A Partner's Dilemma

by annie

I've received a number of letters from spouses and partners of survivors, and it seems there still isn't a whole lot of support out there.It seems you, the partners are left feeling alone, helpless, powerless, and often afraid of what is ahead, and are unable to find the support and help you need. I am hoping we will hear more from you in our discussion forums and/or through contributions of writings on this site so that you can reach out to one another regardless of where you live. You can also leave us your email address if you are open to having other partners contact you. We'd like to hear your struggles and your victories...what has helped you and your spouse in this often frightening journey?

It seems the sexual part of recovery and the emotional intimacy are the hardest to work through and healing comes later in recovery...but it isn't like there is an immediate answer and sex and emotional intimacy will all of a sudden be great. For some of us, it is working through one issue at a time.

I am enclosing a letter I received from a partner and the response I gave to him. I'm hoping it will help you to understand your relationship better and may inspire ways to bring about the changes you want.

One of the most confusing feeling as a partner of a survivor is the utter conflict of feelings and the feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, and loneliness. There is no way I would blame my wife of our situation. She was an innocent sweet little child who was sexually abused for 8 years. Add to that she was seriously physically and emotionally abused by her mother. She never knew what love and acceptance was. Nor did she learn how trust or relax and enjoy intimacy. I look at her and my heart is excited, more so now after 26 years of marriage. I love her. I marvel at the struggle she is putting up with to work through the issues.

We have had a good family life and seem to have been able to function, at least on the surface, very well. The children are university educated and are in full time employment - the oldest being married (No grand children yet!). My wife also works in her chosen profession.

The strange thing is that outwardly we seem to present as almost the ideal happy family. As she and I go for walks, the neighbors have often commented on how wonderful we look. I would have to agree. I love my wife and do not want to be with anybody else. We have had some wonderful times together and have some very happy memories.

But underneath all this is a lot of pain. I have been aware from very early in our marriage that something was not right. I knew of her abuse before we married but neither of us considered it could effect the present as it happened in the past. (Such ignorance.) This of course caused us at times to be very hard on each other as issues arose in our relationship.

Here the confusion. While outwardly we conducted a happy family, and marriage life in the privacy of our intimate relationship things were far from good. I sometimes think our outward happy, active, involved life style was a compensation for what was missing. However, the children left home in stages beginning about 6 years ago. This has progressively brought my wife and I to facing the reality of our relationship.

The issue of control and perfection. Until recently (2 years) I have not been very mature myself - still am growing. My problem is that while I understand what makes her want to keep control of all situations - especially emotional situations - it still is hard to live with. I can self-validate and know it is her issue. However how do you get close to somebody who is always in control. Can you understand that while I agree that being in control is important, that control also stifles our emotional interactions not to mention our sex life. The control is more in the form of protecting herself and therefore closing herself off from anything but superficial connections.

In the past I would work and get involved in something and just forget about everything. However as self-awareness has increased I have found work, exercise, movies, and sport - while still great - far from satisfying when all the activity stops. I get very tired trying to keep up the activity to forget for a while (Maybe old age!!!). I badly want to come to somebody and love that person and feel that person is responding because she loves me without loving within very control steps. I wish I didn't learn to feel nor got tired of activity because now at times I despair if anybody will love me. I find I have fantasies about another relationship.

I watched me write that. While I know it is true it's the last thing I want to do. But there are times when I don't feel I can keep going in this structured relationship. My mind just goes around in circles, love - sadness - despair - anger - regret - fear - hopelessness - a little hopeful - love - and so on around and around.

I have such a good relationship with everybody at the office also my social and neighbor relationships. There's fun and joy in these relationships. What stops the fun and joy with my wife? Sometime I wonder if I am expecting too much from a marriage relationship even if she was not a victim of sexual abuse.

Earlier this month she "announced" she's tired of working on the sexual abuse and mother issues and that she has given herself until the end of February and then she's going to forget it all. She says that where we are at is where we are at and maybe this is as good as it gets and we just have to live with it. If that is the case - do I want to spend the next 26 years like the past 26 years. I feel broken and can't continue to put on a positive face and keep going.

It goes without saying our sex life is empty. There was no spontaneity, freedom, and tends to be just a physical thing for her. While I want to make love with her, and she will participate some times, but I didn't want to look into those empty eyes. I felt like I was using her.

Maybe you can tell me. What is normal in a sexual relationship. She is the only woman I have had sex with. There was no sex before our marriage. Is sex an optional extra to a marriage? Is wanting sex, say once a week, too much? But the thing is - I don't see sex as an obligation within a marriage. While I may physically feel strong sexual desires, I don't want to have sex unless she wants it too. Most of our married life she would agree to sex but very guardedly and controlled. Of all things I found myself apologizing for the most was to request or participate in sex with her. But there has been about 5 or 6 occasions during our marriage when she has thrown herself into the sexual experience so passionately that I had trouble keeping up with her. When she let's loose she is a very sexual woman. Is it wrong to desire her active involvement in our sex life? How do you cope with your wife being so rejecting of my penis? I wish I could take it off - it would make her life easier.

For the last 3 months our sex life is completely closed. Now her rule is that when she's ready she will let me know and she is allowed to touch me but I'm not to touch her with out her prior approval. Neither am I to tell her what I am feeling sexually because it makes her what to have nothing to do with sex even if she instigates it.

I am happy to wait her time but she is so involved with her work and social contacts, and the end of February is next Monday - I really do fear if anything will every happen. I feel like a little boy sitting in a corner of a crowded room hoping that maybe somebody may notice me and hold me but until then I am not supposed to make my presence felt.

Sometime I wonder if I don't leave because I am scared that I would not be able to find another relationship. But in truth I don't want to leave, I love her. I would do anything to help her hurt go away. What I need just now is some magical remedy that gives me endless hope, stops me feeling empty, and gives me the strength and patience to be there for her.

This email is about me. I cannot speak for my wife. And in truth, I really cannot "fully understand" what she is going through. But what I do see I know there are tremendous issues that she is working on - no wonder she is so tired. But somehow I have to get some bearings on my position so I can care for myself and also be there for her in an appropriate way. Any suggestions or comments are more than welcomed.

Response from Annie

What you have shared seems to be so common with partners of survivors, even those who haven't been with the survivor as many years. Your marriage sounds so much like ours in that everyone thought we were the perfect couple for so many years, and in many ways we were good. But there was all the 'underneath' stuff that neither of us knew what to do about it or even what caused it. We would occasionally see our pastor for some things that would come up, and he would advise us best he could and we'd get through it. But once I began therapy of course, we both began to understand. For me sex was primarily a physical thing for all those years. I didn't even know there was more to it. That's what I learned as a child...it was physical, and when the physical was over that was it. We have just begun to understand the emotional parts of love-making. It still isn't easy, but Tim and I both have our own issues that get in the way. He also has a past and he's on anti-depressants which diminishes his sex drive, and I am in those menopause years that make life difficult, too. But the thing about being married is that we get through it together. We know we spent over 20 years living in denial and pain, and the last nine years in the transitions of recovery, etc. We will probably spend the rest of our lives together still learning and growing and going through phases in our marriage and personal life.

I would suggest that even though your wife doesn't want to deal with the abuse (which is very common to want to stop or take a break) that you guys go in for marriage counseling. Or even find a good marriage retreat to get you started on the right road. She needs to know how you are feeling. The tendency is to get self-absorbed and only feel your own pain while dealing with past issues. I'm not saying that's bad. For a time we need to work on ourselves and discover how we've coped and why we've done what we've done, learning to set boundaries, finding out what we really and like, etc. But I don't think it is healthy to not try to be in touch with how we are affecting those around us. Part of getting healthy is becoming a better wife, mother, and friend as well or we've missed the point of therapy.

I don't know your wife, but let me tell you how I would feel about what you've shared with me. I would want to know. I'd want to know that you feel uncared for. I'd want to know that you feel empty and that you want more closeness and nurturance as well as having a more intimate sex life. Survivors don't understand this, and many of us felt like that's all men wanted was the act of sex to satisfy their own need. She needs to know that it is not just a physical need with you, but that you want it to be an expression of love between the two of you..physical, emotional and spiritual. She needs to hear what her need for control does to the closeness of your relationship..how if affects you personally. She needs to understand that this is her way of keeping you at a distance.

As far as what is normal in a sexual relationship...I don't think there is a normal. In a marriage I think normal is to respect one another, to give and take...sometimes giving perhaps more than taking when issues are in the way of being able to enjoy sex fully, meeting the other's reasonable needs as best as possible. I don't want Tim to always wait for me to be in the mood. That only breeds more problems for us. I like it that he asks me, and I like it that he wants me to be fully involved and enjoying, but because of my physical problems now that is not always possible. But when I tell him it is okay for him to go ahead and have sex regardless, I want him to take me up on it. I don't believe the other person should have to suffer on a regular basis because of my problems. This is where you need to sit down with you wife, over dinner out perhaps, and tell her how you feel and what you need and how best to work it out. (i.e., you need sex once a week...would she mind if you had sex even if she wasn't in the mood, or can she fulfill your needs without intercourse, etc.) Sometimes, it is the other way around. Wives sometimes have greater sexual needs than their husbands and of course intercourse is not possible when the husband is not aroused, but he can meet her needs other ways. I think when the problem comes in is when one feels rejected or like they are a failure, etc. Those feelings need to be worked through and those issues faced.

I'm also wondering if those times when she was able to really be free in a sexual situation, if it brought about more guilt and shame for her. Sometimes, we can feel it is bad or wrong, or we can feel like a slut for enjoying sex.

As for your wife hating your penis. I fully understand. It really helped when my therapist had me do a desensitization exercise with Tim. I'm sure this is just a matter of the past getting mixed up with the present.

There is also a book called "Restoring Innocence" that helped a friend of mine, and I've been reading a book "a Celebration of Sex" by Dr. Douglas E. Rosenau that I've been finding very insightful.

I hope some of this helps a little. Please write anytime, and let me know if you want me to clarify something or expand on it. I sincerely hope you guys can work through this together and come out the other side better than ever.