Jim, a 38-year-old personnel recruiter, hasn't had sex with his wife for over a year.
John's wife of 22 years has multiple personalities, so when the 42-year-old steamfitter leaves for work in the morning, he's never sure who will be waiting for him when he comes home at night.
Tim, a 28-year-old substance abuse counselor, says there's a part of him that says he can't ask for anything of his partner because "she's going through such a tough time right now."
And Bill, a 29-year-old groundskeeper, heard from a friend that his brother-in-law had been boasting about his sister -- Bill's wife -- as a past sexual conquest.
These men have a lot in common. They're all committed to making their relationships work, and to that end, they've found their way into therapy groups for partners of incest survivors in the D.C. area.
"For partners, there's a tremendous sense of loss -- loss of their expectations about what the relationship would be, loss of extended family, loss of sexuality," says Wendi Kaplan, a therapist who works with such couples in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. "But these men don't abandon their wives. They stay."
Individual and group therapy for incest victims has been around for years, but groups for partners are a recent phenomenon that helps them over the hurdles they experience from the long-term effects of a partner's childhood traumas.
"The spouse often gets the brunt of the leftover rage as a survivor works through the therapeutic process of coming to terms with the incest," says Judith Clair, a licensed professional counselor who runs groups for survivors and partners at Family Center Counseling Associates in Falls Church. "As the victim gets better and becomes more whole, the marital relationship can change. For instance, when the victim no longer needs to be rescued anymore, the partner can feel useless."
Leigh had been married to his wife a year when the hardened shell that buried her memories began to crack open. For the first time ever, she forced herself to see the little girl she had been as a wide-eyed 5-year-old who trusted Daddy. In her mind's eye, she looked straight into her father's face. She saw the expression that had killed trust in her that night, so many years before, when he first used her tiny body for sex.
"The older house we were living in reminded her of a house she had lived in when she was a little girl," says Leigh, 31. "It was horrifying to her, and she got really depressed. She couldn't do much of anything around the house, and we stopped having sex instantly."
Leigh felt that he was being blamed because he was the one who was getting hit with the fallout of his wife's long-ago trauma. Try as he might, he couldn't make things right between them. To help himself deal with this unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling, he joined a group called Partners Are Survivors Too. The survivors and partners described in this story agreed to talk about their experiences on the condition that their full names not be used. Janet, 29, had wanted to use her name and tell what her stepfather had done to her. But when a reporter came to her home for the interview she backed down. "My husband just doesn't want this to be public, and he can't support me on it," explained the student and mother of a 3-year-old boy.
"It's a hard thing to talk about because nobody really understands," says Leigh. "I always felt like I was the only one in the whole world who was going through this."
He's not. As many as 22 percent of adults said they had been sexually abused before reaching 18 in a random survey conducted by The Los Angeles Times in 1988. Twenty-five percent of the women in the study said they had had sex in childhood with a family member. At the Women's Center in Vienna, there are 13 therapy groups for adult women survivors, and each group has at least eight members.
In her book "Healing the Incest Wound," psychologist Christine Courtois says most incest cases are not reported outside the family. Consequently, the exploited child has no place to turn for help and often survives by mentally disconnecting themselves from the incidents.
"Remembering is often triggered by developmental transitions -- marriage or the birth of a first child, especially a daughter, and likely when the daughter reaches the age at which the abuse was worst for them as a child," says Clair. When victims finally find their way into therapy, they are often diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the same diagnosis given to Vietnam veterans who suffer debilitating flashbacks years after coming home from the war.
This syndrome is characterized by disassociation of the self from what's occurring in the body. In marriage, it shows up in the bedroom when the incest survivor turns off all sexual feeling, and in extreme cases can result in multiple personalities. "The partner feels very much isolated in this situation, as if they're battling a ghost," says Judith Mueller, executive director of the Women's Center. And they typically try to tough it out on their own.
"It would have helped to be in some kind of therapy three or four years ago when she started this," Leigh says. "But at that time I would have said, 'She's the one who needs it, not me.' "
At the time, he was hurt and confused by the sudden change in his wife, and he felt rejected. But he created a role for himself in the relationship by taking care of the house and doing the work she couldn't manage while she was in the throes of dealing with her painful past.
Then she started to get better. As she did, she didn't need his care-taking. This presented a new challenge for Leigh, one that's similar to what occurs for partners of substance abusers who stop drinking or taking drugs.
But there is a difference. "Partners of incest survivors have this sense that they have to protect their wives from further harm. Alcoholism and drug abuse is not as isolating as it used to be, and it's certainly more accepted than incest," says Wendi Kaplan. "Almost everyone who comes into these groups says it's very difficult to talk about their wives' stories. They feel that they're violating her privacy."
As the spouse/survivor deals with the issues of incest -- low self-esteem, turned-off sexual feelings, associations of sexual stimulation with fear, powerlessness, confusion, being trapped, guilt and learned submission -- the partners often blame themselves because they don't know who else to blame.
This can lead to a buildup of frustration and anger. Some of the issues and feelings that often come up for partners are:
"Why do her needs always have to come first?"
"Everything I do is wrong."
"I feel inadequate because I can't fix things for her (or him)."
"I am so angry at her family for allowing this to happen. I'm afraid to leave my kids with them to visit."
"I am full of rage and there's no place to direct it."
"How can I handle all the rage my spouse is unleashing on me?"
In addition, the partner usually must wonder if the incest survivor may be feeling abused in the present relationship because normal sexual actions are associated with memories of abuse. And the partner feels rejected when the survivor withdraws.
Group settings prove to be safe places to express these issues. "The challenge for me is to support her and to take care of myself, too," says Jim.
John considers each step in the process a cause for celebration. His wife uncovered her long-buried memories just three years ago after 18 years in a marriage that was often chaotic and violent. "The most frustrating thing was the unreasonable, irrational level of anger at trivial disturbances, and not knowing what would trigger it," he says.
Now he knows that her multiple personalities and emotional reactions to seemingly innocuous events grow out of the same source, and that helps them fend off the demons.
"If you can identify the enemy," he says, "you know who you're fighting."
Among area resources:
Your local Mental Health Association.
The Northern Virginia Family Service, (703) 370-3223.
The Maryland Institute for Individual and Family Therapy, (301) 277-3250.
Family Center Counseling Associates in Fairfax County, (703) 998-5606.