I am often transparent about what happened to me online. I share stories that took place during over two decades of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse. I knew when I began this journey that I’d likely hear stories from other survivors too. What I didn’t expect was that over half of them would be male.
There’s a popular myth in our culture that it’s primarily females that are raped or abused. Rumor has it, the number of girls far exceeds the number of boys in domestic abuse cases. However, nationwide studies coordinated by organizations such as the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services* have demonstrated year after year that child abuse victims are split almost evenly between genders, with the balance only shifting by a percentage or two since 1995. However, because of the stigma our culture places on male victimization, and the humiliation and fear associated with these crimes, many male survivors never report. In fact, they never tell a soul. And that’s where I’ve had the unexpected and humbling honor of serving.
Recently, a young father, who we’ll call Jonathan, confided to me that he can’t enjoy holidays or family gatherings because when he was a boy, that’s when his cousin repeatedly molested him. His wife has picked up on his aversion to vacations, and his pattern of anxiety and depression around the holidays. The secret he’s kept for decades now strains his marriage. Like so many others, Jonathan asked me, “How do I tell my wife I was abused?”
And so, in response to Jonathan, and all silent survivors who wonder about this question, I am writing this article to you.
When it comes to sharing our stories, the first and only rule is, whatever works best for you. It’s an extremely personal decision, and it’s often a process. The goal should be for you to communicate what you want, when you want, in the way you want. Whatever makes you most comfortable.
1. Pace Yourself
You can tell your wife what happened a little at a time. You don’t have to disclose everything all at once, name names, or go into detail. I’ve been married for twelve years and I’ve written a book about my experiences, and there are still things I haven’t told a soul. Telling your story is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and some pieces you may be ready to lay on the table, and others you might want to leave in the box.
Be sure to explain to your wife that, until now, you hadn’t told anyone. Tell her you love her and trust her, but want to share a little at a time. You can ask her to be patient, explaining it’s painful to talk about, or you simply don’t have the words. You can keep it vague, saying, “I don’t want to go into detail right now, but I was abused as a kid around the holidays, so these events are depressing or stressful for me.”
Knowledge is intimate. To be understood is to be vulnerable. It’s often helpful to let ourselves acclimate to a new level of understanding – a new level of vulnerability – before we fill in more of our story. So, decide how much you want to share, and don’t feel pressured to go beyond that. It’s OK to answer questions with, “Can we talk more later? It’s really difficult,” or, “I’m honestly not sure how to explain, so let me think about it.” On the other hand, you may be surprised to find that once you start talking, it becomes easier than you were expecting and you share everything all at once. Either way, you’re doing great.
2. Pick Your Form of Communication
You can tell her face-to-face, or you can write it down in letter form. You can send her an email or call her on the phone. If you’re nervous about telling her, try to tell her why. Do you find it humiliating? Nauseating? Depressing? Are you worried she’ll be upset? Are you afraid your relationship will be affected? Be up front with your apprehensions so she can reassure you. Writing your concerns down may also help you sort them out for yourself.
Trusting anyone with your story is hard, particularly when it’s someone you love. We don’t want them to be upset. We don’t want their perception of us to change. However, trust is a big part of love, and we need to trust them to love us through our suffering. We grant them the privilege of letting them weep with us, so they can relate with us and understand us. It will be difficult for them to hear. They may be angry at the person who abused us. But knowing our past will help them understand our feelings and anticipate our reactions. In fact, your wife may already suspect you’ve been through something, in which case confiding in her may actually remove that strain in your relationship.
In the era of #MeToo, it’s commonly assumed that talking about our abuse is helpful, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it’s actually quite painful and distressing. When we were abused, our dignity, privacy, and personal boundaries were stolen from us. So now, as we recover, it’s important that our loved ones respect and defend our dignity, privacy, and personal boundaries. You may ask your wife to keep your story to herself. You may be uncomfortable with the idea of talking to a counselor, pastor, or telling the rest of your family. That’s OK. Unless there’s some pressing reason – such as your abuser being a current threat to kids – you aren’t obligated to tell anyone. This is your story. Your feelings. Your experience. Your decision.
5. Be Patient
It’s common for the spouses of abuse survivors to respond by wanting to fix things or make your pain go away. We tend to be defensive and protective of the ones we love, so this is a natural reaction. She may give you advice she hasn’t thought through, or suggest you see a counselor. Maybe her advice will be helpful, and maybe seeing a counselor is something you want. However, if it’s not helpful or not what you want, don’t be discouraged. View this as a sign that she loves you, because if she didn’t love you, she wouldn’t be concerned and wouldn’t be so eager to get involved in your recovery process.
You may have to be patient, explaining how you feel and what you do and don’t want. Take this time to grow closer to your wife, and let her comfort you as best she can. I know, with my husband, I sometimes had to tell him how best to comfort me. He felt very pressured to have all the right words and advice, and he often did, but sometimes all I needed was someone to listen and understand. It’s OK to tell them that up front.
In a sense, this should be Number One. And Number Six. Make sure you tell God about your experiences, fears, shame, and pain too. Sure, he already knows, but confiding in Him is extremely comforting. Not only does it build our relationship with Christ, but it also gives us an opportunity to practice telling our story - all of our story - in a safe context. Telling God our deepest most personal secrets, can help take away our shame, making it easier for us to tell others.
Jenn Greenberg was abused by her church-going father. Yet she is still a Christian. In her courageous, compelling book Not Forsaken, she reflects on how God brought life and hope in the darkest of situations. Jenn shows how the gospel enables survivors to navigate issues of guilt, forgiveness, love, and value. And she challenges church leaders to protect the vulnerable among their congregations.
Her reflections offer Biblical truths and gospel hope that can help survivors of abuse as well as those who walk alongside them.
*Statistics: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment 2017. Available from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment