins with rape but may well culminate there. Where it typically begins is with a thousand subtle boundary violations. In my experience, respecting a victim's boundaries is one of the most powerful things you can do to help them really get over it and move on.

Peace and best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 11:14 AM on May 17, 2012 [14 favorites]

If this were my partner, I would want to know how long a period of time this went on for (was it one time, or was it over a period of years), and whether any adults in her life knew, believed her, tried to protect her at the time.

I agree with Sidhedevil that "confronting" the molester or any similar action is absolutely the wrong thing to suggest.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:16 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You now need to decide how you may want to confront the molester

No. And the idea is gross. Not even, no, never.
posted by peep at 11:16 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thank her for being brave and trusting enough to share this with you, reassure her that this doesn't change the way you think of her, and ask how you can best be a partner to her moving forward, specifically in terms of what she wants and needs you to do (or not do). Let her take the lead on this. Don't offer to confront the molester.

Specifically in terms of the molestation, every other reaction is hers to have.

Then go to therapy. You can't make her go if she doesn't want to, but you can.

But: Be hyper-aware of what she asks of you in terms of how you can best be a partner, and be certain that you are not asked to limit reasonable behavior. "I don't know, I guess maybe I'd rather you didn't watch Happiness or whatever movies about kid-touchers while I'm in the room" is a fair request. "Don't go to therapy, even by yourself, or I'll feel betrayed" is not.

Honestly, though, I'm inclined to agree that while this is a Big Thing, it's tangential to the real problem: that your wife has anger management issues, intends to have kids, and is hardcore opposed to actually doing anything in the way of usefully addressing the anger management issues. Maybe the molestation is a root cause of that, and maybe not, but what matters is now. If I were in your situation - and this is just me - this would come down to a situation where I would not be willing to have children until I knew something productive were being done about our anger management. That conversation might have far-reaching consequences, yes, but consider the consequences of not having it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:34 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

The precise situation you're in is covered in a book I can't seem to stop referencing here, so I hope I'll be forgiven for another mention: Outgrowing the Pain Together. You can read it without her involvement to get a better idea of how to be supportive.
posted by batmonkey at 11:36 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am very concerned that your wife is so adverse to therapy. Like abuse, sexual molestation often occurs in a cycle. Someone is abused as a child and grows up to be an abuser. I am not saying if this will happen to your wife, but her unwillingness to talk about her past, either with you or a therapist is not good. You should not have children with her until she is willing to work on this in some way, shape, or form.
posted by emilynoa at 12:03 PM on May 17, 2012

I wold encourage you to have grave reservations about having a child with anyone who currently has anger management issues as well as a lack of willingness to work on them. Children can bring out both the best and the worst in people, and it sounds like you don't know which it will be, and that she likely doesn't either. That she has experienced childhood molestation only makes both you and her knowing what is in her brain that much more important before even thinking about having kids yourselves.

Therapists are a great way to go about figuring these things out.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:17 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have a right to tell your (potential, future) therapist whatever you want. Full stop.

(I think therapy for you should be item #2 on your To Do list, right after what griphus said to do.)
posted by SMPA at 12:42 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the most important things you can do is listen. Just be there for her. Be compassionate and also be real. Don't treat her like she is broken.

You're probably already doing a lot of this. You've created enough trust and safety so that she could tell you this huge, terrifying thing. Something she has only ever told one other person. I'm not sure how to convey how scary it is at first to talk about being molested. But there's something about you, about your connection with her, that feels deeply safe to her. You should be proud of yourself that you were able to co-create that with her. Keep doing what you have been doing. As others have said, she's probably terrified that she's somehow damaged your connection or tainted how you see her.

In light of that, if you push her to get therapy, it could seem to her like you think something is wrong with her. I know that's not what therapy means. I think that she could probably benefit from therapy. I also think that's it's super, super important that she feels empowered to make her own choices.

One of the worst things about childhood sexual abuse is the way that it steals someone's ability to make choices for themselves. A lot of survivors struggle with feelings of powerlessness and with uncertainty about what it is they want versus what others want them to do. They can feel like they have to just go along with someone else's desires or else risk being attacked. Pressure to do certain things--even well-intentioned pressure from people who love them--can be profoundly negative for survivors. I'm not saying you shouldn't ever ask her to do things, or remind her if, say, she forgets to do an agreed upon household chore. I am saying that in the realm of her healing from the abuse, she gets to be the boss. She needs to be able to decide where to go in the process, and how fast to take things, and what tools to use.

Also, the fact that your wife thinks the experiences haven't had much effect on her is likely a form of denial. That can be frustrating. But that denial is probably what's allowed her to make it through some really tough times. It's like a hardened shell protecting some deep wounds. You can't yank it off without hurting her. I think in order for her to let go of those old defense mechanisms, she needs to feel safe enough in the present to face some monsters she's never looked in the eye before. It's likely to be a long and convoluted process that requires patience from everyone involved.

I'm a survivor and I've read a lot about healing, and worked with therapists and support groups and talked a lot to various friends and experienced both helpful and unhelpful responses. Feel free to me-mail if you have any questions or just need a space in which to share.
posted by overglow at 1:09 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

People are allowed to not want therapy, despite what metafilter will tell you.
posted by fshgrl at 2:29 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

fshgrl: "People are allowed to not want therapy, despite what metafilter will tell you."

While this is true, the OP does have a right, if not a responsibility, to not have children with someone who has unaddressed anger management problems with the possibility of other unsearched for issues that might be incompatible with responsible parenting. Therapy is not the only answer for addressing anger management issues, or arriving at a metacognitive awareness of the effects of trauma, but it is a pretty good one and worth encouraging.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:20 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

There are alternatives to therapy that work. You might try meditation for both of you. Thich Nhat Hahn's monesteries have all kinds of great, low cost programs for addressing this and you could go for a couple of days to good effect. (

Alternatively if that is not your cup of tea try local church or synagogue resources.

One issue that your wife may have discovered is that there are a lot of terrible therapists (who were victims/suffered terribly themselves and who tend to lack good boundaries in therapy). Try a liberal pastor or rabbi who has a good reputation if that is the case.
posted by zia at 4:37 PM on May 17, 2012

BTW Thich Nhat Hahn is all about nonviolence and mindfulness - kind of the antidote to anger management!
posted by zia at 4:38 PM on May 17, 2012

Sidhedevil et al. -

Writing "NO" 16 times still does not offer a reason; those who have said don't confront have yet to provide a reason why.

Some spouses may want their spouse to confront those that hurt them.

I said *may* confront, upon consultation with the spouse. This is a valid response and individuals are *not all alike* in how they want things handled. Confrontation is a legitmate response in therapy.
posted by Kruger5 at 4:58 PM on May 17, 2012

It sounded like you were suggesting that he should assume, simply from the wife's telling him, that she wants him to confront the molester. And further that he should undertake some kind of confrontation without asking her or hesitating.

People here are saying, don't assume she wants a confrontation, and don't assume a confrontation would be helpful or would be the best way of protecting or helping her.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:17 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

How can I respond to this in a helpful, supportive way?

ask her "Honey, how can I respond to this in a helpful, supportive way?" and accept her answer at face value.
posted by cupcake1337 at 6:32 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kruger5, a lot of the vehemence of the response that you got came from folks who have previously come out as abuse survivors who, I imagine, likely had to deal with managing responses like the one you typed out on top of managing the pain and trauma of molestation.

For super-clarity, confronting an abuser without the consent of the abused person IS A REALLY BAD IDEA. Additionally, pushing an abused person to confront their abuser, particularly if they have not explicitly expressed an interest in doing so on their own, is also A REALLY BAD PLAN.

I think your answer is particularly valuable as an example of what comes so naturally and intuitively to so many caring loving partners, but is ultimately profoundly counter-productive. As part of their grooming process, successful abusers will often work creatively and intelligently work to strip those that they are abusing of the power to make choices in their lives. Part of what makes childhood abuse in particular so terrible is how it so often steals the agency of the abused. Your answer asked to OP to take the lead in his wife's healing process, which while I'm sure would be well intended, would be ultimately similar to the patterns of most forms of abuse. The best way that the OP can help their wife heal is by following her lead and providing her with as much agency as possible, which would be healing in and of itself, rather than leading her and stripping her of it, which would be inherently damaging.

Now I know you meant you answer with a good heart, which is part of what makes responses like yours so heartbreaking, but I would encourage you to take the vehemence of the reaction that you got here not as an attack on you but a defense against your response.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:25 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

OP, I think you need to back it up, and think about how you're phrasing this. Your wife did not "confess" to you. She told you/confided in you/opened up to you about her experience with abuse. Thinking of this as a confession (like she did something wrong and admitted/acknowledged it) already invalidates her experiences.
posted by spunweb at 10:28 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think it's fair to say that abuse survivors need to go to therapy regardless of their preferences. Therapy is a popular answer and is certainly useful in many situations, but some people really have buried their past and don't want to reopen old wounds which are no longer affecting their current mental state. There's no guarantee that dredging up this stuff will improve anything and it's very likely to be an unpleasant experience.

I don't think being the victim of abuse obligates you to do anything.

I think the real issue here is the anger management problems, and that's a fair thing to insist on therapy for before having kids. The sexual abuse may be related but it also could be a red herring.
posted by randomnity at 6:46 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with spunweb. An abuse victim does not confess. S/he confides in you.
posted by Tarumba at 6:57 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't read all of the responses, but I want to add something that is also possible.

Every once in awhile, I've seen people employ the story of their earlier abuse as a way of communicating the following:

"Back off. I'm a victim and I do not want you to challenge me (or want me to change and be a nicer, more responsive person in some way). I do not want a higher level of intimacy with you, (or i do not want to change) and rather than tell you that and risk you going away, I will tell you this tale of woe, implying that if you continue to want more intimacy (or for me to change) in light of my tale of woe, you are, in fact, a jerk."

It can be very effective. Who continues to confront (or want intimacy or sex with) someone who's been so horribly hurt? And how can you leave that person?

If you want something to change in your relationship (or her to change, or to feel closer and more intimate) -- that's okay. In some ways, it doesn't matter if she can't right now as long as she shares that goal. Sometimes, that means therapy. If she wants nothing to change, but you do, it almost doesn't matter why she doesn't share your goals -- at that point, it's no longer a good match. (assuming patience and understanding on all sides. Nobody changes overnight, yada yada yada).
posted by vitabellosi at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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