How Can I Earn the Trust of My Spouse if They’ve Suffered Childhood Abuse?

Supporting a Spouse Who Was Abused

You love your spouse, and you want your marriage to be happy and peaceful. But we don't come into marriage as a blank slate. We bring the emotions and memories of our childhood experiences into our relationship with us. This can be particularly challenging if one or both of you has been through hard things. I got a message from someone recently who is dealing with this in their marriage:

"My wife is a wonderful woman and I love being married to her. But I recently learned she was abused by a family member as a child, and I'm so sad by how painful it still is for her. I know that people who are abused have trouble trusting, and I want her to know she can trust me. What can I do to earn her trust?"

If you have a spouse who was abused, you're likely feeling a similar way as the person who wrote this message. Building trust after abuse can be a long process, and it can be difficult for both people in the marriage. But there is a way forward for couples willing to put in the time and effort to heal together and grow closer to one another. Here are some suggestions for how to think, talk, and work through difficult situations and emotions 

Keep the Faith in Your Relationship

When you find out something painful or shocking, your brain can switch into worst-case-scenario thinking. I want to encourage you to remember that your spouse married you in an act of love and trust. That means they believe that your relationship can survive and thrive in spite of the challenges that life throws at you, it's important to remember that you have been through a lot together already, and that you can continue to weather tough emotions that come with the impact of childhood abuse together.

Don't Try to "Fix It"

There is a lot you and your spouse can do to help one another day to day. But you can't fix something like childhood abuse the way you might be able to turn around a bad day. 

Thinking that you have to fix it is an unreasonable expectation. You can care, you can listen, and you can continue to love. But you won't be able to change the past, or to change how they perceive themselves and their abuse. Free yourself from unreasonable expectations and focus on love. It already has made a difference to your spouse, and it will continue to encourage and bolster them as they deal with their childhood trauma.

Respect Their Privacy

Talking about childhood abuse isn't easy, and it's another sign of trust that your spouse has told you about what they suffered as a child. I know you might want to tell others, or to reach out for help on their behalf. But it's important to respect their privacy. That's not to say you can't offer support. You can always say something like:

"Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me that. I'm so sorry you had to deal with so much pain. You can trust me to respect your privacy. If you need help finding support, I am here for you anytime. I love you, and we will get through this together."

I suggest offering to help them find support, so you don't take too much on yourself. There are many abuse recovery support organizations that are ready, willing, and able to help your spouse, and who have the time and qualifications to do so.

If you feel like you need to talk to someone about the pain you feel on behalf of your partner, you can share that with them without getting into details or compromising your spouse's confidence. 

When you talk to a counselor or mentor you trust, you can say, "My spouse is hurting and I 
don't know how to comfort them. Can you give me some ideas?" If you feel like you need to share something more specific, ask for your spouse's consent, and only share if they give it to you. 

Model Trust with Them

One of the most painful things about childhood abuse is that the people who were supposed to protect and nurture your spouse did the opposite, at a time when their feelings and opinions of people were still being formed and understood. As a result, trust is going to be difficult for them moving forward. When you model trusting behavior for your spouse, that can only help their sense of trust in others. You can:

  • Trust them to ask for help when they need it.
  • Trust them to continue to be there for you, even though they're going through something hard.
  • Trust them to work to understand and heal from their pain.
  • Trust them to let you know how you can be there for them.

Modeling trust is a great way to build it in your marriage and remain close in the face of challenges that come up along the way. Along with showing your partner you trust them; it will help to express gratitude for their acts of trust. Opening up to you about the childhood abuse they experienced, sharing their emotions, and checking in with you about their healing journey, are all acts of trust that point toward an important truth: they are working on their healing. 

Surprise Them with Kindness

It's important to remember the joy in your relationship. After all, you were brought together by love and joy. You were created to be in a relationship, and your spouse is one of the most important relationships in your life. When you feel drained by the difficult emotions your spouse is feeling. It might be helpful to remember that you are both loved by God, and that He can handle everything you all are facing together. Pray to God and trust Him to take on your pain, and to reconnect you with the joy and love in your relationship.

You can also surprise your spouse with kindness: acts of affection, meals, gifts, special dates, whatever you can dream up to remind them you're there for them and you care about them. When they have been shown unkindness at such important times in their life, small, intentional acts of kindness can be very powerful and healing. 

  • What can you do for your spouse today to show them love in a special way? 
  • How can you remind them what you love about them? 
  • How can you show them gratitude for ways they love and care for you?

Get Support for Your Feelings

When one person in a marriage is trying to heal after abuse, it can sometimes dominate conversations. While it's important to give your spouse space to talk about things, I know you have difficult feelings to work through, too. And you don't have to do that by yourself. TheHopeLine has trained HopeCoaches who offer confidential email and chat mentoring for marriage challenges and tough emotional struggles. 

Talk to a HopeCoach today about the pain you feel for your spouse, your hopes for the future, and what you hope to accomplish together as a couple. We are here for you, and we believe your marriage will continue to grow stronger and closer in the months and years to come.

Is your spouse coping with sexual abuse? There is hope here. They can be a whole person, healed and recovered from what happened in their life. 

~Terri Henry

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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