Recovering from Marital Rape: a Personal Journey
This morning I was thinking about my personal rape recovery - or lack of it, as the case may be.
It was 3 years since I had left and moved into a Refuge. I had not moved to the Refuge as a first step toward ending the marriage, but because I knew that if I did not escape the daily abuse, that I would end up doing something 'stupid'. Suicidal thoughts and images swirling round my head were all too common, I had taken to self-harming and neglecting myself, but it was finding myself trying to work out how to first kill the children before killing myself, that brought me to my senses.
I had moved into the Refuge to stop the downward cycle of abuse, to put some distance between myself and my husband, to give myself time to recuperate a little, get my mind back on an even keel and gather the strength together to continue the battle. I was also hoping that my moving out of the marital home would help my husband realise the severity of the situation, that it could not carry on as it had been, and that then he would be willing to listen and to make an effort to stop the abuse and work on building a more godly marriage. I was a practising Christian, still am, and divorce to me was not an option. I was convinced that God would enable me to get through to my husband, had been praying for a softening of his heart toward me, and kept reading and rereading those passages in Scripture which assured me that if only I had enough faith, I could move mountains, that God would not allow me to be tempted beyond what I could bear, that all things work out for good to those who love the Lord, and many more.
It did not work out as I had hoped and prayed for: the marriage did end in divorce. It was some time before I realised that God had answered my prayers, though not in the way I had been looking for.
But now it was 3 years down the road, three years after the daily emotional and sexual abuse had largely stopped. During that time I had almost obsessively read everything I could on domestic abuse and violence, and specifically marital rape. I was a veritable encyclopedia on anything to do with domestic violence and sexual abuse, had built a website and could discourse on it for hours. My Rape Recovery was almost definitely done and over with, I was a whole person again, as though it had never happened. So I decided to write an article specifically on marital rape, thinking now that I had studied the topic in such detail and had personal experience of it, I was in a good position to write about it in a manner which would be both informative and helpful.
That is where the problem started.
I simply could not write about it. My mind kept going blank – or worse, I would have flashbacks, start shaking and going cold and clammy, breaking out in sobs and crying over the computer. There was both nothing and at the same time loads going round and round my head, but nothing was coming out. It took me over two weeks to write a simple factual article on Marital Rape and even then I finally broke down completely, gave up and ended with a lame 'to be continued'. I simply could not do it.
While I had concentrated on assimilating all the information I could gather, I had dealt with the subject remotely and intellectually, but not emotionally and personally. With this realisation, the healing had only just begun.I got so frustrated with myself. It was THREE YEARS since I had last been assaulted, I had gone over and over everything, knew all the facts and stats and jargon. I thought I had worked through it and largely 'got over it', and yet this experience made me realise that in actual fact I had not really healed at all, was nowhere near 'over it'. While I had concentrated on assimilating all the information I could gather, I had dealt with the subject remotely and intellectually, but not emotionally and personally. With this realisation, the healing had only just begun.
That was over two years ago now, that I realised that I still had the long journey of healing and recovery to make. They have been long years, and I have come a long way in them, with God's help and guidance. Sometimes I seemed to stal on the road to recovery, make no progress at all or even take a few steps back, other times I come on in leaps and bounds. Here are some of the conclusions I have drawn from the long journey, personal to me. I hope they may be of help to other victims of marital rape, as we all share some of the struggles to overcome the trauma and betrayal, yet at the same time, I appreciate that we all differ, we are individuals and cope with similar situations in often different ways.
For a start, recovery and healing do not mean forgetting. If anything, forgetting or forcing ourselves to forget certain traumatic and painful events are a handicap to healing. I had to realise that I could not 'undo' the abuse, that it had been an experience which had shaped me, made me who I am today, and as such was an important part of myself. Instead of fighting the flashbacks and trying to push them out of my mind, I embraced them, I allowed myself to feel the pain and relive the assaults and trauma. In so doing, I slowly mastered it, I was able to not only feel, but watch myself, see how what had happened had affected me. For the first time, I could really feel compassion for myself, as I had been then, for the pain I had gone through. I stopped feeling as though I was to blame for the abuse which was perpetrated on me, stopped feeling guilty about it.
I learned compassion, not just for others, but also for myself. I began to see that I was not weak for having tolerated the abuse for so long, but strong for having survived it and come out the other side. But recovery did not mean that I had to pretend to be strong all the time, I could allow myself to feel weak and upset and did not have to put on a smile and a ‘stiff upper lip’ all the time. Acting as though nothing could faze me, nothing could affect me was not helping the healing, I had to acknowledge my pain, my hurt, my upset, my weaknesses and my needs to be a fuller, wholer person in myself. Though I was frightened of showing my fragile and sensitive side, that I could be hurt, I needed to allow myself to be open to pain to be able to be open to joy.
I began to realise the huge value of my experiences – I had learned about personal boundaries, what I was and was not responsible for. Previously, while in the abusive marriage, my emotional boundaries where not only blurred, but I had no real sense of them at all, they were as good as non-existant. This had meant in effect that I had not only taken responsibility for the abuse, but that I genuinely felt responsible for it, and a failure for it happening at all. Through learning about personal boundaries and actually letting the reality of them in daily life sink in, I slowly began to recognise where my responsibility in relation to other people began and ended. Now I can see that while I do have a certain responsibility toward other people, I am not responsible for them, for their actions, for their feelings, for their reactions.
Forgiveness toward my ex-husband was also part of the journey. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or pretending it did not happen, and it most definitely does not mean trusting him again, or entrusting myself to him. Forgiveness does not mean that he has finally realised the extent of the harm he did me, nor that he needs to acknowledge it or be sufficiently sorry for it or in some way make recompense for the abuse toward me. Forgiveness is not really about him at all, but about me. While I was hanging on to my anger toward him and my feelings of hurt, betrayal and pain, I was allowing bitterness to live in me, and while that bitterness and a feeling of ‘he owes me’ (eg he owes me an apology for a start!) was in me, it was eating away at my energy and ability to move on and experience joy. I learned to forgive him not for his sake, but for mine.
One of the things which I do not think I will ever be able to understand is the Why? Why did he hurt me, why, seeing that I was frightened and in pain, did he continue to hurt me? Why did he not stop when I begged him to? Why did he have a look of glee on his face when I shrank back in fear and revoltion? I do not think I will ever be able to understand why people are purposefully nasty and cruel to each other. For a long time I racked my brains, read everything I could find to try to figure this why out, convinced that I must somehow be able to understand it. In Recovery, I have finally let this search for the whys and wherefores go, I have learned to accept that it does happen, some people are consciously purposefully cruel to another person. I do not understand it, and I hope I never will be able to understand it, as possibly, to be able to find that mindset, I would have to be in it, and that is not somewhere I would ever wish to be.
Healing has not just meant dealing with the past, with the ghosts and nightmares and flashbacks and startle responses, and all those feelings and emotions which are somehow tied in with the abuse and events which took place back then, but it is also about learning to live in the now, in the present. It would be – comparatively - easy to ‘get over the past’ simply by thinking ‘okay, I have learned not to trust men in an intimate relationship’ and to avoid any situation which would again allow me to be hurt, to be betrayed and to be taken advantage of. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Not all men are abusive, not all men can be cruel or enjoy seeing someone else in pain and fear. Starting a new relationships in which I can be open, first with a counsellor and in the safe environment of a support group, and later on with other people outside that safe group, has allowed me not only to experience the joy that comes from truly sharing oneself, strengths and weaknesses, with someone who cares, but also of learning to distinguish between safe and unsafe people (on emotional level), to develop and then trust my judgment. Recovery and Healing is not just about working through the painful effects of the abusive relationship, but also about learning how to relate in a healthy way in new relationships.
Finally recovery has also included a spiritual journey. My understanding of God as a Father who loves me personally and cares for me deeply has developed over the years since the marriage ended. He is not a God who is disappointed in me, but a loving Father who can see the mess I have been in, the pain I have suffered, and like I do with my kids, just wants to comfort me and help me come to terms with it and get up and learn to enjoy myself again. I can now see God as a friend in whom I can have complete trust, who will never reject me, instead of as a tough taskmaster looking out for the slightest error I may make.
The journey is not over. I doubt it ever will be completely. I do not think that there is any one point in time when I crossed the line between being a victim and being a survivor of domestic violence and specifically marital rape. I tend to believe that surviving is a continual journey, not a destination. We are survivors, because we choose not to be victims any longer, choose not to be ruled by the past in our present and our future, because we can learn from our experiences and mourn our losses without letting them spoil the joys and delights and new experiences which lie in store for us today.
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Real Rape, Real Pain explores though the eyes and feelings the actual impact of marital and imtiate sexual abuse and marital rape. A must read for anyone who has experienced this intrusive and long-lasting form of intimate violence. The book does not just describe and explain, but also helps set us on the road to healing:
To order in the US: Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for women sexually assaulted by male partners
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Life after getting out of an abusive relationship often continues to be a struggle, and It's My Life Now offers guidance to overcoming common pitfalls, blending worksheets with insights on self exploration and ongoing growth. From handling feels of loss and guilt to overcoming feelings associated with having loved an abuser, this book continues to offer invaluable lessons and be a real source of help and strength:
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Maya Angelou - best known for "I know why the Caged Bird Sings" is a wonderful woman and an inspiration. Her books and poems are like sweet melodies that flow through your head. She writes words of wisdom and truth and gives hope, encouragement and strength to all women everywhere. If you need to fill up your spiritual and emotional well, read this book:
To order in the US: And Still I Rise
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