Friday, September 20, 2013

Coded Words

(By Cecil Murphey)

I've lost count of the number of wives who've contacted me about their husbands' intense struggle over his childhood sexual abuse.

Here's one email (and I changed the name):

Just before we married, Jim said, "I was molested when I was six." That was all—no details and nothing about his response, or even who did it. It seemed unimportant, like saying he received only a "C" in eighth-grade math. Now, after 18 years of marriage, he's struggling with his abuse and he's become a man I don't know. He's in pain and I can't seem to help him. When I said something, he angrily reminded me that he had told me about the abuse.

Jim used the code words: "I was molested." I write code because he could have intended many different meanings. One is that he was testing her. He gave her a safe sentence and she didn't respond negatively. In fact, she apparently made no comment because she didn't hear it as a cry of pain, but only as a statement about his childhood. The code words protected him from having to say more and risk her disapproval of him.

Second, he might have been exploring and for the first time, mentioned his abuse. By receiving no positive feedback, he didn't feel secure about pursuing it.

Third, he might not have been prepared to face his trauma. If he had been ready, his words would surely have hinted at or expressed his inner battles. The fact that he waited 18 years would make me inclined to accept that reason.

When a man is ready to deal with the anguish of his abuse, he's usually ready to talk. When Jim spoke in code words and she didn't get his message, that may have said to him that she didn't really care, didn't want to know, or that it wasn't safe for him to say more.

If he intentionally used code words, he might have been thinking, If you got the hidden message you'll know what's inside me.

One survivor told me, "I guess I expected my wife to read my mind. When I mentioned it a few days after we married, she acted as if it were no big deal, so that's how I treated it." He went on to say that he pushed away the pain as long as he could.

I'm not blaming the wives, partners, friends, or parents for not understanding. Code words hide the reality. They also say that the person isn't ready for full disclosure. And for those who feel guilty for not having been a super sleuth, please remind yourself that you did not know. He didn't speak clearly enough for you to perceive his meaning.

There are two significant things you can do for him, whether after 18 or 38 years together: First, remind him that you love him and that hasn't changed.

Second, listen—uncritically. You're involved but it's his problem. Let your face and your reaction be the mirror he needs to see compassion for himself.

(This blog post first appeared at


DJ said...
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Cec Murphey said...

DJ, you don't have to bear the pain by yourself. The fact that you emailed is a positive sign.
I'd like to talk with you, but only if you're open for that. I'm a former pastor and two of my friend who write regularly, Gary Roe and John James are also pastors. We know the pain.
If you want to email me, you can reach me at cec.murp@comcastnet.

DJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.