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5 symptoms your spouse may have been abused in the past but is scared to tell you about it
Your spouse's behavior may be trying to tell you something important. - photo by Shannon Symonds
Society does not always respond well to reports of abuse. News stories often show how communities rally around people accused of abuse. For example, in 1975 Mark Hofmann killed several people in Utah to cover his crimes. Twenty years later in a meeting, Hofmann's ex-wife, Doralee Olds, told the audience she felt abandoned when both sides of her family supported her husband. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Hofmann confessed, but people still supported him.

What message does this send to survivors who are thinking about getting help? Is it any wonder abuse survivors tuck their secrets and feelings away with shame, even though they are not at fault for their abuser's actions?

As of 2010, one in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control. One in six American women has experienced attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. One in ten reported rapes involve a male victim, according to RAINN. But, how many sexual and physical assaults go unreported?

RAINN states only 310 of 1,000 rapes are reported, with only 57 perpetrators arrested following a report. Do these statistics make you wonder if someone you know is carrying this dark secret? Could it be your own partner is a survivor and isn't comfortable telling anyone, even you?

How can you tell if your spouse was abused?

The human brain is permanently impacted by trauma, but it can heal. Dr. Daniel Amen reports, "Growing up in a chaotic, aggressive environment causes the same brain changes in children as what soldiers experience in war. It can actually change your brain, perhaps for the rest of your life. While emotional trauma in childhood can follow you into adulthood, it doesnt have to."

And there it is, the good news! Your spouse can heal and get help.

When an abuse survivor is triggered they may:

  • Suddenly become angry for what seems like no reason
  • Disappear, leave or tell you to leave
  • Freeze or experience traumatic immobility. Traumatic immobility is a state of overload which leads to an inability to take action, as your partner is so overwhelmed.
When triggered by sights, smells or sounds, survivors with PTSD experience adrenaline and cortisol dumping into their system. This starts a fight, flight or traumatic immobility response.

Your spouse's PTSD episode might seem out of the blue. Certain sounds, words or smells can trigger your partner and they may become angry, agitated or checked out. Perhaps you'll find a pattern to their behavior over time, but if your spouse has enough triggers it might feel totally random.

For example, a veteran of war may not watch fireworks on Independence Day. A tradition that was a joy becomes a reminder of explosions during the war, triggering the adrenaline and responses.

Being unaware that your partner is an abuse survivor could lead to odd conversations as they try to explain why they're so upset.

Does your partner use alcohol, work long hours or use other coping methods?

Trauma survivors often use tactics to cope with their abuse history. Those tactics can be positive and negative at the same time. For example, according to Maxine Harris, Ph.D., high-cost tactics for self-soothing may involve drugs, alcohol or other addictions and the cost may be incarceration. Low-cost tactics like taking a yoga class may soothe as well as drugs, just in a different way.

In her article "Culture Shock," Harris said, "Understanding trauma...changes fundamental questions... For instance, providers who ask people seeking services 'What has happened to you? are adopting a much more inviting stance than asking, implicitly or explicitly, 'What is your problem?' or 'What is wrong with you?'" It's important for you to know how to ask these questions to help your partner cope.

Basic signs your partner may be an abuse survivor:

  1. Survivors of sexual assault respond in many ways, including not being present during sex or checking out, refusing sex or being overly sexualized.
  2. Survivors may have failed to develop healthy boundaries. Either they keep people at a distance and don't like being touched, or they cross others boundaries by touching them (hugs, pat on the back, rubbing a shoulder) without catching subtle clues the touch isn't welcome.
  3. Random outbursts, running away or checking out after being triggered
  4. Nightmares, intrusive memories
  5. Sleeping with all their clothes on, not bathing or gaining large amounts of weight to keep people from being interested in them sexually
Before you ask your spouse if they are abuse survivors:

  1. Make sure you are ready to hear the answer and give support. IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT! Remember, the only person responsible is the abuser, even if the survivor blames themselves.
  2. If you are a survivor, ask a professional to help you if disclosing the abuse will trigger you.
  3. Have the conversation in a safe, private place without distractions or interruptions.
  4. Have a plan to give your spouse support from professionals, family or trusted resources.
  5. Be prepared to accompany them on their journey to healing by taking care of yourself.
  6. If you feel it would help, have the conversation with professional support from a therapist or counselor.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline or RAINN have local resources that are often free.