Shame and Abuse
About the Guest
Sex therapist and professional counselor Nancy Houston recalls her childhood and the difficulty growing up in a non-Christian home with a violent father who suffered from PTSD. He was also sexually abusive, which was something she deeply buried until after she was married with children of her own. That's when Houston's healing journey began. Houston reminds listeners, "God is for you, and abuse is never okay."
Nancy HoustonNancy Houston is a sex therapist, leadership coach, and licensed professional counselor. She is a director for the John Townsend Leadership Program in New York City and the Dallas Fort Worth Area and an adjunct professor and fellow at the Townsend Institute at Concordia University. Before returning to private practice, Nancy was on staff at Gateway Church as an associate pastor in the Marriage and Family Department and founded the Intimate Life Department. She is an author, speaker, and teacher....more
Nancy Houston recalls her childhood and the difficulty growing up in a non-Christian home with a violent father who suffered from PTSD. Houston reminds listeners, “God is for you, and abuse is never okay.”
Shame and Abuse
Bob: Nancy Houston has counseled hundreds of couples who have experienced challenges with intimacy in their marriage. She knows, first hand, how damage from the past—sexual and physical abuse—can bleed over into a marriage relationship.
Nancy: When I got married at 18, I remember doing this—saying, “Okay; this is my before life, and it’s over; and this is my new life. From here, I will begin my life that I want to have.” I just tried to really separate—
Nancy: —and just bury those first 18 years of my life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, May 7th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about how issues from our past can have an impact on our relationship, as husband and wife, in the marriage bed. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. You know, when you talk to couples about challenges they’re facing in their marriage, they will sometimes acknowledge that there are issues with the children, or financial issues, or job-related issues—conflict. But one of the areas they’re reticent to talk about is if they’re having trouble in the sexual area of their relationship.
And you [Nancy] understand that—this is something that is private, and personal, and intimate.
Dennis: And we have a sex therapist, who has been one for 17 years, with us on the broadcast. Nancy Houston joins us.
What Bob’s talking about is right, Nancy; isn’t it?
Nancy: It really is.
Thanks so much. It’s good to be here with you.
Sex is really hard to talk about, even for married couples. There’s just a lot of shame that’s built in around our sexuality, oftentimes starting in childhood. Children will play doctor; and when they’re caught, they can be spanked and shamed for that. When children are born, sometimes, their parents don’t know how to talk about body parts—how to use appropriate language with their children. So, you know, we can just be wired for shame, at a very, very young age, about our sexuality.
And because we don’t talk about it very much, then there are a lot of unknowns; so children fill in the blanks for themselves. Oftentimes, they aren’t filling in those blanks very well.
Dennis: Usually their peers fill in the blanks,—
Dennis: —and that’s not usually good stuff.
Dennis: Well, you’ve written a book called Love and Sex.
Dennis: And this really takes us back to how you grew up, as a young lady, before you even married Ron in 1974.
Dennis: Take us back to that experience and explain the context for your book and for your work.
Nancy: Well, I grew up in a non-Christian home. My dad was a brilliant man; he was a city attorney and the city judge. He did very well / he was very successful; but inside of our home, it was pretty much a nightmare. I realize, now, that my dad had post-traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t know that when I was a child. He was just sort of a puzzle to me. He could be fun and delightful and provide well for us—and take us on wonderful vacations, and take us fishing, and do a lot of fun things—but then, he had this dark violent side to him and did not believe in God or religion—he thought that was a crutch—we were a family that was self-made, and we did not need that.
I know, when I became a Christian at 14—and my older sister had become a Christian—he would scream at us and be very angry with us—that we did not need religion; it was just a crutch.
Bob: How did you even hear the gospel, growing up in that home, as a 14-year-old?
Nancy: It is pretty amazing; you know? Actually, when I was five years old, there was not public kindergarten back then. There was one good kindergarten in town, and it happened to be an Assembly of God kindergarten. My parents sent me there for kindergarten, and I know that’s where I heard the gospel for the first time. After that, I would hide under my covers with a flashlight and read my Bible; because I knew I would be in trouble if I got caught.
Nancy: And I asked my mom, “Are we Christians?” She would say: “Oh, yes. We’re Christians.” I would say, “Mom, why do you think we’re Christians?” She would say, “Because we’re good people.” And I would say back to her, “I don’t think we’re that good!” [Laughter]
Nancy: And so, when I was 14, my parents had gone to Europe for a month.
My sister had kind of snuck to go to church with our neighbors and received Christ, and she came home and told me about Jesus. I said, “That’s what I’ve been looking for all my life!” Of course, the seed had been planted in my heart when I was five. We prayed together, and I received Christ in my parents’ bedroom at 14 years old.
Dennis: And so, what was the dark side, then, that impacted you as a young lady?—not just your father’s lack of belief about God—but he had a dark side that people didn’t know about as well; right?
Nancy: Yes; he did. I remember saying to one of his friends, “You only know him socially.” That was true, because he could be great socially. On the outside, our lives looked pretty perfect; but on the inside, you know, he could just snap and be very violent—and be very violent to all three of his children—and very cruel. He drank a lot and partied hard. He would be sexually abusive.
I mean, I think we experienced every kind of abuse there was. I never saw him abuse my mom, physically; but I think there was a lot of emotional abuse for her as well.
Bob: And you’re saying you and your siblings were sexually abused by your father?
Nancy: Yes; yes, we were.
Bob: Starting at what age?
Nancy: Probably pretty young—it was mostly during my younger years.
It stopped. As a matter of fact, my dad, when I was 15, became a Christian. My sister witnessed to him for six hours one day in the living room. I would kind of peek around the corner, expecting violent outbursts; but she just hung in there with him and, eventually, he just broke and received Christ.
Dennis: So when you met Ron—started dating him—
Dennis: —you really hadn’t processed all that had happened to you from a biblical perspective—or emotional as well. You brought this to your marriage relationship.
Nancy: Yes; and another thing that was really traumatic for me is—when my family all became Christians, we started going to this wonderful church.
There were two youth pastors. One was just the most wonderful, delightful, godly man in the whole-wide world—I still adore him. The other man wasn’t like that—he was a sexual predator. I would just try to stay away from him; but one day, on this retreat—unfortunately, he got me alone; and he sexually assaulted me.
That was very, very traumatizing. I already had trauma; but I didn’t tell anybody, because I had never told anybody any of these secrets. I just figured you’re supposed to keep these kinds of secrets. I didn’t know who to tell or what to do, and I just kind of stuffed it down and went on.
It was shortly after that I started dating my husband. You know, I think we were both looking for a safe place; and we found each other. [Laughter] We got married right out of high school, and my husband received Christ three months before we got married. It’s been such a blessing, because we have a safe place with each other.
Bob: But when somebody marries, and they’ve got this compartment of their life—
Bob: —that nobody has ever been in before—at some point, the toxic material that’s in there just starts to ooze out into the relationship. How did that happen for you?
Nancy: It does! You know, in our twenties, we had four little boys; so our twenties were super busy. My goal was: “I want to be the best mom I can be! We want to be great parents to our kids.” So we were very, very busy and involved in their lives and in our church. It wasn’t until our youngest son went to first grade—I was probably about 32—and I’ll never forget this day—it was a Saturday.
For some odd reason, we didn’t have 20 sporting events that day. [Laughter] It must have been raining or something, so we were all at home. My husband was out in the garage—cleaning the garage—and the kids were playing. I just had a meltdown—I could not stop crying. I am like: “Oh! What is wrong with me?!” I kept going out to the garage and saying, “Honey, are you okay?”
He said, “Yes; I’m great!” I am like, “Are you sure there isn’t something wrong with you today?” He is like: “No; I’m fine. I’m so happy I’m getting to clean out my garage.”
I needed him to not be okay. I couldn’t handle it—me who wasn’t okay. So I would go back into my room and just cry and cry and cry. It was like the flood had broken, and it was all coming out. The next day at church—thankfully, we have this great counselor on staff. I went up to him after church, and kind of stood beside him, and said: “There is something wrong with me. I think I need help.”
He said, “Okay; well, come in tomorrow at one o’clock.” My first appointment—he said, “Tell me about your childhood.” I just sat there and matter-of-factly told him. He sat there and cried. I am like: “Oh, it wasn’t that bad! It wasn’t that bad. I survived,”—I had established all of these coping mechanisms.
And my dad was very much, “You kids better be on top of your game in my home!”—
—you know? There wasn’t any room for weakness or self-pity; just kind of, “Get with it!” So I was pretty good at that—presenting a good outer self, while the inner self was really dying.
Bob: You didn’t know why you were having a meltdown on that Saturday?
Nancy: No; I did not! I had so—when I got married at 18, I remember doing this—saying: “Okay; this is my before life, and it is over. This is my new life; and from here, I will begin my life that I want to have.” I just tried to really separate—
Nancy: —and just bury those first 18 years of my life.
Bob: Some people will read in their Bible, where it says, “Forgetting what lies behind—
Bob: —“I press on.”
Bob: And they’ll go, “Well, this is what I’m supposed to do—forget what lies behind and press on.” What’s wrong with that strategy?
Nancy: You know, I think God wants us to be an integrated whole. I think Jesus—you know, Jesus says, in Isaiah and Luke, “I came to heal the broken-hearted.”
You know, I love that he said, “…the broken-hearted” not the “…broken-headed.” He wants to heal our broken hearts, where we have been deeply wounded / deeply affected by things that have happened to us. He’s inviting us into this healing process. He isn’t saying, “Run away from it,” “Ignore it,” “It’s all just going to go away, and you’re magically going to be fine.” He’s saying, “No; I came to heal the broken-hearted, and to set the captive free, and to release the prisoner.”
I just started meditating on those passages and I am like: “Oh! I’m broken-hearted,—
Nancy: —“and my counselor’s crying.” I didn’t even—I would say to my counselor: “I’m so afraid, if I start crying, I won’t ever be able to stop,”—you know?—“It will be a flood, and I won’t have any control over it.” I think I had just learned how to control it all, pretty much because I had to.
Bob: So what happened, a year-and-a-half in—that caused a breakthrough for you—
Bob: —to go: “Oh, yes. This is not something that is okay”?
Nancy: I so believe in a healing journey—I don’t think it’s “one and done.” I think it’s a process for all of us. I just kept working that process: I went to a sexual abuse recovery group; I kept seeing the therapist; I started talking to friends / our pastor; and people were praying for me.
My husband was so good to me—I mean, I would be triggered; and like, suddenly, he’s a bad man. I would just say, “Time out”; and he would just hold me and pray for me. I am like: “Okay; I’m safe. This is a good man,”—you know?
Dennis: And that was going to be one of my questions—was: “What would you say to the husband, who is married to a woman who is a #MeToo—who’s been abused?
Dennis: “What would you coach him to do?”—obviously, you just talked about what your husband did—“What else?”
Nancy: I think just being there for her, knowing that you cannot rescue her, but you can partner with her in her healing—just like you, as a man, probably have some things that need healing; and you’re going to need her to partner with you.
I think that’s the beauty of marriage and what marriage, really, is meant to be about—where we partner with each other in the really great places and in the hard, agonizing places. We learn how to be there with each other—not condemn, not criticize, and not like: “Can’t you just get over this?” “Can’t you just be better?” “Can’t you just forget about it?” But instead, like: “Well, tell me about that. How was that for you? What was that like for you? What do you need from me? How can I love you through this hard season? How can I support you?”
Dennis: The name of your book is Love and Sex.
Nancy: Yes; yes.
Dennis: And the love is what is so necessary today, and not an emotional kind of love.
Dennis: But, as you’ve mentioned before, a safe and secure covenant-keeping love that says: “You know what? No matter what you’ve done / no matter what you tell me, I’m going to be standing here, offering you a real relationship with a real person. I’m not quitting!
Dennis: “And I’m not going to toss in the towel.”
Dennis: That’s safety; isn’t it?
Nancy: Right; it really is. When I knew: “Wow! I’m married to a man who loves me for me. It’s not just about my body or his pleasure. It is—he’s somebody who cares about me,”—that, for a woman who has experienced trauma from males /significant males—it is like water to your soul; you know?
Dennis: What if her husband is a perpetrator? What if he is still continuing the abuse that maybe somebody else started at another time? What would you say to a woman who’s in a marriage that isn’t safe?
Nancy: Well, you know, my therapist said to me, “Nancy, it’s amazing that you aren’t on your fifth marriage and that you didn’t marry really dangerous men.” I am like: “Yes!” It was just the grace of God”—right?—“that I didn’t repeat what I grew up with,” because, a lot of times, we repeat. Thankfully, for some reason—I cannot take any credit for it—but for some reason, God spared me that.
Bob: You weren’t that smart at 18; were you?
Nancy: No; I wasn’t. Although, I remember at six [years old], what I wanted more than anything in life was—I wanted to marry a man I loved—not for money—because I felt like my mom kind of married my dad for money. I wanted to marry for love, and I wanted to be a really good wife and a good parent. I mean, that’s what really mattered to me. I think God was leading me in that.
Ron and I were—we were kind of like a mess when we got married at 18.
Nancy: I mean, obviously, he brought in some trauma / I brought in some trauma. He had come from a lot of neglect. I hadn’t had any financial neglect, but I had emotional neglect—I hadn’t been protected.
My mother never protected me—just one time, Dad was hitting and kicking me—and Mom just said, “Bill, don’t kick her in the head.”
Nancy: Yes. So I would say to women, who are in abusive relationships—like: “You matter. You have so much value. You have worth. Even though this person has told you [that] you don’t, you do! God is for you.”
I don’t think abuse is ever okay. If you’re in an abusive relationship, you have to find ways to protect yourself and to protect your children—they are worth it, and you are worth it.
I remember one day—my dad had left the house, really angry with my mom. He was screaming; and you know, he squealed out of the driveway, with rocks flying. I sat by my mom on the couch; and I said, “Mom, we can make it without him.” You know?—I was kind of the parent, at six years old. I was trying to parent my mother and say: “Mom, we can make it without him. We will find a way.”
I don’t know what I thought I would do, at six years old, to financially support; you know?
Nancy: But I think we have to believe there’s a way to live apart from abuse and living with a perpetrator. I wish my mother would have had the courage to ask for help.
Now, my dad was a very powerful man. I remember, sometimes, thinking: “I should call the police. I know this behavior isn’t right.” But then I am like: “My dad’s the city judge! How do I call the police? They work for him!”
Nancy: You know? It was kind of a dilemma.
Bob: So you had to, in the last year—when the Hollywood scandals were exposed, and the MeToo hashtag emerged, and then we hear about Olympic gymnasts—all of this stuff is coming out—and women and men courageously saying, “This is my story.” There is something healthy about us being in a day where hidden stories like this are coming to light and where healing can happen; isn’t there?
Nancy: You know, I am so thankful. I just thought, “God, it’s kind of a miracle that my book is coming out right at the same time that all of this MeToo is happening.”
Yes; if we could create a culture, where it is okay for you to say: “This bad thing happened to me, and I need help. It really hurt me deeply; and I need some people to stand up and say to this perpetrator, ‘Your behavior is not okay, and we’re not going to let you get away with it anymore.’”
Nancy: You know, for example—back when this happened to me with the youth pastor—apparently, it happened to several other girls in the youth group. Some of us told the senior pastor. Well, they put that youth pastor on a train that night; and he left the state, never to be seen again; but, you know, that wasn’t helpful to us girls; you know.
Bob: Right; and he probably landed somewhere else and said, “I was a youth pastor in Oregon,” and got another job somewhere else.
Nancy: He did. He went on to be a youth pastor at several other churches.
You know, he probably perpetrated, maybe, hundreds of girls, just like this doctor with the gymnastics girls.
I love that we’re talking about it; because we’re seeing what happens to victims when they are traumatized, sexually. You know, horrible things happen to the victims’ brains. We wonder why they don’t tell their stories—it’s because their brain goes into shock.
Bob: And let’s just be clear here. It’s not just little girls who have been abused—
Bob: —are being abused.
Dennis: That’s right.
Bob: It’s more girls than boys, but there’s a growing number of young boys who have been sexually violated as well.
Nancy: I’m so glad you said that, Bob; because I work with many, many male clients who have had a lot of sexual trauma in their childhood. You know, nowadays, boys are exposed to porn at such young ages. I think that is a form of sexual abuse;—
Nancy: —because, you know, they’re children. They are not ready for adult sexuality.
It’s even inappropriate adult sexual behavior—and here they’re being exposed, and really traumatized, and drug in—but so many boys are sexually traumatized by relatives, by next-door neighbors, by other older friends. You know, I would love it to be a safe world, where men can talk as well.
Dennis: Nancy, I just want you to know—I totally agree with you about this culture of being honest about #MeToo and coming out with how they’ve been wounded and hurt, but it ought to be responded to by the church as our finest hour. We ought to be stepping in with the kind of counseling you provide. You worked in a church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for a number of years.
We ought to, as a community of faith, know how to provide the kind of—first of all, safe, compassionate “weeping with those who weep” / “bearing one another’s burdens”—
—and help set them on a track of healing; because it’s going to take some time for people who have been wounded like we’re hearing about to find hope and healing. The Bible—the Bible speaks to this!
Dennis: And if anybody ought to be talking about it, it ought to be those of us who walk with Jesus Christ, the Creator of human sexuality, who knows how we function.
Bob: Yes; and I think to have people around us—that we can be open with / people who share our values—and to get counsel from someone like Nancy—to get a copy of her book, Love and Sex, and read through it together. I think this could be very helpful for so many couples.
You can go to our website to order the book, Love and Sex: A Christian Guide to Healthy Intimacy, by our guest today, Nancy Houston. The book is available online at FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—
—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, these kinds of conversations, we think, are important for husbands and wives. These kinds of conversations are often not had; and as a result, there are couples who are in distress in their marriage. At FamilyLife®, our goal is to provide practical biblical help and hope in these areas related to marriage and parenting. We are joined in this mission by many of you who help support the work we’re doing through your donations.
This month, we’ve got some exciting news. We’ve had some friends of the ministry who have come along and put together a matching-gift fund so that we are able to double every donation that we receive during the month of May. When you make a donation, there’ll be money taken from the matching-gift fund to double the amount of your donation.
In addition—and this is really exciting—if you become a monthly Legacy Partner—somebody who supports this ministry on a monthly basis—your donation is going to be doubled, not just this month, but every month for the next 12 months. We’re hoping that there will be 300 new families during the month of May—that’s six families in every state where FamilyLife Today is heard—300 who would become new Legacy Partners this month. Would you consider doing that? You can find out more about becoming a Legacy Partner when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
And let me also mention—if you sign up to become a Legacy Partner, we’d like to say, “Thank you for your support,” by sending you a certificate for a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. You can use this for yourself; give it to your kids; give it to someone you know who is in distress. It’s yours to keep or give away as our “Thank you,” for your support of this ministry on an on-going basis as a monthly Legacy Partner. Again, there’s information online at FamilyLifeToday.com about becoming a Legacy Partner. You can sign up online or make a one-time donation online; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate over the phone or to become a Legacy Partner. Again, the number: 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Now, tomorrow, Nancy Houston is going to be back with us. We’re going to continue our conversation about the challenging areas couples face in the area of marital intimacy. I hope you can tune in and be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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