Many victims of betrayal and emotional abuse are unknowingly victims of marital rape, or wife rape, as well.
This insidious assault can be difficult to identify. Once identified, victims can begin the journey to healing.
Wendy, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community shares both her research and her own heartbreaking experiences with marital rape on the BTR podcast and in the article below. Listen to the podcast episode and read the full transcript for more.
Sexual Abuse In Marriage
When Melissa*, 27, decided to watch the BYU devotional on February 1 she was curious about what was going to be said because she’d previously been in an abusive relationship. What she didn’t expect to discover was that she was currently in an abusive relationship.
As I was listening to [the speaker], I came to the realization that some of the things my husband had done were sexually abusive.
Sexual Abuse Isn’t Just What You Think It Is
The National Domestic Violence Hotline sums up sexual abuse by coercion with these questions, “Have you ever felt pressured by your partner to have sex? Have you ever felt guilted into it, or felt like you weren’t able to say no?”
He would ask me to have sex and, when I would say no, he would make me feel really bad about it until I just said, ‘Okay, fine, let’s just do it.’ Sometimes, we would be having sex and he would want to do something I didn’t want to do and then he’d make me feel like I had to do it. Then I would end up just bawling afterward.
Sexual abuse in marriage doesn’t always look like sexual assault, but coercive sexual contact and marital rape is just as serious as violent rape.
Betrayal Trauma Is Real For Victims Of Sexual Abuse
Betrayal trauma occurs when someone we depend for survival, or are significantly attached to, violates our trust in a critical way.
Dr. Jill Manning
When men sexually abuse their wives, trust is severed. Women face the debilitating effects of betrayal trauma. The road to healing from betrayal trauma is not easy, but it is possible if women find safety, practice self-care, and receive validating support.
Pornography Plays A Part In Wife Rape
Researchers are finding that pornography may have an impact on marital rape.
[The perpetrators] see something that they want to have acted out. The wife’s uncomfortable with it. … They feel that they have the right to use their wife, sexually, however they choose.
Throughout their marriage, Melissa would ask her husband if he had an issue with pornography and he would deny it and call her “crazy”. Eventually, Melissa believed it wasn’t a problem. Looking back, she said, “My gut was telling me, and I should’ve listened, but I was believing my husband more than my gut.”
Sexual Abuse Wounds The Soul
Many religious organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach that abuse of any kind is unacceptable.
The BYU devotional Melissa referred to was given on January 30, 2018 by Benjamin M. Ogles. In his talk, “Agency, Accountability, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ: Application to Sexual Assault,” Ogles said:
Just because a person stops resisting or freezes in response to pressure, manipulation, or coercion does not mean that they have consented to sexual contact.
Benjamin M. Ogles
According to The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the First Presidency said of abuse: “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.”
In his talk, given in the October 1998 General Conference, titled “Personal Purity,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “The body is an essential part of the soul. … We declare that one who uses the God-given body of another without divine sanction abuses the very soul of that individual, abuses the central purpose and processes of life.”
Ecclesiastical Support Must Be Ethical And Protect Victims
Like many members of faith-communities, Melissa went to her clergy for spiritual support regarding her husband’s pornography use. Melissa said her bishop blamed her: “basically told me that I married my husband because I was looking for someone with an addiction.”
Kinghorn, who also trains bishops, has seen things improve over time, but she also sees bishops who do say things like that. When this happens, according to Kinghorn, the abuse “just starts to get layered.” Then the wife is dealing with spiritual abuse along with the sexual and, sometimes, physical abuse they’ve already experienced.
Therapist Recommendations For Wife Rape
Tielemans suggested that bishops do an assessment of what is really going on because “sometimes, they don’t see the full picture.” He said, “What’s the emotional impact of this on the wife? … Even if the husband doesn’t have an addiction, and he doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong … you can’t just tell her, ‘Well, just be more sexual and then he wouldn’t pressure you as much,’ or whatever the wife might hear from the bishop.”
Kinghorn said, “It is a psychological blow like no other. It’s a soul wound, I believe.” She suggests that if somebody has the courage to share, others should believe and validate them. She said they are just testing the waters and there’s more that they’re not going to share the first time. Kinghorn wants people, especially bishops to know that it’s a “pretty sacred spot and it’s even worse than what they just shared with you.”
EMDR May Help Victims of Marital Rape
Tielemans also recommends that victims find a therapist trained in betrayal trauma, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), neurofeedback, to retrain the brain, and find a support group.
Even though Melissa’s husband is not working towards recovery, she confronted him about the abuse. “The look on his face, you could tell that that wasn’t his intention, but it still happened. It made him realize that he needed to do a self-check,” she said. She said things have been better since she talked about it with him, but they’re not 100 percent.
For Melissa and her husband, like many others, recovery is a process.
*Name has been changed
Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery. This is Anne.
Wendy is with me today. She is the average wife of an abuser that all of us are. She is amazing. She is an excellent writer. Wendy has a particular interest in the topic of rape within marriage, so that’s what we’re going to be discussing today. Welcome Wendy.
Wendy: Hi Anne.
Anne: So, Wendy, you have a particular interest in this topic. When did this interest begin?
Wendy: My husband and I have been married for about 15 ½ years and I found out a couple of years in that he had viewed porn and masturbated and I not knowing much, I was like: Okay. I didn’t know what to make of it. I mean, I was crushed. I remember the first time I found out. I went downstairs and I was curled up on the living room floor crying. It’s pretty much the only time I remember being that devastated I guess. And then he would disclose every so often that he had viewed porn or masturbated and of course it seemed like it was just that one time.
He started going to support group about 8 years ago. He would go off and on and then about 2 or 3 years ago he actually started working some recovery, and then I went to support group and that’s when I discovered this whole new world and I found out way more than I guess I ever wanted to know, but it has been really helpful for me.
What Is Marital Rape?
So, he has admitted to raping me in my sleep. Yes, I am a very heavy sleeper so it’s possible. But I distinctly remember waking up a few times just feeling like I’d had sex, but I didn’t remember having sex and so I’m thinking those are the times when he did that. He would use my body to act out. I just remember feeling worthless and I felt like everything in our relationship that was wrong was my fault. I had lost my sex drive after I had my first child, which was about 10 months after we got married. I just felt that it was all my fault because I didn’t have a sex drive, because I didn’t enjoy sex quite so much.
Anne: I understand how you feel because I lost my sex drive pretty much 2 days after I got married. I mean I still tried to enjoy it and like, really pretended like I enjoyed it and tried to be all sexy and everything, but it was bad from the very beginning. I just felt like an object.
Would I Know If I Have Been A Victim of Wife Rape?
I remember right after we got married, within a week, right. We’d have sex and then afterward I’d say: What are you thinking about right now? Thinking he would say how grateful I am to be married to you or how much I love you, or something like that. Then he would say bike parts or something like that and he would say something completely unrelated to me. It would just be completely disconnected. It was about that time that I was like: This isn’t what I thought it would be, right. This is not fun for me at all. This has nothing to do with me. This is all about him.
From then on, my sex drive was just nothing.
Wendy: Right. Well see and I really enjoyed sex when we first got married and for most of my pregnancy and then near the end of my pregnancy I just got huge. I mean, I’m 5’2” and I had an 8-pound 11-ounce baby so I was extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t even sleep in our bed, I slept sitting up on the couch. So, I think that was about the time when I lost my sex drive and then it just never came back.
After I had the baby I suffered from what I thought was post-partum depression and so I went to counseling. Then I got better for a little while, but I just always felt like everything was my fault and any issues that we were having was my fault and there were people around me saying the same thing. Making the same indications. It was just implied by their attitude towards me, and someone even told me that I should have sex with my husband any time he wanted. That made me feel terrible and I didn’t tell my husband about that. For 4 months I kept that to myself, and it was already was a really bad time in my life, and I just felt so worthless when I started working my own recovery.
How Does Rape Within A Marriage Happen?
For a while I was like: Oh, well my husband never sexually abused me, he never raped me. I really thought that early in recovery and then as I learned more and more about this topic I was like: Oh my gosh, that is exactly what happened. I don’t want other women to experience the same thing I experienced for so long because it’s just really been hard.
He’s working a pretty solid recovery now. We’re still not at the best place ever but it’s been fairly good.
Anne: Was it before or after he told you that he had repeatedly raped you in your sleep that you became interested in the topic? Or did you come to the realization that you had been repeatedly raped by your husband and then you became interested in the topic?
Wendy: Well I came to the realization that he had sexually abused me and then he told me that he had raped me. It was there in the back of my mind. It didn’t really spark a huge interest. Really it was when I started school this winter that I really got interested in it. I started doing some more research and I did a speech on it for my public speaking class and I wrote an article on it for my writing class.
Education Empowers Victims of Marital Rape
Anne: How did the research go? What did you learn?
Wendy: So, I was looking up in the school library online, I was looking for studies on sexual abuse in marriage, and I was coming up empty. I found stuff on sexual abuse in marriage in Nigeria and a couple other foreign countries, but I didn’t find anything on it in general or even in America, in the US. There aren’t really any statistics, so that’s why I was unable to find any statistics. I just did a google search and I put in sexual abuse in marriage and this study came up where they called it wife rape and I was like: oh! So, I think that’s when it really hit home that that’s really what it was, and I just had never equated the two because that’s not what TV shows it looking like and that’s not what the movies say and that’s not even what some books say it is.
So, once I had that I was able to find a few more studies on it. There still wasn’t a whole lot of research but I was able to find more and then it led me to other resources, but it really hit me that it really was rape and it’s a real thing.
Anne: In a conference for my church one of the speakers called it non-consensual immorality and I thought: That’s also called rape! It’s also called sexual assault, right, and I’m not sure why he chose not to use those words, but I thought it was very strange to call it non-consensual immorality when there’s really a word for it. I think it’s powerful to call it rape within marriage and I think it’s powerful to call it sexual assault within marriage.
Is Wife Rape Happening To Me?
Wendy: So, I actually ended up on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website and it’s just thehotline.org I believe, and it actually has definitions of sexual abuse. Obviously, the physical assault part of it but it also talked about coercion and that was the one that I had mostly experienced was the coercion part of it.
My husband did rape me because he confessed to that, but it was the coercion part that really struck me and really hit home, and it struck a chord with me and I was like: That’s exactly what I experienced.
Anne: So, what does coercion look like? Can you list the things that women should be looking for?
Wendy: Sure. The first thing they mentioned is making you feel like you owe them because you’re married to them, you’re in a relationship, or they spent money on you, they bought you a gift. Giving you drugs or alcohol to loosen up your inhibitions. Playing on the fact that you’re in a relationship.
Wife Rape Is Damaging To The Victim
Saying such things as: Sex is a way to prove your love for me. If I don’t get sex from you, I’ll get it somewhere else. Reacting negatively with sadness, anger, or resentment if you say no or don’t immediately agree to something. Continuing to pressure you after you say no. Making you feel threatened or afraid of what might happen if you say no and trying to normalize their sexual expectations. For example: I need it, I’m a man.
Mostly it’s like trying to make you feel obligated to have sex with them.
Victims Are Not Responsible For Their Partner’s Choices
Anne: I read an article a while ago that was written by a Christian man that said that women need to submit to their husband’s sexually. Basically, saying that you’re not a Christian woman if you don’t give your husband sex and that’s a sin. I was like: Holy cow! That is so awful! Basically, you’re saying that you have to have sex with your husband otherwise you’re a bad wife.
Sex is a way to be close and it’s a way to be intimate, but you do NOT have to have sex especially when he’s an unsafe person to have sex with. That’s awful to say you have to have sex with someone who is abusing you, who is unkind to you.
Like, my ex told me that I wasn’t attractive and then he wondered why I didn’t want to have sex with him. Like, why would I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t find me attractive and he was abusive and blah, blah, blah. You know, I just think: You guys aren’t thinking through this. It would be weird if I wanted to have sex with you when you’re cheating on me and treating me badly.
Why Do People Not Know About Marital Rape?
Wendy: Right, yeah. It doesn’t make any sense, but they usually don’t think clearly anyways.
Anne: Instead of being able to have sex in a healthy way, if they’re not healthy the only ways they can think of to get sex would be coercion. Which is a form of abuse. So, my contention is that active porn users are always going to abusive in one way or another and this is one of the ways that we’re talking about.
Other ways that they can be abusive is not having sex with you at all. Which also happened to me. My husband did not initiate sex for like 6 months. Zero, and I was really hurt by that and he didn’t try to do anything to improve our sex life or anything as I pulled away. So, that’s not a form of rape but it’s also another form of sexual abuse.
Wendy: Right, it is and actually one of the studies that I looked at actually mentioned that withholding sex can be a form of sexual abuse.
Withholding Sex Is A Boundary, Not A Punishment
Anne: That is something that the abuse though will hold against you. They’ll say: Well, you’re withholding sex so that’s a form of sexual abuse. So, withholding sex is different than setting a boundary for safety.
Anne: This is why this issue is so difficult with therapists or clergy or with other people who don’t understand it because they can say well you’re the abusive one because you’ve set a boundary and you’re withholding sex. So, it gets super complicated. Having someone who understands the issue like an APSATS coach or a therapist who understands abuse is essential to getting help. Otherwise, the addict or the abuser just keeps throwing it back in your face over and over and over and you keep being abused and coerced. We’ve all been in that cycle.
So, for our listeners, let’s talk about consent within marriage. A lot of people talk about consent outside of marriage but what does consent inside of marriage look like.
Sexual Consent Is Key Especially Within Marriage
Wendy: Consent is ongoing. You have to continue to have consent. Personally, I didn’t realize that. Consent is a mutual agreement between the partners about what they want, and it needs to happen every time, and just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t automatically give consent.
One of the things you talk about is safety and that’s huge because if you don’t feel safe then you wouldn’t want to give consent. Then if they force themselves on you then that’s the abuse and that’s rape right there.
Anne: The other issue with consent is they need to be telling you the truth, right? They need to say I would like to have sex with you. I’m asking for your consent and in order to have your full consent you need to know that I’ve been viewing porn and masturbating every day and having sex with prostitutes.
Full consent means that you know the truth about who you’re about to have sex with.
Sexual Abuse Can Happen Within Marriage
Wendy: Right, exactly. And that’s when women that have addict husbands that they end up with an STD or and STI and you know a lot of times the husbands are like: I don’t know how you got that. You got that from the toilet.
Anne: So that is what consent involves. There are not addicts that listen to my podcast, that is not our audience here, but for you listeners that’s what you’re looking for, right. For them to get your full consent they need to be able to tell you the whole truth about who they are and what they’ve been doing, and without that it is a consent issue. So, most of us are dealing with a consent issue with a man who is refusing on purpose to tell us the truth in order to coerce consent.
Wendy: You know Anne, there is one thing that the National Domestic Violence Hotline website says that really sticks out: It’s not consent if for any reason you’re afraid or unable to say no. So, it’s not consent if you’re being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes. It’s also not consent if you or a partner is unable to legitimately give consent which includes being asleep, unconscious, or under the influence of conscience altering substances like alcohol, some prescription medications, and other drugs.
Anne: And you’re also unable to give consent if you don’t have the full truth. They didn’t put that on the website but lies should be another one there, right.
Sexual Coercion Can Be Difficult To Identify
Wendy: Yes. That also goes in the manipulation too though because they’re already manipulating you and your relationship.
Anne: I just wish they would have put lies there just so the men would know: Oh, if I don’t tell them the full truth about who I am and what I do, then I’m not receiving their actual consent and I’m manipulating them and abusing them.
Wendy: Yeah. Yes. That would be great.
Anne: That’s what this podcast is for.
Wendy: Yes. I thought it was interesting because a lot of times they just talk about the sexual abuse in sexual harassment and physical sexual assault and things like that. Like, that’s what TV and movies, that’s what they show. They don’t show this other stuff and so I thought it was really interesting that The National Domestic Violence Hotline includes that in their information about consent and about the sexual abuse by coercion.
Anne: Realizing that your husband has been sexually assaulting you for years is a traumatizing thing to discover. We are talking serious, serious stuff.
Sexual Coercion Can Also Be Damaging Within Marriage
I know a woman whose husband recently realized that he was abusive and how amazing is that. He was like: Well, now that I know I’m abusive I can get help for this and so that’s what these men need to realize. Like: I’m an abuser, I am committing adultery, and I am sexually manipulative. Like, they need to realize those things in order to change.
I want to tell one other story. I have a friend who she was dating someone, and she believes in not having sex until you’re married. So, she was dating them and said something about how she’d gone too far, and I said: What do you mean? She said: Like, well. I said: Did you have sex and she said: Well I don’t really know, like I didn’t want to have sex, I kept saying no but then we did have sex so I’m so confused. And I said: So, you were raped.
Women Can Support Victims of Rape
It was like I had punched her in the stomach. She didn’t know that she had been raped until that moment. She started crying and I went to hug her, and she was like: Just back away, back away from me. I could tell she was having a trauma response and I said: Oh, I’m sorry, so I backed up. She kind of put her hands on the counter and just was breathing, just kind of taking it in, and she looked like she was having a kind of panic attack actually. It took probably about 5 minutes for her to calm down and she said: I didn’t realize until this moment that I was raped by my boyfriend.
So many women, I have heard stories on NPR lately, about women who were a little bit drunk and they were in their dorm room for example, and a man came in and got in bed and she said no, no, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to push him away and she just thought: Oh weird, I had sex with him last night that’s so weird, and I didn’t really want to.
Not realizing it was rape. So, I think part of the reason why rape is so difficult to understand is because many women are being raped without their own knowledge, but it’s so similar to abuse. So many women are in abusive relationships and if you ask them: Are you being abused? They would say no.
Sexual Assault Can Happen Within A Marriage
So, the only way to stop abuse and to stop rape and to stop all of these things, is to educate women about what it looks like so that they can have words for what is happening to them and then they’re able to set boundaries around it.
But, I remember my clergy looking at me and saying: Do you feel safe? Do you think you’re being abused? And I said: No. I said no, no I feel safe. And this was when he was punching walls. Why did I not know I was being abused? How does someone who has a Masters Degree, and didn’t get married until she was 30, how did I not know? And if I didn’t know then any woman could not know.
Marital Abuse Can Be Covert
Wendy: I think it makes it harder because my husband he didn’t punch walls. Shucks, if we got into an argument he would shut down completely and just keep it all in, so it took me awhile to realize that I had been abused. You know there was gaslighting. He was always minimizing my feelings because he didn’t think I should ever be angry about anything. It was just things like that and it never dawned on me. I would have answered the same way. I would have said: No, I don’t think I’m being abused because that’s not always what it looks like on TV and in movies so it’s harder to spot it.
Anne: We need to have the most boring movie ever about what real abuse looks like and it would be like a 10-year movie of weird events that happen that you’re like: That’s kind of weird, and I don’t like this guy. But it would not be what we see right now in the movies, but I think it would help. At least we’re doing our part and I still don’t know. I still don’t know what I don’t know about abuse, right. So, I still don’t know, would I be able to spot it better now? I hope so.
On this podcast it’s tough because I have therapists on, I have regular average women who have been in relationships with abusers and porn users and rapists. Now we know as much as we can know, but we don’t know what we don’t know. So, hopefully as we evolve over time we will be able to know more and have better words for it. That’s why I am constantly updating the website. Just because we just don’t know what we don’t know.
Wife Rape Is Not Ok Or Excusable
Anne: So, what’s your advice for women who through this podcast are suddenly realizing: Holy cow! Wait a minute!
Wendy: Oh, my advice. I did talk about it with friends. So reaching out for support is helpful and talking to a professional. That helps. Really understanding what it is and what you’ve been through. I think just knowing and knowing that you’re not alone. I think those are the 2 biggest things that are helpful.
Believing Survivors Of Marital Rape Is Important
Then finding somebody to talk about it that’s going to be supportive, that’s not going to say: Well, you’re just making that up. Or, there’s no way because he’s such a good guy.
Anne: I would say another thing is a safe person is not going to say you need to get divorced right now, right. A safe person is going to say something like: Whoa. I’m so sorry that you’ve been through that. What can I do to help? Or what do you need? Or what do you feel like is the right thing to do and I will support you in what you decide. You know that’s what we’re looking for when we’re looking for a safe person.
The culture of Betrayal Trauma Recovery is that we feel like people can change. So, there is this whole section of therapists and people who say that men who exhibit behaviors consistent with narcissistic personality disorder they can’t ever change. Or an abuser can’t ever change. Or once a rapist always a rapist. At Betrayal Trauma Recovery we do not feel like that. Like, I truly believe that people can change. That is the best-case scenario. That they do change and they’re able to live a full and healthy life.
Wife Rape Can Be Devastating And Confusing
At Betrayal Trauma Recovery, what we do and what our coaches do, is enable and empower women to set boundaries around those unhealthy abusive behaviors until that person is actually changed. Until they have changed so that you are safe with them, and then rebuild that relationship. That’s the best-case scenario.
In so many of cases the men aren’t willing to change because they’re not willing to admit what they have done or they’re not willing to be honest. And with that you just have to keep those boundaries because they’re just not safe enough to interact with.
Sharing Experiences Can Help Victims of Marital Rape
We are all learning and growing together. It’s a process for everyone. It’s a process for all of us.
Well, Wendy, thank you for coming on today. I just want to thank her publicly for everything that she has done to support Betrayal Trauma Recovery.
Wendy: Awesome. Thanks for having me.
Conversations About Marital Rape Can Be Triggering
Anne: I realize that this podcast could have been triggering for you. If it was triggering and you had a hard time with it I want to apologize. I hope that you’re feeling okay and that you can get some support.
Also, this issue of rape is very tricky (or lack of consent or sexual assault) because a lot of people ask: Well, why don’t women report or if this did happen then why aren’t you reporting it? I even asked that question on an episode in the fall where a woman was talking about how her dad sexually assaulted her. And the answer to that is: We don’t report because we know we won’t win. We know that it’s going to give us more trauma or more difficulty and we might look like we’re crazy because we don’t have proof.
Rape Can Happen Within Relationships
I have said before that we should always report, and in this case my feeling is I wouldn’t report that in cases where I felt like my consent wasn’t given because I didn’t have the correct information. I would not report that as a rape nor would I report that as a sexual assault. Only because it would drag me through the mud and I don’t think I would win that case.
I don’t know how attorneys feel about this. I don’t know how the criminal justice system feels about it, but I don’t want any woman to put herself in danger of being humiliated or being abused more because she doesn’t have proof. So, that’s a very clear and obvious answer for why women don’t report these things, and also that’s not the goal, right? The goal is not necessarily to put someone in jail. The goal is to seek safety ourselves and so boundaries are the way to do that. We need to set boundaries so that we can be safe. Our priority is our own safety.
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