We’re special, we who were abused as kids. We survived. Serious high-fives to every one of us. I know it wasn’t easy, this surviving. Here’s what I know – and what you need to know if you’re married to a survivor:
- It wasn’t your partner’s fault. They were a kid. It is never, ever a child’s fault.
- They aren’t damaged; they were wounded – and there’s a difference.
- They have infinite value.
- They are lovable and loving.
- They have such tremendous courage.
I felt, as a child, as a teenager and then as an early adult that I had been plucked from a different planet and placed on earth.
I walked around inside a body, but the core of me, all that was me, knew I carried the weight of the shame of our family.
I was borderless, lost inside myself and knew with certainty that no one could possibly understand.
So, I compensated. I became proficient at many things: pianist, guitarist, singer, equestrian, pilot, college student.
Between my time in Africa and America, I managed a medical station in the bush, held down two jobs in college, kept tabs on my far-flung sisters, got hooked on the idea of love, married and had two children.
Yet always – always – I looked over my shoulder wondering who would expose me to be a fraud. Damaged, perhaps beyond repair.
It took a jolt of reality, seeing my own children at risk, for me to embark on the voyage to emotional health.
Healing takes time and tremendous effort; to dismantle the voices of the past, to embrace the truth that who I am now, the loving and lovable person that is me, is me because of my past.
My husband says I’m exotic, which means strikingly, excitingly and mysteriously unusual. How loving is that?
Our life together has not been just peaches and cream. He has unwittingly bumped up against a vulnerability of mine that required caring discussion.
He has had to learn what can trigger post-traumatic stress in me. And I have had to learn to talk about it. I’m fond of saying, “I flunked Mind-Reading 101.”
So did he. He can’t know these tender spots if I don’t tell him.
So, here are a few ideas for a spouse or partner:
- Accept your partner for who she or he is. You fell in love with this person. Their depth is so much more than you understood when you met them. They survived, able to love.
- Safety in the relationship is critical. When they first disclose, or if you’ve just come up against a vulnerability of theirs, offer a break from the conversation if things get too heated. Make sure they know that you love them, but taking “five” is often a good idea.
- Sometimes it will be your spouse who needs a timeout. Memories can need managing. When calling “time out,” assure your love that “It’s not about you. It’s not about us.” The person who calls “time out” takes responsibility for calling “time in,” preferably that same day.
- Pay attention to what you’re feeling and put it into words. If you aren’t sure, say so instead of remaining silent. Silence scares. Even imperfect responses let them know they are accepted by you. “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing.
- Face the problems and work on solutions while staying sensitive to your partner; sometimes it’s best to defer things for a while. This is difficult stuff. Assure them you want to come back to the discussion when you are both ready.
- Don’t respond in kind and try not to take it personally (your partner’s anger is most likely for the abuser). When you trigger something in your spouse, or a reaction seems disproportionate to what just happened, you’re probably dealing with a carryover from childhood. It isn’t about you, but together try and sort out what triggered the response.
- Some very stressful times are ahead, so learn how you can deal with them when they come. What will reduce anxiety for you?
- You’re in a tough situation requiring a lot of emotional energy; you won’t do everything perfectly even if your partner sometimes expects that. Care for your own physical and mental well-being so you can be a supportive partner.
- Take care of your own self; you may want to get some counseling of your own (not couple’s counseling). Keep doing things that refresh and renew your spirit; good self-care is essential.
Your acceptance of her or his unique mosaic will confirm their newfound belief about their worth.
Every time your spouse smiles, each time she or he is tender with words, a touch or a special expression, they are showing their trust in you.
Because trusting again is one of the biggest hurdles your survivor faces, celebrate that gift.
You are loved by a courageous, fascinating, multifaceted work of art. Know that your partner lives in gratitude for the safety that is you.
Laura Landgraf, author of “The Fifth Sister,” is a social activist, retreat leader and motivational speaker. Her TEDx Talk is “Razed by Lions: A New Way to Think about Healing after Trauma.”