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Memories of Past Sexual Abuse
Affecting Her Marriage

QUESTION: The problem I'm currently having is affecting my marriage. Last February, I was brought into the emergency room with abdominal pains. Apparently I had ruptured an ovarian cyst. Many procedures were performed on me, and I felt really helpless. Memories of sexual abuse flooded back to me.

Since then (and it has been nearly a year now), I still feel an emotional distance from myself, others and the world around me. My sporadic interest in sex is alienating my husband. Even when I am aroused, I frequently feel too fearful to pursue a sexual encounter. When we do have sex, I can never fully experience the encounter because I feel threatened and become emotionally detached. It isn't my husband's fault. He is very gentle and does not threaten to hurt me. He gets frustrated about the fact that we have sex so infrequently (less than once a month).

ANSWER: Your surgical procedures evoked memories of sexual abuse. It is inevitable that parts of ourselves that have been traumatized reappear in order to be healed. The fact that these feelings are "up" for you now means that you must feel safe enough in your current relationship to integrate an important part of you that has been alienated.

The word "healing" is derived from the Old English "hoelan," which means to integrate, synthesize, make whole. When we are faced with a traumatic event that we were helpless to respond to, the psyche represses or cuts off from the painful experience. We literally "dis-integrate" in the face of trauma of any kind. This is true whether we ourselves were victimized or if we were forced to witness a trauma perpetrated on another person. The fact of helplessness in the face of trauma results in a kind of dissociation that initially protects the psyche. Eventually when we are strong enough the memories press toward the surface of consciousness in order to be re-integrated.

Your alienation may also be a result of internalizing the abuse, and continuing to avoid sex to keep these feelings at a distance furthers your victimization. It is imperative that you get help to externalize this ordeal.

Seek out a professional counselor with expertise in recovery from sexual abuse. Join a support group for survivors of sexual abuse. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis' workbook "The Courage to Heal" may be useful in recovering your sexuality and sense of self. On the plus side, your marriage provides a powerful healing matrix. Your husband is a part of your recovery -- lean on him for support through this process. It will be critical that he understands what you are going through. Indeed, joining a partner's support group can help him help you.

Your surgery released suppressed memories that are causing the traumatized part of you to try to find its way home. Your ensuing detachment and emotional distance are defenses against the flood of feelings that have surfaced. This is a natural response to the emerging memories that need your compassionate attention in order to re-integrate the part of you that was abused, in effect to make yourself whole again.

Welcome your hurt self home like you would embrace a lost daughter. You have a right to heal and to reclaim your sexuality!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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