I can't get over my wife's rape -- 20 years ago

She has accepted it but I cannot let it rest in the past

By Cary Tennis
Published October 29, 2009 4:26AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

When my now-wife and I started dating, 20 years ago, she was a victim of rape. She'd traveled back to her hometown to celebrate her birthday at a party with a childhood friend; they'd gone to a bar for drinks and then back to the friend's house shortly after because my wife had too much to drink and needed to go to bed. Some people (friends) from the bar had gone back with them, because the night was still young. Some other guy tagged along. He ended up sneaking into the room where my wife slept and violently assaulted her.


A bad experience, for certain, but my wife didn't suffer any long-lasting physical effects; I can't say for certain about the psychological, effects, but she always claimed she's OK. Bad things happen, and you get over them, she says, and that's all she'll ever say on the topic.

My problem? I can't let it go. I think about it daily, 20 years after the fact. I wonder about the details. I'm angry at the friend who let it happen. I blame (only to myself) current behaviors of my wife on the fact that she was raped then. I fantasize about causing harm to the man who committed the crime. But this was so long ago, and our lives are so different, and reasonably happy, now. Why my obsession?

Please help me come to terms with this. I have had therapists but never felt able to talk to them about it.


Can't Get Over Wife's Trauma

Dear Can't Get Over Wife's Trauma,

This event, though it happened 20 years ago, affects you so strongly today that you cannot talk about it even with professionals trained for just that sort of talking.

So I am glad you have written to me. Perhaps you are getting ready to talk about it. I think that would be a good thing. If you can begin talking about it, you can transform it into something positive. That can be done. You can start today.


Let's be clear. This happened in the past. You are not responsible for it. Neither is your wife. There is nothing you can do to change what happened. But you can change how you are living today, and to some degree you can change the society we live in, so that what happened to your wife may not happen to some other woman. In that way, you can transform this event from something that weighs on you and nags at you and drags you down and ruins your mood to something that is a kind of blessing, or turning point, to something that has a bright purpose however dark its origin.

So let me suggest this:


If you are still in contact with one of the therapists you mention, make an appointment. Start by just telling what happened. Merely finding the words for it and saying them will be a victory over long silence. It may bring up powerful feelings. It may seem like you are wallowing senselessly in your own emotions, to no apparent end. It may take a few sessions for you to fully experience all the ways this event is significant to you. But that is the way it's done. You can transform this past event into something positive in the present, but not without experiencing some of the powerful feelings associated with it.

One of the hardest things for a man to experience is the feeling of helplessness in the face of violence. While this can be hard to experience when the violence is directed at us, it can be even harder when that violence is directed toward someone we love. It shows us our essential powerlessness and aloneness. It strips us of every feeling of honor and safety and leaves us bare, unprotected before the world. It strips us of pride and dignity. It takes us back to the weak, small feelings of a child. But there is some redemption in that return; when it takes us back to that, it also restores us to that state -- meaning that with our admission of our powerlessness we also regain our innocence. We realize that we indeed are not guilty for what has happened. If our dwelling on the past is robbing us of joy in the present, we can find ourselves again able to experience joy.

Your feelings are powerful for a reason. Honor what they represent. They represent your powerful desire to protect your wife; they represent your love for her, your wish that nothing bad should ever befall her; they represent your true and decent outrage at the crime of rape.


Some of us go through life assuming that such things as honor and love are givens and need not be expressed, that they are just there, like the air. But when we actually feel them and express them, then we bring them into the world, and then we are of service to the world. It is our job to bring these things into the world. That is how we change society so that these things do not keep happening.

How do young men find the motive and the opportunity to commit such crimes? This was not a lone crazy stalker. This happened within a trusted social network. So there is something in our society that permits such things to occur. That is probably part of what outrages you so, and rightly. It confers upon you an obligation to speak out. When those to whom these things happen are silent, nothing is done to prevent further occurrences.

This rape that happened 20 years ago is not simply a private matter between you and your wife. It is a social problem today. Each of us bears some responsibility for embodying principles of respect and dignity that act as a social deterrent to the depersonalization that must occur in order for a man to commit rape. By supporting educational and law-enforcement programs that inform women, empower them and remove their attackers from the population, you can transform this crime into something positive.


I encourage you to take that step. You will find much support along the way.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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