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My husband abused my son

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Dear Cary,

For three years I have grappled with how to write this letter. Cary, you are the only individual aside from my therapist that I can trust with my story. I have felt ashamed, frightened (all my secrets spread across the Internet) and strangely unable to write. But now I feel strong enough.

Three years ago my 33-year-old son came forward and told his sisters and myself that my husband, his stepfather, had sexually abused him from age 10 to 13. Cary, he had been my son’s father since my son was 5 years old! My husband admitted it was true, but first tried to say it was only for one year. And it was just hugging. Then he said “I thought you knew” Then he said “It was a way to get closer.” Cary, unlike most pedophiles my husband did not court my son. He did not give him gifts or treat him “special.” He was hard on my child — never pleased with him, always annoyed, especially at the dinner table. My son went to live with his biological father when he was 16 to get out of the house. My relationship with my husband was rocky, too. We had terrible arguments, but I could never “win.” He could go on and on for hours without getting tired — all night — and wear me out, but not let me sleep. Or cry. Or go to the bathroom. He hated when I would go into another room to get tissues. I considered leaving him, but we had two little girls, and when he was happy, we all had what seemed to be a great time together. My girls adored their father.

In the last few years before my son’s revelation my husband had mellowed out quite a bit. Once all the children were out of the house he seemed to lose a lot of his anger issues. We had a lot in common, shared a house and bills and assets and cars and the whole nine yards. We stopped arguing and everyone thought we were the perfect couple. Waitresses told us how cute we were. I started to forget what a rocky past we had. We were turning gray together. My son started coming home for visits more often. I was in heaven when all the “children” were together for a Christmas dinner. Then this bombshell.

Cary, it was as though all the planets shifted — Gallilean! Many of the problems I have had with my husband now make sense — and I feel so betrayed. My girls are adults now, but they are having a terrible time trying to understand how their father could have done this to the older brother they love. They don’t know how to fit him into their lives anymore. My son has sought therapy, and he is doing remarkably well, but he has a lot to deal with. I am in therapy with a psychiatrist who has a background dealing with offenders, and I have filed for divorce. My son and I are closer than ever, and I see him all the time now. But I am crushed by guilt — how could I have not known, why didn’t I leave when we were having such problems 20 years ago? What kind of twisted fantasy was I living all those years?

I tried to create a bright, cheerful life for my family — big Christmases, nice vacations, brightly painted rooms. I spent so much time caring for my husband — being with him when he had a prostate operation, helping to care for his dying mother, doing EVERYTHING for the household. I just feel so duped and stupid. My husband is out of the house but still seems to think there is hope for us. I fret about money, selling the house and how I will ever retire now. I am happy to be rid of him, but I always feel anxious. And I was so well conditioned by his abuse that I still hate to upset him or make demands in any way! How can I come to peace with a lie that took up 20 years of my life?

Shaken

Dear Shaken,

I’m proud and honored that you would feel comfortable sharing this with me. But if your therapist and I are the only ones you feel comfortable sharing this with, maybe you need more people in your life whom you can trust, and who are capable of hearing such stories and responding in a straightforward, accepting way. One thing such an event does is shake one’s trust in others, so perhaps part of your work of recovery will involve finding some people you can trust again.

It’s not your fault, however. That I can say. You did nothing wrong. Someone took advantage of you. You were deceived by someone who set out to deceive you. You did nothing wrong. You did your best and this happened to you. It happened the way traffic accidents and murders happen to people: with the cruel logic of random events.

For many people, the sheer random nature of tragic events is very hard to accept. Being unable to accept the sheer randomness of events, we come up with strategies to invest awful events with meaning. Feeling guilty about it can be one such strategy. If you feel guilty, then you had some responsibility, some agency. If you had some agency, then it wasn’t just random. It could have been prevented if only …

It is harder to accept the fact that this happened and that’s that. It can’t be undone. Speculating on what you might have done to prevent it is a waste of your precious energy. What I suggest is that with the help of your therapist you begin consciously moving toward acceptance. That means doing concrete things to help you accept this. It might mean saying it out loud over and over. It might mean perhaps some techniques your therapist has. It means in some sense encountering what happened in a deep, raw way. I don’t know how that is done but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. At the center of this awful thing is a philosophical truth that is frightening but liberating: We are not responsible for everything that happens in the world. We are not able to control everything that happens. We instead often have to simply accept what happens and accept our inability to fully understand.

Perhaps if you make a list of the world’s mysteries and meditate on them, you will find a place for this awful thing in the pantheon of all the world’s awful and inexplicable things. As I say, it is frightening to face this, but it is also liberating.

Here are some thoughts about guilt and how we use it to avoid facing our essential powerlessness in the universe. Guilt places you at the center of a drama that did not really concern you. Rather than face the fact that this thing happened and was beyond your power to prevent, by feeling guilty about it you can entertain the fantasy that you might have been able to stop it. But you weren’t able to. You couldn’t. This thing happened between your husband and your son. It did not happen to you. Perhaps in a way you wish you could take your son’s place. This is another perverse thought we sometimes have: Rather than mourn for others, we avoid the feeling by placing ourselves at the center of things. Or we feel somehow guilty for surviving while others suffered. The truth is that others suffer. We must accept that they suffer, and if that makes us feel awful then we must feel awful. I’m sure you have felt unimaginably awful, and it has been exhausting and painful. I feel empathy for you. But I do not feel responsible. I know that the world is full of senseless suffering which I cannot curtail. All I can do is try to point out that accepting this is ultimately liberating.

Ask your therapist for help moving from guilt to acceptance. There are many good reasons to avoid such acceptance. True acceptance of this event will shake your accustomed beliefs about the world. You may ask, If this isn’t my fault, then whose is it? In plain terms, it is your husband’s fault. You may find it hard to accept that your husband did this evil thing. It may be easier to believe that you yourself had some hand in it than to believe that your husband did this. So you need to work on accepting the simple facts. The simple fact is that your husband sexually molested your son. This is an awful thing but it is the thing you must learn to say out loud without qualification.

Maybe if you will walk along a body of water and say this aloud a few times, listening to your heart as you say it, maybe you will fill with grief and be able to accept this. Maybe you will fill with rage and find you are closer to accepting this.

It will live in your heart for a long time. It will be there. You must let it be there and not pretend. It will bring you pain and you must accept that.

Full acceptance of it will make you wiser and stronger. Accept that this happened, that you had nothing to say about it and no way to prevent it, and that it is in the past. Accept that your son is recovering from the experience and is taking responsibility for his own life.

Stay out of your husband’s life. Let him go. Stay close to your son. But do not take responsibility. This is his experience. You have your own burdens, which will grow lighter with time.

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6 thoughts on “My husband abused my son”

  1. I quite disagree with what India has written. Although it makes sense that “Shaken” is feeling guilty and she did have responsibility for protecting her child, she did not cause this. Her husband did the bad stuff and HE is the one who deserves to feel guilty. She did her best at the time.

    If there had been bad intent in the LW, then she should feel guilt and would have to forgive herself. But for what should she forgive herself – for not being able to read minds? For not being all-knowing?

    Please, accept that you are only human and that you love your son and did the best you could for him. Love and support him now, but also love and support yourself. You were also hurt.

    1. In the real world, as opposed to the world of intellectualizing, guilt is not a result of intent, only, it is also a result of causing, or lacking to cause, unintentionally. Of course the LW didn’t intend this, but it happened on her watch and she is, therefore culpable in regard to her child’s safety. She knows this and that’s why she feels guilty. The determination that “ignorance doesn’t protect you from lawful punishment” is a part of our legal system for a reason that is obvious and I won’t go into it here.

      Regardless of today’s psycho-babble notions not to feel things, such as guilt, regret and interdependence (now rampantly confused with “co-dependence”), “doing our best” is not a shield against reality and limited guilt is a good thing. It signals our relatedness to reality. It is not her fault that he molested her son, but she was material in making it possible by bringing him into the house. She knows this and, naturally feels guilty. She is not served by being told not to feel that way. She is being natural. To say “don’t feel guilty” is to shut down the avenue of healing because she won’t be able to fulfill this nonsensical command. Once she can allow herself to acknowledge her role and feel the attendant guilt and sense of responsibility, the process of forgiveness can begin. That is the path to healing and personal growth.

      Her questions of “how could I not have known” and “why didn’t I leave years ago?” are legitimate and she should pursue them and find answers that are meaningful to her.

      The only place there is any real personal power is when we get related to what is, not what we wish, what we fear, what we’re told, but what is. And when we follow up with holding ourselves accountable, as opposed to “to be blamed” (blaming oneself is just another escape, no one is to “blame”), we can get to work on healing.

      In life “s^*&” happens. We all eff up at one time or another. Get real about that, become aware of how you feel and think about that, share it with those you trust and who are willing to listen without trying to “help,” until all is said and felt, take responsibility, work through it, make reparations as appropriate, and healing takes place over time. LW is human. This kind of thing happens in human life. Guilt is human, it happens. Mistakes are human, we make them. None of that means we’re bad, wrong, unforgivable, irredeemable. Incidentally, this is also true for the molester.

  2. I can see where Cary is coming from here. This sounds like a painful situation, but finding some others to talk to (professional therapist but also trusted friends, who can provide support and discretion) and then beginning the long task of self-forgiveness seems like a very good way forward. It’s easier said than done no doubt, but I think what Cary is underscoring here is that the LW show compassion to hersel. When the guilt starts to be overwhelming, I hope that the LW will stop and ask what purpose this emotion is serving her. Through practice, hopefully a rational mind can prevail over the swirling emotions, forcing the evidence of the situation (i.e., you did not know at the time, you acted on it by filing a divorce; you can not predict nor control the behaviour of another person) to become more powerful than the feelings of guilt. Slowly, I hope, this kind of rigorous work to adjust thinking will start to help. Lots of courage to you LW, and wishing you all the very best.

  3. India writes: “because she didn’t know who her husband really was all this time, she also doesn’t quite know who she had been. As soon as this came to light, her own history and persona were re-written.”

    A very good and insightful comment.

    I sympathise with the LW, because she suffers from constant anxiety. This is natural, considering the stresses, but it is an ordeal. She needs to tell herself that the anxiety will pass.

    One unspoken thing in this letter, is the LW’s first marriage – to the father to whom the 16 y o son fled as soon – it seems – as he was legally able to do so. What went on in that first marriage, which made her so determined to cling on to the second? The whole letter reads like a lesson in the perils of blended families.

    But otherwise, the LW needs to get in touch with her anger, and even be vengeful towards this hateful creature who has ruined much of her life. Ruined even her past, and her memories. Instead of worrying about upsetting him, she needs to work out ways to upset him greatly and fill his days with anxiety. Think of the anxiety and suffering as something you should pass on. He has violated the most basic codes of trust. He is cursed.

    To begin with, have an apparently friendly conversation with him, talking about the past and the abuse. Get him to repeat his rationalisations in this conversation. Lead him on – ask him “Did I do anything to contribute to this ? … Did the boy lead you on? …” All posing and pretending.

    Record that conversation. Then, once this and other evidence is assembled, tell him that you are considering the option of going to the police. Ask him to think about prison time, as this might be his future. As he become anxious, you will find that your own feelings lift.

    Be very insulting to him. When he turns up, say “Hello pervert.” He needs to lose the idea that you two have a future – he needs to learn his place, which is at the level of society’s rejects. Ask him if he is assaulting other boys – this is a very relevant question. Don’t bother to be polite. It was being a polite doormat that got you into this.

  4. I don’t agree that the Letter writer has no responsibility. This happened in her house, it’s her son who was under her care, she chose this man and brought him in contact with her son. Of course she feels guilty and, of course she should because, as a mother, she was responsible for her child.

    Just as Cary suggested she learn to accept the facts, she would be served to accept her mistake. She made a drastic mistake and will have to do work with her son regarding forgiveness. This may be easy or hard. A very important point is that mistakes can be forgiven. We all make them and only hope they aren’t too great. If we haven’t made them, we haven’t really fully lived. This is an opportunity to embrace the fullness of everyone’s humanity, including the husband’s (by which I don’t mean be friends or get back together). Mistakes don’t make us monsters or undeserving of love. They don’t mean anything beyond that they are what they are–mistakes.

    I happen to believe that we are not helpless. I believe we’re in charge, that our souls co-create what is right for us. But that said, I don’t believe this is helpful in explaining anything and can be dangerous if we use it to condemn ourselves. The soul is mysterious and has its inscrutable ways. This in no way means that we don’t have to do the work of facing and of accepting the unacceptable. No matter if our souls know what they’re doing or if it is all random, we are psychologically, physically and spiritually impacted and have to work through that. There are no shortcuts.

    Also, because she didn’t know who her husband really was all this time, she also doesn’t quite know who she had been. As soon as this came to light, her own history and persona were re-written. From a good mother trying hard to “a woman who’s son was molested,” from a person who tried her best and hung in there until everything got better, to a person who on whose watch her child came to harm. These are awful to contemplate. With most of us, our massive screw-ups are hard to pinpoint, for some of us, they’re not. I wish for the letter writer that she can little by little face all that’s happened, day by day reclaim her true, beautiful self and step by little step forgive, herself and everyone else. I wish her and all involved the very best and complete healing so that the free flow of love can be restored.

    I’d love to hear what other readers think.

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