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.
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…
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!
Portrait Credit: Lindsay Kaye Photography