My wife is a victim of sexual abuse. I understood this when I proposed, and I believed myself to be patient and kind and loving enough to heal all her wounds. Or at least support her fully while she heals herself. However I ignored my own wounds and vastly underestimated the emotional bandwidth required to support her.
The short summary is that first my dad died. Then I learned she was raped by her boss during the time I was caring for my dad. I responded with a promise to care for her and love her always, but over the next year I struggled to show her the level of care and affection she needed while grappling with my own grief, and I was so far in denial I believed her therapy sessions would solve everything. Not to mention we had virtually no sex life and I had no sex drive to speak of, at a time when she needed positive sexual experiences to counteract her trauma.
I still decided to propose to her during this time, and the proposal was one of our happiest nights together. We got married 8 months later. Our wedding night was happy and fun but sexless.
Two years have since passed. We are isolated with few supportive family members and even fewer friends. She only has her parents, who visit often but live 2000 miles away. Her depression has sank to new lows despite therapy and medication. We have good days, but we fight often, with long arguments stretching through the night and into the next morning.
We've both sought help from psychiatrists, therapists, couples counselors, support groups, mental illness education classes, self help books, etc etc etc.
We both know the relationship is broken, but she has severe PTSD and depression that prevents her from working. I don't earn enough to pay for separate apartments, and she has no where else to live. Every month we are a little bit further in debt. She's blamed me for (almost) everything wrong in her life, saying our marriage has been more damaging to her mental illness than her rape, and that I owe it to her to change and become the person she needs to help her heal. I've always tried to act in her best interest, but it's hard not to agree with her faulting me. How selfish it would be for me to give up on her now and leave her with no one.
I still love this girl, but the longer we are together the more she gets hurt. I am terrified of what would happened to her if I leave, of what she would do to herself. We both feel trapped and hopeless. Maybe this is too much to ask of a relationship advice writer, but how can I help this woman? And how can I help myself when someone else both relies on me and cannot bear relying on me? How can we escape this cycle of mutual abuse?
Good morning, you sweet perfect soul!! I have a lot of ideas here, but first I think I’m going to break some things down from what you wrote because you are in a HARD AS FUCK situation (obviously).
Before we begin I’m going to give you the cheesy line that everyone who has ever been in yours situation has had to hear (you’ve probably already heard it, let’s be real): “You are not required to light yourself on fire to keep others warm.” I know it’s overdone and very Large Text Superimposed Over a Sunset BUT it’s also a good visual to remind you that it is not your responsibility or obligation to make your life bad just in case it might make hers a tiny bit better.
Let’s dive in!
“I believed myself to be patient and kind and loving enough to heal all her wounds.”
NO ONE IS BECAUSE THAT DOES NOT EXIST. Sorry, but what you said is nonsense. There is no such thing as a person who can heal another person’s mental health issues with their presence any more than there is a person who can heal a broken leg with their presence. I know you mean so well, but this type of thinking is a mixture of grief, insecurity, and your wife’s verbal abuse (which we’ll get into below). You cannot heal her. No one can. NO ONE CAN. Keanu Reaves and The Rock could sit at her side 24/7, madly in love with her, doing everything she asked of them and nothing would happen. That is not how trauma heals!!!
“Not to mention we had virtually no sex life and I had no sex drive to speak of, at a time when she needed positive sexual experiences to counteract her trauma.”
Ok, sweet, sweet angel this is lovely of you to want for her, but your sex drive/dick was not going to undo her sexual trauma. I’m sure that she has a lot of pain around your sex life, or lack thereof, at a time when she already was feeling abandoned and violated and hurt. That does not mean that you and she having sex at that point in time would have changed anything.
You’re both grasping at anything you can point to to blame for her horrific assault and the aftermath, and for you guys not “getting better.” There are no words for what this person did to her and took from her and, ancillary, from you two as a couple. No words. I literally cannot think of anything mean enough to say about him. I think you both—quite understandably—want answers, but there are not answers for why a human would do something like that. And therefore there are no easy answers as to what can possibly undo that pain.
“We have good days, but we fight often, with long arguments stretching through the night and into the next morning.”
One of the big problems in abusive or unhealthy relationships is the “good days.” The good days are not enough. There is not light at the end of this tunnel because this is not a tunnel, you two are simply underground. You have to get out. I’m sorry.
“We both know the relationship is broken, but she has severe PTSD and depression that prevents her from working.”
The financial aspect of this is probably the hardest for me to advise you on because I have no idea of the full picture and it’s also hard to tell you, “yeah, who cares about money! Blow shit up!” Because of the money issues at hand, I would not be encouraging you to leave so strongly if I didn’t think this relationship was really really bad for both of you. Since you two are married, some of the money disputes will be solved in court. She may have to move in with her parents for a bit. The world (America, I presume) is a flaming asshole of hemorrhoids for not having built-in care for people like your wife who cannot work. I wish I had better advice other than to say that despite the cost, this will be so worth it in ways that you cannot even imagine right now.
“She's blamed me for (almost) everything wrong in her life, saying our marriage has been more damaging to her mental illness than her rape, and that I owe it to her to change and become the person she needs to help her heal.”
Here is the sentence that made me say, “WAIT A MINUTE WHAT THE FUCK!!?!!” I thought I was reading a heartbreaking story about two people who were not able to support each other and themselves at the same time and therefore needed to split up, but instead, I’m reading the story of someone who is cruel because she is hurting. But being hurt doesn’t erase that she’s being cruel. She is being verbally abusive. You are in an abusive relationship. I don’t know if you are also engaging in this. I have no idea. But this makes it even more clear than it was before—which, trust me, it was— that this relationship is not salvageable or healthy or safe for either of you. DO NOT STICK AROUND AND LET THIS IDEA (which is wrong) BECOME THE TRUTH TO YOU. PLEASE.
“I've always tried to act in her best interest, but it's hard not to agree with her faulting me.”
WE HAVE TO STOP THIS LINE OF THINKING. I know you said you went to therapy, and I don’t know if you’re still involved, but this is absolutely something you must bring up. You must say to your therapist some version of, “My wife thinks that I’m at fault for a lot of her mental health problems and I’m starting to believe the cruel things she says about it. I need your help to cope with this.” You are not at fault. You might not be perfect, you might not be magically solving her problems but dear fucking lord you are not to blame for this shipwreck of marriage. (Neither is she).
“How selfish it would be for me to give up on her now and leave her with no one.”
Good question! Glad you asked! NOT SELFISH AT ALL. Also, she is not without anyone, despite what you insist. She has parents. She has therapists. Her road will be very very difficult and I do not deny that at all. But it is not selfish to save yourself from this toxic marriage.
“I still love this girl, but the longer we are together the more she gets hurt.”
OK COOL, TIME TO LEAVE MY LOVELY FRIEND!!!!! This is not working for either of you. EITHER of you. It’s like you’re standing next to a car with a flat tire and hitting yourself in the head with hammer and hoping that will fix the flat. Not only will it not fix the flat, but the first step of the flat ever getting fixed is for you to fucking stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer.
“I am terrified of what would happened to her if I leave, of what she would do to herself.”
I am going to be a wee bit harsh here, harsher than you are “allowed to be” out loud. I can afford to to do this because I am on your team here and I owe her no fealty since you wrote into me and I’m giving you advice. I know you would never think anything this blunt, so I will do it for you. Ready? Ok: IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT HAPPENS TO HER, YOU STILL MUST LEAVE. I know that, of course, you love her so so so so so so so much, and of course it matters to you what happens to her. But you staying has not made things better. You leaving will make things better for you. So your choices are holding dog shit in your bare hand for 10 hours or holding dog shit in a dog shit bag in your hand for 10 minutes. Neither is great, I agree!! BUT ONE IS CLEARLY FUCKING BETTER.
I cannot promise you that if you leave she will thrive, flourish or even “be totally fine.” I wish—god I fucking wish— I could make that happen for both of your sakes. Here’s the sad, shitty awful part that is unfair to both of you: she may not be fine if you stay. She may not be fine if you leave. Therapy may not help her. Drugs may not help her. The vast likelihood is that her life will change, and if I had to bet, I would bet that over time her life gets better in small ways and maybe some day in big ones. You staying with her will NEVER be the cause of her getting better. Not because you aren’t enough. Not because you aren’t loving. Not because you didn’t say some magic words that you should have known. BECAUSE YOU DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO HEAL PEOPLE FROM SERIOUS TRAUMA.
So, here’s how you leave someone who has no one: you do it with all the kindness, grace, and love you can muster. You say to your lovely wife, “This is not working, and I can’t describe how much that breaks my heart. I want this to work so much that I considered giving up both of our future happiness for it. I love you so much and that isn’t enough, which is fucking unfair and bullshit. We need to go our separate ways. I need to leave. I cannot stay here because we are hurting each other too deeply.”
Do NOT say this until you are ready to be firm. If you are not ready to hold the line, you will have this conversation seventeen times— each worse than the last—and you two will eat each other alive in between the conversations.
LEAVE NO DOUBT. You cannot leave the door open even a crack. There is no room for “I’m considering…” or “Let’s take a break.” This is the end of your marriage and you, unfortunately, are going to have to be the bad guy for both of your sakes.
Encourage her to tell her parents what is happening, encourage her to tell her therapist what is happening. Then you’re going to have to cut off ALL non-business-y contact. This part will suck the most the most the most. You will want to check in on her. You will want to be her support because you have been her support. You cannot do this. You’ve already tried this, and it hurt you both. I’m sorry. You are an excellent friend and husband and you are not cruel for making this boundary. She may accuse you of abandoning her. It will probably feel like that to her. That is NOT what is happening.
You’re going to blame yourself for a while. Maybe months, maybe years. I don’t know. I know you’re going to do it because you are a sweet angel person who wrote this letter, and most of us—even in the most straightforward of breakups—blames ourself. I get the urge, but please try to address this feeling of guilt with a therapist ASAP. You cannot carry around guilt and sadness as a punishment. It will do nothing. It won’t make her any happier and it will negate all the hard work you did leaving her. Please, whenever you find opportunities to do so, put down the feelings of guilt.
Make some space to grieve the relationship, but also remember to make space to grieve for your dad. I would bet you never got time to do that, or have moments, days or weeks that were about your sadness over him. Give yourself permission to grieve.
Phew. Go take a hot shower or bath. Treat yourself to a chocolate bar or a nice nap. You don’t need to leave her today. You’re just getting started. It’s a long and sucky journey that takes a lot of discipline. Find small moments of joy and hope. That’s really the story here, behind all the pain: hope for both of you.
✨I’ll be thinking of you. ✨
❤️❤️❤️NOTE: because so many sweetie pies have been asking questions, it can take up to a month or two to answer them. I’M SORRY. I try to answer “urgent” / timely letters ASAP and more general questions later.
IF I HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO YOUR LETTER, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO RESEND!!! I DON’T MIND AT ALL!!!❤️❤️❤️
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at email@example.com.