From One Spouse to Another
Fierce. Brilliant. Beautiful as she was snarky.
By the end of our first date, I knew this was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But what I didn’t know yet was her story — the abuse she experienced from not just one but multiple male family members for more than a decade.
Sexual abuse was part of her story, and because I was committed to doing life with her, it became a part of mine.
I wanted to write this piece for every spouse who has had to learn that the person they love most in the world once suffered things we wouldn’t wish upon our worst enemy. I want to tell you you’re not alone.
The first time she told me her story, it felt like my body wanted to shatter into a million pieces. The world went gray. Anger (at her abusers, at the world, at myself for not being around to protect her) wrapped its thick fingers around my throat, pushing out my air and making it hard to breathe for weeks on end. Moreover, because of my wife’s experiences, the story didn’t come out all at once. Over time, as she continued to heal and seek counseling, new memories would appear, and I would experience the shattering, graying, suffocating experience all over again.
I had to tell you this so that you would believe this next part: it does get better. The pain and anger you feel, no matter how deafening it may seem right now, eventually fades into background noise as you heal and as your love for your partner grows. Conversations become easier. Before you know it, this mountain that once seemed to be a defining part of your relationship deflates into simply another chapter in your story as a couple.
Now, I know people on the internet hand out advice like its candy corn on Halloween (who even likes that stuff), so if you’re not in a place where you’re ready for that, I hope you’ll take this bit of encouragement and continue to love yourself and your partner well. For those who are still reading, I want to offer you four small pieces of advice that personally helped me become a better supporter, and overall human, for my spouse.
First, understand that our job is not to fix the situation. Our job is to listen with full presence. You’re going to want to speed up the healing process. Your anger is going to make you say insensitive things. You’re going to ask questions you really do not need, or want, the answers to. We all do this. It’s okay to make mistakes. What it’s not okay to do is treat your significant other like a project. Listen simply for the sake of hearing what they have to say. If you must ask a question, I’ve found that this one works well: “What do you need from me?”
Second, self-educate. One time my wife literally cried over spilled milk, and I’m not just talking about a small tear in frustration. I mean full on crocodile tears, snot bubbles, and wailing (don’t worry, she told me to include this story). It took time for me to understand that this, among many other seemingly unrelated things, were side effects of her traumatic experiences. Get informed about what trauma actually does to a person, and what it really looks like in day-to-day life. Read books, listen to the stories and struggles of other survivors, and build a toolkit of trauma-informed ways to respond, not just react, to the spilled-milk scenarios in your relationship.
Third, invest in counseling for yourself. Relationship “baggage” comes in every shade imaginable, and just because you may not have experienced something as significant as sexual abuse or assault, that does not mean you do not have serious issues to work through. My wife always says, “self-care is the beating heart of other care.” The degree to which you are able to love your spouse will always be limited by your capacity to love yourself.
Finally, be present. Even though abuse happened in the past, it has the bad habit of setting up camp in the present. Acknowledge it, tend to it, and then let it return to where it belongs. The most beautiful gift you can give your spouse isn’t a different past or a perfect future, but a grateful now.
Seven years into our relationship and four years into our marriage, our connection is stronger than ever. The Hallmark movie level of cuteness we often get teased for is only possible because of the years we spent trekking through hard-truth valleys.
Your relationship is worth it. Surviving frequently boils down to simply staying. And as you shovel out the silence, love will find its way in.
This blog post was written by David. David, his wife Breahna, and their library, currently reside in Wilmington, Ohio.