Living With My Partner’s Baggage

We all bring something into our relationships… “Baggage” is the popular term for it. My baggage includes a couple of past relationships, one sexual and one very long-term (10 years)… as well as lust, pride, and financial struggles. But these shy in comparison to what my wife has endured in her lifetime, as she shared last week here on the blog. It’s not a competition of ‘who has the most hurt and dirt in their past,’ so I’m not trying to compare myself to her, but the fact is, I was not subject to molestation and rape from ages 4 to 10 and don’t think I can ever fathom what a dark place that is for a child. Michelle has asked me to write a follow-up to last week’s post to share what it’s like from a partner’s perspective– being in a relationship with someone who has dealt with sexual abuse. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to share my insight, perhaps because I don’t feel I have any. But because she asked, I will try.

Living With My Partner's Baggage - Coping with Depression in Marriage - a #staymarried blog

Here’s how it goes…
I have heard Michelle’s story many times, and each time I hear it, it sounds almost exactly like the first time she told me. Very disconnected. Very factual and stale. Not emotional like you’d expect from someone who’s been deeply wounded – never a tear, or tremble, or pause in her voice. She never uses the word “rape,” and even though that’s what it was, she seems to speak of the unspeakable as though she’s talking about a mediocre restaurant she visited. Honestly, it’s a little disjointed to hear it delivered this way (like Ben Stein giving a eulogy) but I think I get it. Not only is she trying to spare the feelings and pity of the listener, but if she were going to allow herself to internally or mentally relive those moments every time she shared her past, she might never stop carrying that baggage.

In contrast to popular opinion, my wife is actually an introvert. She is very private and really only shares details of her life and feelings to very close friends. So when I heard that she was going to share her story with the world, I was so proud of her, because I knew it was way outside of her comfort zone. The video in her “Baggage Handling” post was shot in 2009 when we lived in Wisconsin, and it was intended to be used for the (at the time) small church of about 500 people we helped plant. We saw then how being open and transparent could be helpful to others who’d had similar experiences. It seems that while so many are affected, there is still a huge tendency for people to feel alone. It’s a colossal understatement to say that I’m a big fan of Michelle Peterson.

But back to the effect it has on our marriage. For me, her baggage helps me remember that God is good. I know, I know. You all just thought, “oh geez, Mr. Christian just pulled out the cliché one-liner I was expecting”… but before you roll your eyes and stop reading, hear me out: The results of studies concerning adults who were sexually abused as children have shown that the odds are against Michelle, and she should be in a self-destructive situation– in an abusive relationship, addicted, selling her body, living with cripplingly low self-esteem, or admitted to a mental hospital– but she has overcome and spat in the face of those studies. I cannot look at the scientifically observed results of an abused childhood, put them next to who I know my wife to be, and find the contrast anything less than a miracle.

To put it differently, it has been no more than a small thorn in our sides. Her past has surfaced for me to experience a small number of times. This doesn’t mean that it’s all lollipops and kittens, though. One specific example of how her past has had an effect on our marriage is Michelle’s experience with depression.

Depression at Home

It is extremely common for victims of childhood abuse to suffer from depression and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is no time when this has been more apparent than after the birth of each of our girls. After Claire was born, Michelle seemed fine for a couple weeks, but then she began to appear distant or lost in thought. Then she turned irritable, bitter, pessimistic, and communication was like pulling teeth, most of the time ending up in tears. Talking about it together (when we’re not in the depths of living in it), she’s revealed to me some pretty dark thoughts she struggles with. Out of shame we never sought professional help, but this season eventually faded and life became easier again.

After learning that we were going to have another baby, I gave little thought of how we would handle postpartum. I think I just thought “it takes going through it once to know how to handle it the next time” and assumed that Michelle would be watchful of symptoms, and it would be better this time. I was wrong. After Nora was born, it was worse than before. She was completely non-communicative, simple things that were easy for her to navigate before now caused her to be stressed and overwhelmed. Again, I hoped in silence that it would just go away, but after a month I was doubtful. I ended up calling a hotline to find out what I could do for my wife and they were helpful, up until they told me that Michelle would have to call them directly so that she could receive assistance. I was torn. I wanted help, but I feared in my wife’s hyper defensive state that she might feel betrayed that I made the phone call in the first place.

Our youngest was four or five months old when Michelle seemed to come alive again. We could talk and even joke and I thought we’d come through the worst of it. Then, just a few months ago, she seemed to break down once more. Michelle not only felt the emotional struggle like before, but it was physically debilitating this time. I was nervous to go to work, fearing that parenting our girls was too much for her. Once I came home from work a little early only to find her sobbing in the bathroom. She was trying to put makeup on and could not stop crying. I asked her what had happened, and she told me plainly that she had no reason to cry except that she just felt hopeless and worthless. It was brutal to watch my sweet wife feel so awful. She wanted to shake it off, but these horrible feelings were just not going away. I kept telling her how much I loved her and how much she meant to our family, but it seemed that any attempt I made at encouraging her was futile.

Soon common household responsibilities seemed like impossible tasks. There were Fridays when I’d get home from work and I would only hear our bedroom door shut as I walked through the front door and knew she was retiring to sleep, leaving Dad to “figure it out” for the remainder of the weekend. It was a dark time, one of the hardest I can remember. This time, however, I called and made an appointment with our primary care doctor. I was still nervous, but when I told Michelle, she seemed relieved. Michelle has been on antidepressant medication now for a couple of months, and that has made a huge difference. We have talked and know that the next step is to seek counseling. That may seem like a simple phone call to most people, but after living with this for some time now, I realize what a hurdle that is for my wife. Still, she is determined to be healthy. I think that’s the difference of being a victim and a survivor.

I don’t even think Michelle really realizes she is a victim of sexual abuse. Take any horrible situation, and the victim is the innocent person hurt by the situation, helpless and waiting for the hero to come and rescue them. Sometimes the hero doesn’t come. But a survivor is what a victim becomes when they endure, outlast, or take matters into their own hands to find a way out of a bad situation… not for justice or to make fair or right, but for survival. Michelle is a survivor – strong and courageous.

How We Deal

So there you sit, reading my inadequate words to describe how I live with my amazing wife who brings past abuse into life with me. This isn’t a post to give you the 5-happy-hops-to-living-with-abuse, and I’m sorry if that’s what you’re hoping for. We do know that seeing a physician and starting medication has been a game-changer. Michelle is no longer plagued by the hopeless and worthless feelings she struggled through so heavily. She is alive to us and not distant the way she was and we are so thankful. As for me as her husband, I realize I have responsibility to her and to our family to continue to work through this. If you are a partner trying to cope with your spouse’s baggage, all I can offer is what I think works for us…

Coping with Depression in Marriage - a #staymarried blog

I’m sure some of this comes as a shock. I think most people read Michelle’s words and think about how encouraging she is. Some may even think we’ve overcome a lot of hurdles and are now sitting happily on the other side, ready to bestow all our learnings to everyone else who’s hurting. Nope. We’re in it too. You might be tripping over that boundaries hurdle right now, but we’re hitting that one over and over and are always stumbling over the comparison trap. We have decided not to let baggage or depression or anything else we may face tear us apart. We definitely don’t have this marriage thing in the bag, but we want to keep at it and #staymarried.

 

If you related with this post or think it could benefit someone else’s marriage, please consider sharing. You can use the social media buttons at the top or bottom of this post. Also, if you’re new here, welcome! You might like to check out why we started this blog and Michelle’s first entry to get a little background. Thanks for stopping by!
~Tony

Portrait Credit: Lindsay Kaye Photography

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5 thoughts on “Living With My Partner’s Baggage

  1. thanks for sharing, tony. i love this blog, and usually pop over 2-3 times when i know a new post will be going up. there’s so much good in what you wrote! i struggle with making things personal at times, and have to exercise lots of empathy to keep from turning nothings into somethings. we occasionally trip over the comparison trap, too. thank you both for the work you put into this, and give michelle a side hug from me.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing.I was in teras reading your blog. I to suffered from debilitating depression and was abused as a child and suffered post-traumatic stress. After my third baby I had the hardest time getting help and felt I had no one to turn to.Finally after a year my father who is a doctor spotted it in my eyes.He had seen me many times and I hid it very well. I was dying inside. It has been 20 some odd years and many trials with the anti-depressants figuring out many different medications and what will work. I am a christian and have been single and divorced for over 10 years. It can be such a lonely battle that very few understand. Tony your support and empathy are such a gift to Michelle.
    I share your Staying Married web site with a lot of people.
    Katie

  3. I love this post! As a fellow childhood sexual abuse survivor, I often wonder what it’s like for my spouse. I think your perspective is wonderful and real.

    Michelle, part of dealing with a childhood of abuse is getting through the changes that kids being. It can be so terrifying. I have had horrible anxieties as a mom. How do I protect these babies? They look like victims waiting to happen. It’s exhausting to always be on guard. I admire your strength in accepting and seeking help. Having a good therapist has been so, so important for my healing. As your husband said, a survivor is a victim who became her own hero. You are doing great. This is all part of your journey to being your best and strongest version if yourself yet. Many prayers and love!

  4. Bless you both for bearing so much to the world for the hope it might bring to even one. Perhaps I would offer having Michelle have her blood work done to check her hormones.. Marry the high chance of these being disrupted or awry for various reasons let alone pregnancies … with the reality of our past in our present, and it becomes understandable why one might sleep and wake with the debilitating cloud of depression.. I am much older than you and still on a path of discovery. Thank God for His mercies are new every morning. May you be also.

  5. Tony,
    Reading your’s and Michelle’s blog post has been such a blessing to Beth and I. I wish we would have been better friends when you were here maybe I would have listen to more you had to say. I miss both of you guys a bunch. Beth and I didn’t have the best relationship while you guys were here and it almost came to an end. I was busy making money and thinking this is what she wanted, turns out my attention was what she wanted. I remember a time when we were siting around a fire talking about marriage and I stated that I would never waste my money on counseling to save my marriage. I haven’t attended counseling since God performed a miracle in our marriage but I would now spend every dime I have on marriage counseling if that meant I had a fraction of a percentage at keeping the outstanding wife I and precious gift God gave me. Anyways when it came time to chose to stay or go I remember the five letter word YOU called me for not having the balls to save my marriage and decided you were right I was just that. You cared more about me and my marriage that night than ANYBODY. Even people who called themselves my friends didn’t really care. Thanks for those harsh Tony Peterson words they saved my marriage. I remembered the rules you told me about fighting and arguing, How crazy I thought you guys were. Now I won’t dare raise my voice to my wife in anger, the argument can wait until my hot head cools down, truthfully they never get that hot now because I listen to what she has to say and not what I want to hear. I am now please to tell you and the world that I have found that crazy love I had 13 years ago when I first started dating my wife. It’s not her beautiful looks or charming personality I fell in love with it was her kind giving heart, a heart I once had myself and the heart I am fighting to get back. My marriage has been a steady 8 on a scale from 1-10 which is much better than the last 4 years of well being room mates and not good one at that. I can’t wait to see her when I get home from work, heck I cant wait to see her at lunch yes we have lunch everyday together at my work. People at work think I’m nuts since there is a post-it note with her lips and a I love you baby in it. The guys all think I whooped but I know they wished their wives loved them as much a s she loves me. I’m not afraid to dance with her in public (yep Jesse learned to dance) actually it’s now my second favorite thing to do with her! We talk for hours like teenagers dating instead of watching TV. I can’t tell a single show that’s on now! I never thought God would use YOU and the things you said to me to influence me. I mean it’s no surprise your words usually pissed me off or frustrated me. Thank you I don’t know if you cared about our marriage in actuality but God used them to help retrain my mind. I am so grateful I wish I could hug you! I also really miss that guitar you were probably one of the best I have heard. I have a special place in my heart for your passion called marriage now and hope one day God will allow us to use our story for good. When your in town next we should grab a gar and I tell it to you. until then take care friend.

    Jesse

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