My Love, My Cross, My Joy
Marriage after abuse
+JMJ+ This month, my husband and I are celebrating 12 years of marriage. Actually, our anniversary also falls on the Catholic feast day of Corpus Christi this year. For those of you who aren't familiar with this feast, it celebrates the Real Presence of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Although much of this is a mystery and it's something that we believe because we have God's word for it, it is a belief that is central to being a Catholic and so this feast day is near and dear to our hearts as a Catholic family. There is nothing more important, nothing more vital to the life of a Catholic than the Eucharist! Our faith and the sacraments have played a huge role in our married life.
What an insane ride these last twelve years have been, full of some really beautiful, awesome times and also some very difficult times. I don't think any marriage can be classified as “easy” - every relationship comes with its challenges, its joys, suffering and crosses. Ours has certainly been no different, and our marriage has had its fair share of ups and downs. Some of those downs have been due to my history with sexual abuse. Both Alex and I have had a lot to learn about ourselves and about one another, and I thought that I would take a little time to talk a bit about marriage after sexual abuse.
The road is difficult and different for each couple and healing varies from person to person, but I want to reassure you that it is possible to overcome trauma and to do it together. I was fortunate enough to have already begun my healing journey before getting married but Alex became a very important part of that journey. Falling in love was completely unexpected for me. Alex was my oldest brother's best friend and for a long time I had viewed him as a big brother. When my brother, Matt, passed away suddenly from a heart condition in 2001, Alex remained close to my family. We started commuting together for college classes and were in a few of the same classes. Our friendship soon blossomed into something more, and it was scary, exciting, and somewhat unbelievable for me in the beginning.
Following the sexual abuse I endured by a Catholic priest at my parish when I was fifteen, marriage and children were gifts I felt totally undeserving of. “Why would anyone want to marry me now?” were the words frequently haunting my traumatized mind. Men and women who have been abused or raped often feel like “damaged goods” and it takes a rare and special individual to be willing to accept and share in the healing process. I think this is true when anyone entering into marriage has endured any kind of traumatic or difficult experience. Although our past does not define us by any stretch, our experiences shape who we are and so, by marrying someone, we are essentially accepting any repercussions of their past (the good and the bad). The added component of sexual abuse certainly creates some unique challenges for a couple but a spouse can become a powerful healing partner.
As Alex’s and my friendship blossomed into a much deeper love, I helped him to understand what I was going through as did my parents, family, and therapist. He was able to ask the questions he needed, do whatever research he needed to do and, therefore, support me. This was not easy because, quite frankly, he really didn't have a clue. My parents had had a few years to "train" and they were used to me, my triggers, they understood a lot about sexual abuse and its repercussions, and they knew how to handle things. Alex was like a fish out of water but he was willing to learn and willing to take on a part of the burdens I carried. Although he began to become a part of the healing process, we did have to develop our own boundaries so that I could continue to heal without him feeling as though he could somehow fix it all. Let's face it – when we care about someone, we want to “make it better.” We want to fix any problems our loved ones have and erase their suffering but, unfortunately, that's not realistic.
A male survivor of clergy sexual abuse gave Alex and I some great advice when we were engaged. “If Faith is having a bad day, don’t assume that it’s because of memories of the abuse. She still has feelings and, if you want to help her, validate that she can feel human again and it’s okay for her to be upset about other things.” The abuse is a big part of my history & has certainly made me who I am today, but it’s not all I am. Guys can have a hard time reading women and (let’s face it) we can be mind-boggling puzzles sometimes, Ladies! Guys, you're not always easy to read either! That's part of the beauty of the two sexes, though, and God made us to compliment each other. That man's advice really changed our relationship for the better. Alex really was starting to assume that every bad moment/day was due to a trigger or a bad memory. Nothing was further from the truth! I actually needed a lot of help adjusting to normal life, to the normal everyday ups and downs. Not every frustration, every twinge of anger, every tear was due to the abuse. I needed to “allow” myself to be annoyed about the little, everyday things and Alex was there to reassure me that my feelings were normal. This sounds strange to say, but I had to relearn how to be a normal human being with normal, everyday human emotions instead of always being overwhelmed with really big things that should not be normal (sexual abuse is, of course, not normal).
At our wedding, the officiant told us the following, “You are my love, you are my cross, you are my joy.” My beloved long-time priest friend and one of the most amazing, holiest people I have ever been privileged to know, Fr. William Carroll, held up a crucifix as he spoke these powerful words and that moment is forever etched in my mind. Some people might just shrug these words off. To my husband and I, however, these are the words that we have learned to live by in our marriage. My crosses have become his crosses, my joys his joys, and my love his love (and vice versa). Two have become one.
I have learned to be open and honest with my husband about my feelings. I tell him when I'm having a bad day (and often he senses it without having to be told) whether it's due to the abuse, my brother's death, my medical traumas, or just ordinary stuff. He's by my side supporting and reassuring me when I feel like a burden or whenever feelings of shame seep in. I know I am loved and I know he's always there for me. No, he's not perfect – far from it - but he's always trying. And when, for whatever reason, he has been abrupt with me or impatient, he comes around, apologizes, and tries again. He needs to be patient with me and I with him. Even after 12 years of marriage, we still work hard, both individually and as a couple, to foster our relationship and continue building our love and respect, openness and honesty with one another.
My husband has had to work harder than most to create a safe place for me, and he has had to embark on his own journey in order to better understand me and my experiences while, at the same time, overcoming his own demons from his past. He has attended some therapy with me in the past, done his own research on trauma, and has learned to ask questions. If he is ever struggling with a question or concern, he will discuss the issue with me but, if I just don’t have the emotional energy to talk about something, he will go to my parents. He has cried with me, screamed with me, on one occasion watched me punch a wall (and stopped me to prevent damage to me or the wall), thrown stuffed animals with me, and prayed with me. Alex carries me when I need to be carried but also pushes me when I need to be pushed. He is my “lion,” my protector. Alex is very, very protective of me and our family. He reminds me of my worth whenever I am too hard on myself, and he stands up to others who have unnecessarily or cruelly criticized me.
As someone who struggled with an eating disorder in high school and college, I sometimes have a very skewed and negative perception of my body. Although he has from time to time gotten frustrated at having to reassure me over and over again that he thinks I'm beautiful, he does his best to patiently “bear with me.” Most importantly, Alex does his best to support me in my faith life. He leads us in family prayer and encourages me in my faith during times when I don’t “feel” it (or when I don't feel like it). Whenever I have experienced a flashback in the midst of an intimate moment (very common early on in marriage), he has put his own emotions and needs aside and put me first. He learned to talk me through those moments and he is at a point where he can anticipate what I need, what he needs to say, etc. He reminds me that I'm not alone, that he's there with me, and he brings me back to the present. “Faith, it’s okay…nothing can hurt you…I’m here with you and you’re safe. Come back to the present. Come back to me.” In the beginning, he was sometimes hesitant to touch me at all for fear of triggering me, but it's something we've addressed together and overcome together.
Accepting my rape has not always been easy for Alex. Just as a rape survivor has to come to a point of acceptance in order to heal, he has had to go through his own struggles to accept the reality of what happened to me. I will never forget the conversation we had some years ago during which I told him all the details of the abuse. This conversation was one of the most difficult of our relationship, but allowing myself to be so vulnerable and honest with the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with was an important step for both of us. It showed me I could trust again, and it showed him that I could trust him. I lost so much of the sense of trust I had had as a child after the abuse took place! My husband has been an important part of the rebuilding of that trust.
Never once did Alex blame me for the abuse, but he did spend a lot of time being angry about “why” it happened. He went through many of the same struggles as I did – he blamed God, he blamed other people, he hated my rapist and his supporters, he resented my parish community, and he searched for answers that just didn’t exist. Just as he learned to support me in my healing, I learned to support him in his own healing. God truly gave us both the graces to move forward together! Over the years, we have both experienced occasional resentment of having to “deal” with everything that has come our way, but we have chosen to let that anger make us stronger. Everything goes into God's hands – our love, our crosses, and our joys.
Our relationship has changed a lot over the years and our love and respect for one another has grown. These days, our children really help to put life into perspective for us both. I am fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom and long hours alone with active children can be physically and emotionally exhausting. If I happen to be having a bad day due to memories or what-not, I actually find myself being more grateful for my children because their “busyness” sure is a good distraction – they force me to keep going. Not that Alex or I never allow ourselves to have bad days (we sure do have them!), but if we just throw our hands up and give up, it affects our children. For a long time, I survived for me. Then I survived for my husband and for me. Now I survive for me, for Alex, and for our children, our precious Tabernacles of Christ.
If you have ever experienced abuse, don’t look for someone who’s going to carry you all the time. There is no person on earth who can just make it all go away. Only God can do that. Rather, look for someone who can carry both of you when you need carrying, someone who can encourage you and heal with you. Pray that God blesses you with someone who is willing to become a part of your journey and someone who is willing to take on your crosses – past crosses and any crosses that may come your way. Marriage takes work, love, dedication, and reliance on God's love, grace, and mercy. When you marry, you choose to be a part of someone else's life and that includes their past, present, and future but you cannot leave God out of it. It takes three to make a loving, holy marriage - you, your spouse, and God.
In the end, a strong relationship is based on putting God first and trusting in Him, hard work, dedication, and unconditional love. Remember, the harder you work, the stronger you will both be! My husband's and my marriage is far from perfect, but we have learned that, as long as you both pursue God and put Him at the forefront of your relationship, He will be present amidst everything – your joys, your crosses, your sorrows, and your love. And, when crosses do come along, He will carry you both.