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My childhood abuse colors all adult relationships

I recognize the patterns I am following, but do not know how to change or move forward

Cary Tennis
January 30, 2012 6:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

On a surface level, my problem seem to be that, right now I am in a situation where I am in a sexual relationship with a married man who is also emotionally unavailable.  I was sexually abused by my alcoholic father when I was a child, between the age of 8 and 11. I was never able to talk about it to anyone. I am afraid I see a shameful connection here.


I did not know what sex meant during that time, and when I got to know, it felt horrible and my mind had blocked out most of the memories of it.  It is when I started having real relationships as an adult, those memories would surface and it’d make me really uncomfortable until I pretend it never happened and life would be back to normal. I live in a different country and keep a good distance with my family.

I always felt that I am ugly and unattractive although there are others who tell me otherwise.  My first serious a relationship was  with a man who was physically and mentally abusive for years and I was never able to talk about the violence or was unable to break off the relationship until finally he ended it and moved away.  I had brief flings with others later, but was never able to make an emotional connection with any of them.  I am an extrovert and am very good in social situations but I am unable to have any intimate relationships or make any real friends. Getting close to people after a certain point makes me uncomfortable.

I was alone for few years and then met a man who really liked me, only because he was a social recluse and had trouble finding a partner. I saw the loneliness in him, and we connected at that level. It fell apart after a few years as I did not have any feelings toward him and both of us were feeling the same.


I moved to a new town soon after and met this man and I immediately felt a deep physical attraction toward him. He is of the same age as my dad when the abuse started. He is athletic, strong and very charismatic and someone I would think as above my league. I knew I had no chances of a romantic relationship with him and then I learnt he was married with kids. But we still talked and flirted, mostly initiated by him.

He told me upfront that what he is trying to do is having it all. He is not in an unhappy marriage and is looking to have just fun and is not available. I went ahead with it. I was really attracted to him; my sexual feelings for him were too much.  We started having sex at least three times a week, and then he changed after six months. The visits have reduced and slowly I learned he is known to have flings with attractive women. We still see each other maybe once in a week. Just for an hour, where we do our things and then he has places to go and chores to do and similar excuses. We never go out together in public. I do know that he is not happy with his wife on a sexual level, and I do not feel jealous of his wife. But I do feel very jealous of these other women in his life. They seem much smarter and more attractive than me.  He meets them for lunch and drinks and spends time with them but not in sexual way. Because he is married, that is not a possibility with them. I suspect he might have tried to sleep with some of these women in the past and maybe still is trying to do so. He tells me he likes me, and feels guilty that he is using me for sex. I do believe he is searching for his soul mate and I realize it is not me. I am still strongly attracted to him even after a year.

I do not know what I really want from this man.  I do know that sooner or later this will stop, because he will lose interest eventually and of late my jealousy and insecurity appear in our interactions, I am not trying to please him as much as I used to do before.


This whole experience has actually brought up all these memories from my childhood. I have a hard time writing this down, to face and accept this notion, this strange thought that I might have enjoyed what had happened during that period in my abusive years while it happened. I just did not know what it meant at that time.  Because of this I feel I will never be able to be in a true and meaningful intimate relationship ever. I have tried therapy for a short while but never was able to bring up this subject about my childhood at any time. Mostly because I am thinking, yes it happened. It was not my fault. And I moved on.  But certain things still remain unresolved. I do not know what that is and for the same reason I am unable to talk about it. Writing this down was a relief. I am not even sure what I am expecting from your reply although I am curious.

Giving the advice column a shot.



Dear Me,

I wanted to publish this letter because it seems very true and others may see in it what I see in it, that rarity of raw reflection and honesty, and the beginning of a confrontation with a difficult truth that must be accepted and reconciled so that this earlier you -- who very well may have felt some confusing pleasure during these childhood moments -- can be forgiven by the adult you, can accept that she was not to blame, that she was completely innocent, and that, by extension, you, today, are innocent, that today, you have an innocent part of you that is not dirty or wrong or out to get something from men or out to hurt anyone or get back at anyone or anything like that, that there is a part of you that is simply human and decent and kind and desires love and affection. You desire love and affection because you are human, that's all; you are human like me and everyone reading this column, and like the man you have been seeing, who also is simply human and wants to be happy and is tasting momentary fruits of happiness while craving something from women that he may not be fully aware of; and he is getting certain reflections of what he most deeply wants, but he does not know for sure what spirit in him is working for its fulfillment, driving him to seek intimacy with other women; he doesn't know himself. Yet like all of us he is out there trying to get what he thinks he wants, and offering to others what they may want or think they want. Through this, everyone gets some pleasure and some comfort but the deeper mysteries remain, and moral questions plague the participants, as they must lie and pose to maintain the stability of their social relationships.


We are more alike than not. Most of us don't know ourselves in any deep way because to know ourselves is to know pain and fear, and if we have had enough of pain and fear already then it is preferable and perhaps wiser in some cases not to keep going into that cauldron of pain and fear but to live on its edges for a while as we catch our breath and try to enjoy what pleasures the trees and birds and flowers offer, and the wind, the pleasures the wind offers, and the magic of a spider's transit across open space of trees: How does he do that? Working in the night? How does it happen that when we wake our yard has notations of silk, as though tiny Wallendas were traversing it? I mean, we are pretty simple; we carry pain and fear with us and at times we are not strong enough to work with it so we turn to distractions to keep us from it. For who can do it alone? Who can navigate his own frightening memories alone? Very few of us can! They overwhelm us! They drive us into the street, or they drive us to drink, which makes perfect sense, for how would we survive if we had to live in the constant, constant, constant replaying of these scenes? We could not live! We could not reproduce and feed ourselves if we were constantly replaying these things! So they go on mute. And yet we know they are playing in the background, like vinyl LPs that have gotten to the end, or are skipping.

So you are at one of those moments when your drive to become fully yourself is temporarily stronger than your drive to keep these painful memories at bay. And that is a moment of potential grace and expansion and victory.

There are many things to call this memory that is knocking at your door. I like to think of it not as sexual abuse per se but as one among many things we might call primal wounds, so that each of us can relate; not everyone has sexual abuse, and it is a specific thing that psychologists know how to deal with; but I like to think that all of us have one or a few primal wounds, be they sharp, hot, cringeworthy humiliations in class or on a sports field, or scoldings by a parent, or awful scenes witnessed, or periods of visitations by terrifying images, or nightmares, or illnesses or abandonment or any number of such things in childhood and early life: Primal wounds, perceived threats to our existence, experiences that caused us to shut down or diverge from our true nature, to hide, to begin repetitive or addictive actions to shunt the mind away from awareness, to adopt beliefs that are patently untrue but serve to shortcut our thinking away from what we cannot accept about ourselves ... the ways we are warped are myriad and probably as infinite as the infinite possibilities of human personality: Each one of us has things we hide, things we are ashamed of, things we will not tell anyone, things we have done that are against our nature and against our teaching, times we lashed out, times we were out of control and did not understand how we could do what we did.


These things vary in scope and size, of course, and certain abuses repeated over a long period of time are fundamentally different in their effect from momentary events. But I like to think of them all as wounds because that gives us some hope, and it democratizes the arena of pain, so that we do not slight the person with seemingly insignificant traumas nor do we fill with hopelessness the person who has survived unimaginable horrors. The point is that we can all make progress. We can all move forward through sensations and memories that we do not understand; we can all make our way forward however strange things get.

For that is our nature as humans: to be actors in plays we don't understand and have not rehearsed, to be mere passengers in bodies that run off without us, that shout or strike out or submit without our knowing, that perform puzzling acts without our consent. At times, in fact, living as humans with minds and bodies and memories, it can feel like we are mere landlords; we have as little to say over what we do and what happens to us and within us as a landlord does over his unruly tenants.

But we make a great charade of pretending, don't we? We go through life pretending to have figured it out, to have a program of living, to know what we are doing. And for the most part, we have all conspired to believe each other. In that sense we are like a market that thrives only because everyone believes in it and keeps their money there. We have learned it's best to pretend that we all are fairly predictable, like the market. We smile and use the silverware and clink the glasses and talk about our jobs and children. Of course we do.

But underneath the table ... behind the scenes ...


We all have these primal wounds. It turns out that life's journey is in large part the recapitulating and integrating of these wounds. So you have made some approaches to this subject, these things that went on in your childhood that seem so hot to the touch, so frightening to speak out loud. Believe me, when you go back to the therapist, or find a new therapist who strikes you as someone you could trust with your very life, and you speak these things, you will gradually get better and all the parts of you that you are holding at bay will come out of the shadows and will appear to you not as monsters but as long-lost joys and cousins and parts of yourself that you have not written to in ages. Your true self will begin to emerge and its constituent parts will begin to make sense and harmonize. It won't happen overnight, but you will find your self, your strangely familiar self, a self that feels natural and easy, and then your attention will wander away from yourself to the world, and you will begin to see things in the world, and the world will become a living place to you again as it once was when you were a child. As this happens and the present becomes more vivid and alive, the past will increasingly be more just, well, just the past; it will recede like a high tide receding from the shore, and there will be more warm, firm sand to walk on.

Cary Tennis

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