Help with feelings about abuse wife suffered w/o making it "about me"?
May 30, 2013 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Help with feelings about abuse wife suffered w/o making it "about me"? (trigger warning, about rape)

My wife was raped by her step father for most of her teenage life. I've known this since before I proposed to her. And nothing she changes how I feel about her, but more recent information has significantly changed my feelings towards him. How do I deal with this and express my anger in a healthy way, without making things "about me" ?

We're 28 (her) and 30 (me), have been married since 2006. We met in high school, she a junior and me a senior. Our relationship started the following year, after I went away to school and she finished up high school.

She told me about the sexual abuse when she was 19, a year or so after leaving home for college (where we lived together). At the time, it did not come as a surprise to me (that is, I knew the man was a bastard, beat her, and that they fought regularly, so to learn that he also raped her was not from left field, or completely unexpected). I've never broached the subject or asked questions about it, as it was a) not important to me and b) clear to me that the way she was "dealing" with it was by ignoring it and pushing it away.

I've never had much respect for her stepfather, but have maintained a working/friendly relationship with him for her sake. basically following her lead. I hate him, don't get me wrong, but I don't express it to anyone because she hasn't, and I don't want to bring it up and make her feel... something.

She's been seeing a therapist for a few months now (prompted by troubles in our marriage, which may be ending - we're going to be starting couples counseling next week [finally]). I think a lot of what she's working through at therapy is related to her abuse, and her self esteem and feelings of lack-of-control. So she's now "dealing" with the abuse in what I assume is a more healthy manner.

On Tuesday, after her therapy appointment in the morning and a day out with a friend of hers [also a survivor of sexual abuse], when I came home from work she was sobbing and told me more details about what happened. Prior to this, it has been a... vague concept to me - I know he raped her, at least several times, and I know that he was physically abusive, an alcoholic, and so on. The details include the time frame (13yo-17yo), specific instances/occurrences, and the heart stopping number of "at least 1000 times."

I am now consumed with my hatred and anger and seething rage for this man. If he didn't 12 hours away from me, if we still lived in the same state, I don't know if I wouldn't be in my car with a baseball bat driving to his house to break his legs.

How do I express, or cope with these feelings of anger and impotent rage and helplessness without making this "about me" ? I need to be someone she can be open to, and rely on, and tell anything to. But I also don't know how to contain my anger about this.

Advice please? I have a therapist as well, and have spoken to her once (this morning) since Tuesday, but spent most of the time explaining the situation. I'm expecting a bit more help with "coping" with it in the coming sessions, but could also use both immediate and generic advice from the community here.


posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Your local rape crisis center may be able to help direct you to a counselor who can help with these specific feelings.
posted by woodvine at 12:03 PM on May 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think talking this over with your therapist is your go-to first step. I'm glad you are doing that. After you process this initial shock, it might be good for you two to schedule some sessions together. I'd be curious what she would like you to do but that conversation might be best handled with a professional who is familiar with her situation.

Also, I think you should be angry. I think you should not feel like you need to have a working/familiar relationship with her stepfather. But this is very tricky. It seems that he is still a part of her life, a parent she sees from time to time? I would offer, at some point, that you are more than happy to help her cut him out of her life. That you would support her in every way in finding a new path that doesn't involve her needing to pretend that what happened didn't happen.

It's tough territory. Very tough. But you don't want to be one other person in her life who ignores the abuse to maintain the status quo. But existing in that space if she wants to maintain a parental relationship is very, very tricky.
posted by amanda at 12:07 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You need your own counselor for this. Big Time. As it is right now it's about her, 24/7. She's suffered an incredible trauma and she's just now emotionally dealing with it. This is incredibly hard and she will be a complete, emotional mess. You're a brick for helping her through this.

Offer to support her in whatever way she needs. Don't offer to do anything, let her tell you what she needs.

Let her guide you.

One thing you might say, if for some reason there's a family event on the horizon is, "I don't want to attend if your step-father is there because I'm so angry at him, I'm not sure I can control it." That's YOUR feeling and you're being responsible for it. Let her choose to do what she wants to do.

People deal and heal in very different ways. Acknowledge your anger, but don't make her responsible for it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:11 PM on May 30, 2013 [26 favorites]

You can say to her "I am so angry on your behalf."

And then take the rest of your confused and confusing ball of feelings to therapy - because they are your feelings, and it's okay that they're all about you! And the best place to wrangle them is with a third party who doesn't have her own ball of confused and confusing feelings about it.
posted by rtha at 12:16 PM on May 30, 2013 [14 favorites]

Definitely talk with your therapist about this; she is your best resource.

In the meanwhile, it is very important for you to understand that men in our society generally pick up on exactly one strategy regarding confronting the abuser of a loved one. Considering the the thing about the baseball bat, you know exactly what I am talking about. The problem is, you can't do that, and you know you can't do that. So you've got all this anger, and its manifesting in a very particular way, and you have nowhere to put it because putting it in the one place you want to will only make things so much worse.

Do not dwell on revenge fantasies. Do not focus your anger on anything or anyone until you know for a fact that you're focusing it in a productive direction that won't bring any more harm to anyone.

And, most importantly, even though you know this, don't do anything stupid. A rash act right now -- whether it's a beatdown, an angry confrontation, a phonecall, a letter, whatever -- will not fix things, will not even anything out, or do anything besides ruin whatever progress the two of you are making toward coping with this.
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 12:18 PM on May 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can call or use the online chat at RAINN. The phone number is 1.800.656.HOPE (4673) and will connect you with your local rape crisis center. The organization is open to helping the loved ones of rape/abuse survivors. Their website might be helpful as well.

(Being angry is ABSOLUTELY appropriate, as is finding a way of dealing with the anger that doesn't include your spouse. So your goal should be a way of working through your anger, not just suppressing it.)
posted by jaguar at 12:35 PM on May 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

How do I express, or cope with these feelings of anger and impotent rage and helplessness without making this "about me" ?

As others have said, talking to a therapist or others is good. For more immediate relief, intense physical activity may help. Anything from running or swimming to the physicality of simply hitting a punching bag.

Whatever you decide, definitely keep talking to a professional about this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was sexually abused as a kid. I was a very angry young woman. In my twenties, if someone had touched my kids, I likely would have killed the perpetrator(s). I knew that and I knew it would mean jail time for me. So I felt that was tantamount to child abandonment. I thought about that a whole lot. I concluded the only thing that made sense was to do everything in my power to make my kids safe. I spent my time and energy on figuring out how to do that in a civilized fashion that did not involve homocide. That pursuit did a lot to change me and heal me.

I found that having an actionable plan was the best antidote to feeling both helpless and angry. In therapy, my therapist always told me that anger was a cover for something, usually pain and vulnerability. I think you need to channel your anger into learning how to protect your wife. And then get in touch with the feelings behind it and share those with her and know that it boils down to the fact that you love her.

Something sacred was stolen from her. You can work on giving her a sense of sacredness about her sexuality. That is a better emotional defense or solution for both of you than revenge ever could be. That did the most good for me and eventually made me feel washed clean.

You are welcome to email me if you wish.
posted by Michele in California at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm so sorry your wife is going through this, and that you are having to experience such pain as well.

I have not gone through any sort of abuse like your wife, but I have gone through the trauma of major medical issues (and ongoing, unpleasant medical treatment), and in the hardest/most upsetting moments, the thing that was the VERY VERY BEST from my partner was a kind of active presence. By this I mean that he stayed physically close, with gentle/comforting touch (holding my hand, stroking my hair, whatever). He didn't try to fix anything, though he would gently ask if there was anything specific I needed or wanted him to do; he didn't shush me from crying or offer platitudes; he didn't get mad about the immediate crisis (though he went to the gym whenever he could to work off that steam); he was just very present in a quiet, kind way. So if I wound up just wanting to cry and not really talk about it, that was fine; if I wanted to talk about it, that was fine, too.

It takes real courage to be this sort of soothing, non-judgmental witness to someone's suffering. It recognizes the limits of what you can "do" in the moment, while still doing something incredibly valuable and generous.

It may be that your wife will need something different from what I needed (for example, having her hair stroked might actually be a trigger, or she may actually want you to say something specific in those moments); it might be a good idea to ask her about this in a NON-intense moment, when the two of you can sit down and have a specific discussion about what she needs during the different waves of anger, grief, etc. she'll be experiencing as she (and you both) go through this.

I wish you both the best.
posted by scody at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

I'm so sorry you both are going through this. Your instincts are spot-on. When my partner disclosed her previous horrific abuse to various people, some people downplayed it, some got angry and offered to go beat up her abuser, but precious few gave her what she was really seeking, which was comfort, a warm loving hug, and an opening to let her express what she was feeling.

I've felt this rage myself, not long ago, when the same abuser re-appeared while I was halfway around the world and violently raped the woman I'm in love with, again. I discovered much to my surprise that I would be perfectly capable of murdering someone with my bare hands, should that speck of dirt find himself in the same room with me. I talked about this with my therapist. He guided me to imagine doing the strangling, squeezing my hands around his neck, asked me how it felt, and to my surprise I got no satisfaction from it. It wasn't enough. I was furious, but my anger was mostly about feeling frustrated and helpless that I couldn't protect her.

This stuff needs to be expressed, but not to her, as you understand. Right after it happened I was a mess and it was a while before I could see my therapist. So I collapsed on the couch and told my problems to a stuffed animal, and screamed and cried about it for a while. Within subsequent days I confided to a few close friends (with my partner's permission), sparing them details but telling them broad outlines about what I was dealing with. Just like, "I'm dealing with some heavy stuff right now and I really need a hug". There is nothing like a warm hug from a caring friend.

Comfort IN, dump OUT. As the one feeling the tragedy, your wife needs your comfort, and needs to dump out to you. As one also very close to the epicenter, you also need to pull comfort from your friends and close ones and dump out your emotions to them. It gets progressively easier the further away you are from the middle. Close friends will be happy to support you. Best wishes.
posted by anybodys at 12:42 PM on May 30, 2013 [22 favorites]

Seeing he committed ghastly crimes which he never was accounted for, what type of relationship does she have with him? I ask because you said you are cordial with him. Perhaps the best thing you can do beyond working with her through therapy and discuss your feelings during therapy sessions (to have the therapist reinstate your protection of her), is just keep supporting her by stating such things. I don't see it as being about you but you protecting her and wanting to fight for her since no one helped her in the past.

My DH has similar feelings regarding my family (and by no means the same reasons). I do understand his feelings are out of love and protection of me. However, I tell him that when I need him to step in (which I don't) then I will ask for it.

I do hope all gets worked out for her and you as a couple.
posted by stormpooper at 12:47 PM on May 30, 2013

When something bad happened to me, and I felt powerless, I was consumed by revenge fantasies for months. I even took first steps toward revenge. (In your analogy, it would mean buying the baseball bat and driving up to the house, without the beatdown... yet.)

There is no way I could possibly summarize the complex actions and thoughts, over months, that got me away from revenge (for now) and onto more productive actions. Nor would they be the same that necessarily help you. So I'll just say a few things.

1. The time it takes to work this out can be long. You might not feel better by next week. You might cycle through a bunch of thoughts, some of which are vengeful, for the better part of a year or more.

2. It helped me to read and learn more generally about harms people inflict on others. I watched documentaries and read books about sex slavery, genocides, concentration camps, other forms of slavery, etc. There are tons out there to find with your Google-Fu. Memail me for suggestions. It helped me to wrap my brain around the ideas that a) I am not the only person who has ever had something bad happen to me, b) everyone who it happens to feels powerless and awful, well at least mostly, and c) there are many ways to respond. There is no way to accept these crimes, or "come to terms with them" in any way. That's impossible. But it was helpful to see more of the big picture, the wider landscape of suffering. It helped me to expand my mind like that, though this process took months. Bits and pieces at a time.

3. If you break this guy's legs, six months from now he will have healed legs and he will still be an asshole, and you will have taken an unnecessary risk that could land you in prison for a while, and you will (most likely) still feel a need for revenge. Because once he's healed and back to normal, you will still see him as someone who didn't suffer any major consequences. You won't feel better, probably, until you permanently ruin his life or kill him. I don't think you want to be a murderer or a life ruiner. Then beyond his initial crime, he has really damaged your soul for the rest of your life (and maybe your wife too) (especially if you commit crimes or go against your own values to harm him).

4. In my experience, constructive actions to help the community did help me. I reported the crime. Reporting is not for everyone, and parts of it sucked. Just a thought that if there's anything you can do to better protect yourself or your wife, from here on out, even if it's not reporting the crime, that can sometimes be healing.
posted by htid at 1:03 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Vent in therapy, alone, so that you can be a great supportive listener, which is what she needs. Ask her if there's anything she needs of you and listen to her.

Once your head is nice and clear, research what it takes to bring charges against this POS and support her through that if it's a route she'd like to go. Great news: not too many SOLs for raping a child.
posted by mibo at 1:21 PM on May 30, 2013

You are thoughtful in trying not to add your anger to your wife's burden. Physical activity might help you defuse your anger. Another man was quick tempered; he had a speed bag (punching bag) installed in the garage. It helped.
posted by Cranberry at 1:28 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've received great advice in the above responses. Do you know whether Stepfather has access to other young women/children? If so, please use the guidance of professionals in finding a way to make sure no one else continues to be victimized by him. This is a delicate area as your own wife should not be compelled to redirect her own recovery in order to achieve these ends, hence the suggestion for guidance from a therapist/rape crisis center.

I wish you and your wife the best.
posted by quince at 1:34 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

what everyone else says, and EXERCISE. a lot. physical exhaustion helps....helps your mood, helps you sleep, takes the edge of the adrenaline/anxiety/anger. exercise and meditate...
posted by jrobin276 at 3:00 PM on May 30, 2013

Something no one's mentioned yet: your wife's mother. For some victims of abuse at the hands of a parent/stepparent it's especially hard to confront anger towards the parent who failed to protect the younger self and recognize/prevent/stop the abuse. In a way, it can be safer to focus on the perpetrator than to face the rage and betrayal resulting from this aspect of the trauma, especially if there might be reason to think that the mother knew or should have known what was happening.

I raise this point to alert you to another layer of anger and emotion that this new information about/re-examination of the abuse may prompt in you and/or your wife. It will require its own work to process. Take care.
posted by carmicha at 3:03 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry.

I did a lot of rape relief advocacy work and also prosecuted these cases for a long time. You are, to put it simply, a secondary victim. He hurt her, and knowing about that has wounded you. Anger is a very common reaction to this kind of traumatic loss of autonomy and violation.

The big problem, as you have sensitively and appropriately identified, is that she's the primary victim, not you. So you have to figure out how to manage this without piling more on her. I think she may be just letting herself disclose fully now, so this is a very sensitive time, particularly with the other (and likely related) problems in your relationship.

So, yes, you need counseling. I strongly second contacting a rape relief organization on your own -- that will help you in being appropriate with her, and will likely get you some helpful feedback on your own situation. And yes, talking to your counselor is also a way to go -- see if you can step up frequency of appointments just now.

Do not confront this abusive man in any way. You can see how that would put you ahead of her, right?

Thinking of you.
posted by bearwife at 3:08 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

The best thing my partner (and my brother-in-law) did when they found out about the rape was to acknowledge but not leak their anger. I know they were/are angry but they didn't make the discussions about revenge, about what they want to do, so on. They acknowledged that they were murderously angry but did not drown me in it. I was awash with enough emotional trauma, I didn't need their anger (which I'd have to placate, because that's what girls do when men are angry...see how it reinforces a cycle?) but I did need them to be there, to let me talk.

I do wish my partner had gone to therapy, but his relationship with his brother is enough for them both to have come through. And their reaction helped me deal and in turned, helped me when disclosing to other people because they were an amazing buffer zone for me.

Things will cycle and get bad and worse and better and okay and sometimes you'll think this is the last round, we're doing so much better, but no. It's always there to a certain extent, but having that openness means that instead of hiding and swallowing my own rage I can talk about it and the dark days are a bit shorter, bit less terrible.

One thing that has come up recently though is that the better my coping skills get, the less it looks like I'm hurting. I still hurt, as bad, just not for as long and it's not manifesting as terrible coping skills. But it means that my partner has dropped the ball a few times because I'm not self-injuring/drinking constantly/refusing to leave the house, so I'm not too bad obviously. His emotional turmoil monitor needs recalibrating to adjust for where I am with healing, with dealing with it. I make the same mistakes with myself, so I understand, but I just wanted to mention that as well.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:44 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing you need to know.

Even your righteous anger might be very very frightening and triggering for her. You are so right and so wise to know that you have to be there for HER and not make this about you, but having said that, yes, yes, yes, you need your therapist and or a safe trusted friend to get your own feelings out about this, because in a way this evil man has victimized you as well by having victimized her.

I personally recommend heavy exercise to deal with the adrenaline and physical manifestations of anger you are experiencing. And I am encouraging you to be loving and comforting to her. It is okay for you to express to her how angry you are this happened to her, but be very careful with your tone of voice. It's probably okay for you to ask her to let you know if any of your reactions are helping or hurting her, but just being there for her, letting her say what she needs to say, and loving her through this are the most important things.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:46 PM on May 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've been thinking of you all day. Something else came to my mind. It's not quite what you asked for but I wanted to offer it.

Victims of abuse often internalize their pain and distress as guilt or shame and feel 'tainted' or 'fallen' and unworthy of closeness. In my own case I've been startled a few times at how my emotional reactions to my partner's trauma have been twisted and used as weapons against her by her own inner demons. As in, 'look how upset I've made him, I really am no good, I should just go run away and kill myself'. (I wish I was exaggerating.) The things that happened to her were horrific. But it's important to remember that while her trauma is painful, it is not her, just something she carries. Follow her cues as best you can, but take care not to overly fixate on the things she discloses. Make sure to be present with the parts of her that exists in the present, with you.
posted by anybodys at 4:57 PM on May 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

You are suffering secondary trauma. You need therapy as a result.

There is not a healthy way to process this on your own or with her (especially not with her).

Personally I would avoid expressing any anger to her about him, because it is SO easy for that to sound like your anger about her or at her*

*sad personal experience on my part here.
posted by French Fry at 8:17 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

2. It helped me to read and learn more generally about harms people inflict on others. I watched documentaries and read books about sex slavery, genocides, concentration camps, other forms of slavery, etc. There are tons out there to find with your Google-Fu. Memail me for suggestions. It helped me to wrap my brain around the ideas that a) I am not the only person who has ever had something bad happen to me, b) everyone who it happens to feels powerless and awful, well at least mostly, and c) there are many ways to respond.

I'd just like to add that, like htid, this really helped me too. It may help you or your wife. Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery is an excellent book, and a classic for a reason.
posted by 3491again at 6:01 PM on May 31, 2013

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