Have you ever been talking with a friend whose breath smells so bad that it makes you hold your own breath? Have you ever wanted to tell her that she has a problem, but aren’t sure how and don’t want to hurt her feelings? It’s a tricky situation for sure. Many of us would probably prefer not to say anything, but in reality, the truly loving thing to do would be to quietly and sensitively bring the problem to our friend’s attention. The same is true for talking with a spouse who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

God has made us sexual creatures and has given us sex as a wedding gift. It’s not only the way we procreate, but also the ultimate expression of love for the one person God has given us as our life partner here on earth. Yet survivors of sexual abuse often have problems with sexual intimacy, and it may be just as hard for a spouse to talk about this as it would be for him to talk about his wife’s bad breath.

Secrets from the past

It can come as a complete shock to learn that your spouse is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Your first reaction will probably be to wonder why she didn’t tell you about it a long time ago. But what you need to understand is how personal, private, and petrifying this secret is to a survivor. There is never a good time to say something like, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I was raped when I was nine” or “It’s about time I told you that my father molested me for about seven years of my childhood.” That’s just something it’s never easy to say.

Your spouse wasn’t trying to deceive you by not telling you this highly classified secret. Perhaps she is only beginning to deal with it herself and is filled with pain and shame and afraid of rejection. Understand that whatever you may be feeling as a result of this disclosure, she is feeling much worse because she’s the one who went through it.

Try not to focus on the shock of not having known about this until now. Instead, concentrate on the fact that the secret is now out in the open and that there’s an opportunity for healing. Things will get harder for both of you before they get easier, but acknowledging the abuse will make your relationship much stronger in the end.

Follow the example of Joseph

As the spouse of a survivor, you need to remember that what she needs most as you walk the healing path together is your loving understanding. Above all, this means never ceasing to be her faithful friend. Think about the New Testament account of how Joseph treated Mary, even before he understood what was going on in her life.

As Joseph understood the situation, Mary was pregnant with another man’s child, and according to Jewish law and custom, the right thing for him to do was to divorce her. The usual way was by public trial, which would have brought Mary great shame and humiliation. Despite the embarrassment and pain Mary’s condition caused him, Joseph’s love and compassion for her wouldn’t allow him to treat her that way. He was still Mary’s friend, and he dealt with her lovingly. Not wanting to disgrace her publicly, he decided to divorce her quietly. Like Joseph, you can choose to be a gentle and loving friend, even though you may not understand what is really going on and may feel like reacting in anger or frustration.

Assure your spouse of your love for her and that she is safe telling you about her pain. She will fear that you will be disgusted with her. Express concern and sympathy for what she has gone through. Hug her if she is responsive to that. Most survivors want more than anything to be held by someone safe as they share their secret. But don’t force touch upon her. Some survivors can’t handle touch while they are opening up about their abuse. Your job is to simply offer her your open ear and your open arms and allow her to decide how much she is willing to receive of either of them.

“Deal with it”

Years into their marriage, Mitch’s wife, Molly, began working on her painful past. As she worked through her traumatic memories, she became emotional and unpredictable. To Mitch she seemed like a totally different person, and he couldn’t handle the change. He wanted to make her feel better, but he didn’t know what to do. So instead of comforting her and supporting her through these valleys of her healing, he separated himself emotionally from her. He told his wife that she needed to “deal with it.” He didn’t want to hear about it because it was in the past and he thought she should leave it there.

As Mitch ceased to be a loving friend, their marriage began to fall apart. Like most survivors who are dealing with unhealed memories, Molly found sexual contact difficult. This had nothing to do with Mitch and everything to do with the feelings and memories she was currently working through. But Mitch made things even worse by taking it personally. Believing that she was bad to begin with, now Molly also felt unwanted, and she completely closed down sexually.

Healing will require sacrifice

Being an understanding spouse sometimes means putting sexual relations on hold for a season. Although this can be difficult on the human level, it can also heighten your receptivity to the voice of God. It was in such a situation that Joseph was able to discern the voice of God speaking to his difficult circumstances.

As Joseph was thinking about divorcing Mary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream:

“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

As soon as the angel revealed to Joseph what was going on in Mary’s life, he dropped his plans to divorce her and took her home, thus completing the engagement period. However, he also opted to remain celibate until God’s plan was complete and the child was born. This was an act of great faith and sacrifice on Joseph’s part.

When your spouse is going through something you don’t understand, gently reassure her and allow her to take things at her own pace. There will be things you will be required to sacrifice for her, and this will sometimes include your personal needs and desires. Sacrifice is hard, but it’s at the heart of what it means to love and serve others. With your patience and understanding, she can return to normal and healthy sexual functioning.

If Joseph had taken a short view of their situation, all he would have been able to see would have been the gossip and condemnation of her neighbors. But through the eyes of faith, he took the long view. Joseph and Mary both believed that what the angel had said to them would be accomplished. Their complete faith in God and love for each other was what made their marriage work.

If you have a spouse who was abused in childhood, you probably feel inadequate, unqualified, and even unable to handle the challenges it can create for your marriage. But you can do it. Hold your wife’s hand, look into her eyes, and tell her you love her. Tell her that she’s worth it. Then take a deep breath and step out with her into the healing tunnel.

Adapted excerpt from Breathe by Nicole Bromley. Published by Moody Publishers. Copyright ©2009. Used with permission.