Facts: One in four girls and one in 13 boys in the United States experience sexual abuse. Someone known and trusted by the child or child’s family members perpetrates 91% of child sexual abuse.
A MOTHER’S HEARTBREAK
I received this very painful email a couple of weeks ago. In our lives we yearn for clarity, for answers, for the truth. We all want to know definitively whether something did or didn’t happen or whether someone did or didn’t say something that hurt us. The gray areas, particularly in the area of sexual abuse, cause confusion and turmoil and, at worst, can ultimately destroy relationships that are so precious to us.
I was married for eight years to John, a CEO of a major public company. We divorced when our daughter Samantha was 4 years old. A few years after the divorce, I met and married Robert, an attorney, who had been divorced for many years. He had three teenage daughters from his previous marriage, who lived with their mother in a nearby state. He visited them regularly. My daughter Samantha was 7 years old when I married Robert, and it seemed as if Robert and Samantha had a good relationship right from the beginning. Never once did I worry about Samantha’s relationship with Robert. Samantha and I had a very close relationship, and I always believed that we were able to talk about “everything.” When Samantha was 12 years old, John, my ex and his new wife moved to our area. I feel that we did a good job in co-parenting Samantha. The four of us even socialized together on occasion. Samantha did well in school, had a small but lovely group of friends, participated in sports and seemed to be a happy and healthy child. Naturally, there were the usual ups and downs.
My Daughter Asks to See a Therapist
In Samantha’s senior year of high school, she asked me whether she could see a therapist. I was surprised. However, in my daughter’s private school world, many of the students had their own private therapists. I asked her pediatrician for a referral and Samantha began to see Dr. X. The doctor wanted to see me privately, and during our session, I told her how well Samantha was doing both at home and at school. I never saw Dr. X again.
My daughter saw her off and on for a couple of months prior to her graduation. Samantha did not want to talk about her therapy. And naturally, I respected her wishes. I will never forget the day when her father and I drove her to her college in New York City. We dropped off a very excited and happy girl — or so we thought. On Samantha’s first day of classes, there was the infamous 9/11 attack. Fortunately, she was safe. However, since that day, my daughter has never been the same. Although she finished her first year of college, she began to develop severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. The very happy and excited girl who we drove to college all but disappeared. I assumed that the onset of her symptoms were as a result of the trauma of 9/11.
Samantha decided to take a year off from college and worked in a bakery. During this time, she continued to work with a therapist, and it seemed as if her mood was improving. In fact she re-enrolled at her college and was planning to return for her second year.
The Dinner That Changed My Life Forever
One evening, Samantha and I went to our favorite Japanese restaurant and she told me that she had something important to tell me. I remember feeling frightened. She proceeded to tell me that Robert had sexually abused her on a few occasions over the years. I died a thousand deaths. And since that day, our relationship has never been the same. I immediately, confronted Robert, who appeared to be completely taken aback by the accusations. He denied that anything ever happened and our “he said, she said” nightmare began. For years, I did everything possible to try and get to the bottom of the situation. My daughter’s story never changed — nor did Robert’s. My daughter has never forgiven me for not believing her and divorcing Robert. The fact is, I believed them both.
Update: Robert died of cancer a couple of years ago. On his deathbed, I asked him whether he sexually abused Samantha. He said he did not. My daughter’s and my relationship is lukewarm at best. At worst, months can go by, where she wants nothing to do with me. I have tried everything I can think of to try and improve our relationship. However, the skeleton in the closet keeps us from making any real progress. Although Samantha has been working with a therapist for many years, nothing has really changed between us. I am heartbroken. Can you give me some advice?
~ Susan K. of Sag Harbor
I cannot begin to imagine how devastated you must feel. I am so impressed with how much blood, sweat and tears you have put into trying to find out the truth and improve your relationship with Samantha. Studies show that false allegations happen in only about 6–10% of cases. The fact is, whether Robert did or didn’t sexually abuse Samantha is no longer the central issue. The real challenge is what to do to be able to improve your relationship with your daughter under these painful circumstances. You were both victims in this very confusing and painful situation. I hope this is something that your daughter’s therapist recognizes. The very best advice that I can give you is to keep in contact with your daughter and find a qualified and experienced family therapist who can help you and your daughter find ways to move forward with your mother-daughter relationship despite the uncertainties and confusion of the past.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of the weekly “Ask Beatty Show” on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in NYC and East Hampton.