On Loving Your Terrified Spouse: Trauma and Love Revisited

There is a secret that your husband holds inside about the little boy that was terribly hurt a long time ago. He’s terrified. He feels helpless and scared to tell you that. He can be terribly mean and even abusive, all designed to hide this secret.

Your wife also has known terror. She can tell you, but she leaves parts out. She doesn’t tell you all of it, because she can’t remember all of it in any reasonably sensible order. But what she does remember confuses you.

You’re nothing like the men who abused her. Yet she punishes you for what they did. She’s ashamed and wants to apologize to you. She admits you are both victims. “But no, don’t kiss me…” she says. “Not yet,” but she can’t tell you when.

“Before I got married, I’d sleep with anybody,” she says. “But with you, I’m totally disinterested in sex.” The honesty shocks both of us, and I see the sadness appear across both of your faces. She continues:

“I know you love me, but I can’t make up a good reason to have sex with you, except to get you away from me and leave me alone. It’s what I’ve always done. You think about sex as a way to be close. I have it to get some distance from you for a while. You’re the first man I’ve ever said no to. And when I said no, and you guilt-tripped me into it, I hated you for it, and I did it. But you lost me then, and you’ll keep losing me…”

Your husband is disinterested in having sex with you. He will sit and hold your hand. He will hug you when you leave. He tells you he loves you. But when it comes to stripping down and becoming aroused in the dark, he can’t find the courage.

He tells you in a moment of intimacy: “You expect me to have sex with you. You’re relentless about it. And I hate you for it, even though I know how sick that sounds.”

Then you discover the porn and are furious or grief-stricken. The prostitutes and lap dances. You threaten to divorce him.

But you don’t understand what the porn, the sex workers, what all of it means to your terrified husband. The woman on the screen can’t hurt him, and neither can the man who’s a stand-in.

He can’t remember the faces of the women he “did sex with,” or who he dominated in an enacted trauma trance. He controls these props until he can relieve himself of the bodily sexual tension that he holds onto. Or he goes far away from his body, until it’s over. Then he goes back to his normal life.

It’s relief more than pleasure. It’s emptying more than passion.

He can’t tell you that. It makes no sense to even him.

He can’t tell you why he finds no words to answer you when you scream at him for watching porn and ignoring your sexual needs. He’s not withholding, any more than an empty balloon refuses to fill with air.

They hurt him, you see. They pierced him in a deep place, and the air that brings lightness and passion hissed away in his childhood. He delighted inside when he thought you would filled the hole, and then despaired when he learned he had only pierced you with this same sharp needle.

And you can’t tell him what it does to you to listen to your girlfriends complain/brag that their husbands “always want it.” They have to “beat him off with a stick.” There is a girly coquettish laugh when they say it, and you laugh with them, and feel sick inside.

You can see your wife’s fragility or brittleness. You want her to get help, so she can enjoy sex with you. But you have no real understanding what pulling back that bandaid means.

It doesn’t just come off, you see. It keeps getting pulled off, and stuck back on. And pulled off again in that therapy room. And while the psychologist tries to tell her that the process will eventually get easier, the shrink knows she doesn’t believe it. The shrink wouldn’t believe it either, if she suffered those traumas.

Even if it does get easier, and hurts like hell in the meantime.

But with your husband, you can’t see the pain as easily as you can see the stubbornness and denial. The angry rebuttals when you tell him that two months is too long for a man his age to avoid “intimacy.”

“Intimacy” is a euphemism for sex, but it’s also accurate. He’s not only avoiding sex, he’s avoiding what intimacy demands of lovers: A looking inside, and an exploration of what’s in there that can come out.

Intimacy means sharing your feelings, and these are terrifying shocks to a system out of control.

I’m not taking your wife’s side when I tell you she’s terrified.

I’m not siding with your husband when I ask you to soften your rage.

You, the healthier lover, has every right to be loved and passionately satisfied. You have chosen to love this terrified spouse, without fully understanding the risk to your own lovability.

And my job is to support both of you, where you are, in this treacherous revising of the damaged spots that are still draining both of you.

Be patient with me.

I can speak only one sentence at a time, and all of it is to encourage you to persevere in the impossible.