By Annamarya Scaccia

A New Jersey couple shares how their marriage came to the brink of divorce, but bounced back after learning how to channel the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

There’s something exceptional between Rhett Hackett and his wife, Sheryl.

Together for 23 years, it’s obvious they’re dedicated to each other, even as they sit across from each other in a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia. But, as I learned on a muggy summer morning, this bond was almost immediate. After all, Sheryl was the first person he trusted with his anguished secret—and the only one for a long time.

“If I wanted to continue [the relationship], I was gonna have to tell her,” says the 43-year-old Rhett, who lives with Sheryl and their 17-year-old daughter, Paige, in Sicklerville, New Jersey. He’s also step-father to Sheryl’s 27-year-old son, Steven, from a previous marriage.

That hidden story? Rhett is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

It’s why he was so implausibly nervous when he told Sheryl on a September evening in 1989. It’s why his shirt was “soaked with sweat” by the time he was done. This was—and is—a woman so exceedingly special to him. She needed to know, no matter how terrified and insecure Rhett felt.

“You could just see he was trembling inside,” the 48-year-old Sheryl tells me. “[I thought], ‘What could be so awful?’”

From what they both reveal, Rhett was vague. Even now he’s unsure of what he said—combing wordlessly between “ums” for how he framed that painful experience. “I wasn’t very good at it,” he says, a brash laugh defying the topic’s gravity. “I was a novice.”

At the time, he outlined it like this: “There was a guy in our neighborhood that did things…that should not have happened.”

This is what happened: In the 1970s, his now-deceased perpetrator, a summer resident in Rhett’s Jersey Shore community, sexually abused him from 12- to 17-years-old by oral sex, penetration, and touching (read more of Rhett’s story here). During the episodes of abuse, the Jersey native was “disassociated” from himself, focusing on anything else but the awful act. “When it’s done and you leave, you just feel horrible,” he comments. “Later on, as an adult, is when you really feel the feeling of what was going on as you were a kid.”

Maybe it was naïve assurance. Maybe it was unconditional love. But despite Sheryl’s understanding of the enormity of what was said, she felt everything was “going to be fine.” “I said, ‘We’ll get through this. It is what it is. You are who you are and I love you for who you are regardless of what happened,'” she recalls.

Since the moment he sat emotionally naked in front of Sheryl in ’89 to the prodigious summer of 2010, everything was not fine. Fact is, when you’re a sexual abuse survivor or a partner of a survivor, you have no idea what you’re doing. There’s no guidebook.

They learned that the hard way.

For the pair, intimacy was arduous. Simple initiation was challenging because it was a reflection of the abuser’s common move. Even a gentle touch would make it that much more difficult for Rhett. And Sheryl was uncertain of his interest—frustrated in attempting intimacy without reciprocation.

To add insult to injury, neither one actually talked about their reactions. Rhett never admitted when he was uncomfortable, and Sheryl never thought to ask. They weltered in awkward, unresolved silence.

“In the worst of times, [any type of intimacy] would bring back an intense amount of flashbacks and memories,” says Rhett. “You want to isolate yourself and, at the same time, inside your head, you don’t have the abuser to blame. You have the person that you love.”

That’s exactly what he did “in the darkest of days”—blamed his wife. But he wasn’t transferring fault for the abuse he experienced as child. Rather, it was feeling as if he was being victimized again, with the confusion that this is a person that you love. “It would create a shutdown of communication,” he admits.

And communication, like intimacy, was a battle. It’s not that they fought on a constant basis—they were never a couple to do so, says Rhett. But when they did, the heaviness of the sexual abuse took its toll. Neither knew how to shoulder the weight—Rhett couldn’t express his haunted moods, and Sheryl couldn’t understand the situation outside of her role in it. They were hurt and suppressed. Sheryl second-guessed herself and Rhett’s love. “There were so many mistakes along the way,” she owns.

“It was hard to recognize it was something he needed to fix himself,” divulges Sheryl. “I can’t tell you how many times we would have those arguments where he said, ‘This is not about us. It’s about me,’ and I would say, ‘No it’s about us.’ But the truth was, it really was about him.”

A few years ago, the couple attempted marriage counseling but quit after three sessions because the therapist, who lacked knowledge on the subject of sexual abuse, was “awful.” And in November 2009—a time Rhett considers the worst moment in their relationship—it seemed they reached the end. “Neither one of us knew what the hell was going on and we were the ‘players’ in it,” he says.

So separation was considered. He told Sheryl he “wanted to just be left alone”—that they would be better apart. And after all he achieved in therapy, which he started in 2005, he just couldn’t shake the feeling of his “role in the abuse and unworthiness.” Nothing was helping. Nothing.

Until he discovered MaleSurvivor, an advocacy group for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In May 2010, he took one of the scariest leaps—he joined MaleSurvivor’s Weekend of Recovery retreat. And when he returned from the supportive and emotionally overwhelming event, his life and their relationship took a positive turn “in all directions.”

It turned Rhett into an activist. Hearing the stories from over 20 other men helped him realize he wasn’t alone—that it wasn’t his fault. From articles to The Oprah Winfrey Show, Rhett began speaking publicly about the abuse, with Sheryl by his side (Rhett’s bravery drove Sheryl’s father to tell his family that he, too, was sexually abused as a child). They even shared their story for Dr. Howard Fradkin’s book, Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive (Hay House), slated for release in November.

But the healing is ongoing. They’re mending those years by supporting each other, and attending events and doing interviews like this one together.

Sure, intimacy is still an issue because the sexual abuse is a scar. But now they ask those important questions—and they know the love they have is a central and unremitting truth. Plus, after 22 years of marriage, their amour-propre is more grounded. The time, the obstacles, and just surviving sexual abuse are gifts. “When you know where [to put] the abuse, and you are grateful for what you have, the ability to heal is continual,” Rhett says. “Going from being a kid being urinated on while sitting on the side of a bath tub, to sitting with you doing an interview, that defines a miracle.”

Their experience also motivates Rhett to speak out. It gives them an opportunity to provide struggling couples with the guidance they lacked while on a journey that was much longer than it needed to be, they say.

“But you know what? Along the way, we laughed and cried, joked and had bills…,” Rhett begins.

As if reading his thoughts, Sheryl finishes: “…a foundation.”

Published on Role/Reboot – Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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