How to Do It

My Wife’s Disturbing Past With Her Brother Is Haunting Our Marriage

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How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

My wife bravely has confided in me she was sexually active with her older brother for 20 years (give or take). She ran from home and left him right before she arrived in my state. She cut communication for three years. We’ve decided to be radically honest with each other, but unfortunately, that means I know everything we do in bed came from him: threesomes, filming, every dirty thing that my wife amazed me with was all taught by her older brother. I can’t seem to move past that. They were kids when this started—he was a young teenager, and she was even younger. I know it’s not her fault, and she was abused. But she has talked to him a few times in secret, and once read a text saying “I can’t get you out of my head.” I now feel like the woman I live to serve and love will never crave me or enjoy me more than her secret abusive lover. I am drowning and don’t want to let this hurt ruin us. What the hell do I do?

—Not Brother’s Keeper

Rich: I wonder how much treatment the wife has undergone. Healing from this level of trauma requires more than a single conversation.

Stoya: I wonder if she’s undergone any at all. It’s a long road, and a professional would be very useful here.

Rich: I would gander a guess that she could use individual therapy but that couple’s therapy would also be useful here.

Stoya: And therapy for him. Help processing difficult things now seems like it’d prevent complications in the future.

Rich: There are support groups for survivors but also for partners of survivors. RAINN serves partners as well.

Stoya: Amazing. Yeah, I think he could use someone to talk with who isn’t his wife. I’m stuck on a detail. Our writer is upset that she “once read a text saying ‘I can’t get you out of my head.’ ” Unless that’s a typo, it’s illogical to take his continued texting of her as evidence that she’s still stuck on him. Talking in secret, on the other hand, is a big red flag.

Rich: I mean, this is a sexual relationship that started so early in her development. Abuse shaped her during formative years. If she were hung up on her brother, it’d be understandable if she hasn’t been treated. I understand this situation is extraordinary and complicated, but there is a degree of acceptance required from our letter writer: Your wife’s past is her past. How she learned what she learned may raise your hackles, but you can’t change it—you can only deal with its effects.

Stoya: Our writer will never replace the brother and that’s a good thing. The healthy relationship between spouses is an entirely different situation, with different feelings and different reasons to participate. Better reasons to participate.

Rich: I think this situation is going to require a tremendous amount of care and patience because it is so extraordinary. She may need decades to heal, and the process might be tough. Regarding how incest may affect development, I read this in a Counseling Today piece called “Understanding and Treating Survivors of Incest”:

Early onset of incest along with chronic exposure to complex trauma contexts interrupts typical neurological development, often leading to a shift from learning brain (prefrontal cortex) to survival brain (brainstem) functioning. As explained by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford, survivors experience greater activation of the primitive brain, resulting in a survival mode rather than activation of brain structures that function to make complex adjustments to the current environment. As a result, survivors often exhibit an inclination toward threat avoidance rather than being curious and open to experiences. Complex trauma undermines survivors’ ability to fully integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive data into an organized, coherent whole. This lack of a consistent and coherent sense of self and one’s surroundings can create a near ever-present sense of confusion and disconnection from self and others.”

Stoya: I’d like to take a moment to point out that this is why we’re so twitchy about incest. We in the general societal context, and we specifically here.

Rich: Yes, its scars can last years, decades beyond the abuse. It changes people.

Stoya: Our writer should know that he also gets to have boundaries. He might consider backing away from the fancy stuff for a while, sticking to vanilla, two-person, and off the record for a while. He doesn’t have to do anything that brings up negative associations for him.

Rich: Right. A good thing to practice in the interim between now and getting help, which is 100 percent necessary. I don’t think most people could handle stuff like this on their own.

Stoya: If they’re worried about being judged for the threesomes, etc., they can use a resource like AASECT or the Kink Aware Professionals network.*

Correction, July 13, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists as ASSECT.

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