Do the Wives of Sexual Assaulters Know Something Is Off? Why Do Some of Them Decide to Stay?

Two sex addiction/abuse therapists explain what the women married to sexual assaulters go through.

Sex abuse, assault, and criminal behavior often happen in homes that appeared to be “normal.” Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes—all married men with children. They have acted on sexual urges that are no doubt harassment, at worst criminal. So we have to ask, what is going on with their wives? Many of these women say they are leaving, but end up staying once the story dies down. Some, like Camille Cosby, don’t ever mention divorce publicly at all.

Personal Space spoke to two sex addiction/abuse therapists about what wives of sexual assaulters go through—with one explaining an eye-opening theory that the wife is suffering from her own life-changing trauma upon discovering the person living in her bed is monster.

It’s easy to morally judge and assume that when you are abused physically, verbally, or emotionally — you leave. But what if the power dynamic in the relationship doesn’t allow you that opportunity? What if there are children involved?

Dr. Kelly Wise, Ph.D, Director, Supervisor and Lead Therapist at Wiser Sex Therapy, based in New York City, says, often, these wives are using a bunch of defense mechanisms, like denial, and rationalizing to try to begin to understand what is happening.

“I do think they know something. I hear many stories of people who have families where it’s like we know that Uncle so-and-so is a sex abuser, people keep their kids away from him but don’t shun him from the family,” Dr. Wise says. “Some women rationalize it — this is just how things are.”

He adds that sometimes there are “secondary gains” to staying in the marriage, and there are reasons people outside the relationship don’t know for why she wants to stay with him, plus, “not everybody has the moral duty to stand up for things.”

“It’s like all those stories of people in New York, when people walk by something horrible because they don’t have the time or energy to deal with it,” Dr. Wise says. “Sometimes people will say, well, I’m willing to sort of deal with this or that to get what I want. And defense mechanisms are very strong. Denial, rationalizing and bargaining go a long way. ‘Oh that was one time he said he wouldn’t do it again,’” Wise says. “They think they see remorse. They’re enabling at that point.”

There could also be major power and control on the man’s part, even financially, where the woman has no other option but to stay.

“Who knows what resources she has available? Maybe he controls everything and she just gets an allowance,” Wise adds. “So many men do that to call the shots. So many women are in that situation, like ‘even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t.’ It happens slowly. I don’t [think] anybody gets into a relationship and immediately hands over their financials.”

There are warning signs along the way, says Dr. Wise, and if you don’t take those as red flags then you’re slowly whittling yourself away to giving up your autonomy.

“If he’s not making behavioral changes, then you’re complicit and enabling,” Wise adds. “And I would say, if you’ve grown up in families with power and control dynamics that seem normal and people were stripped of their recourses for one person to retain control, you’re taught that’s what relationships are.”

Mordecai Salzburg, LCSW, who treats sex addicts and their partners, says while he can’t speak to a specific woman or situation, he does see that these women tend to have a “deer in the headlights, stand by your man” look about them. But that’s because they are going through trauma themselves, he explains.

“Working with couples who have gone through this, many women who are blindsided to their husbands sexual behavior outside the marriage, that’s trauma,” Salzburg says. “You’re dealing with women who have the discovery of a husband or partner’s longterm sexual behavior outside the marriage. That’s a blunt trauma and people’s trauma reactions are very much geared towards self-protection.”

It’s easy to judge the reactions of these wives as morally reprehensible, he adds, but “when a trauma like that occurs, her body and mind are processing it as a trauma.”

“The outside reaction can be judgmental, ‘how can these women stay?’” Salzburg says. “But we need to recognize that when people undergo a trauma the body and the mind protect themselves; the woman has to process her trauma, her life. People’s choices in that respect aren’t as clean as we would like them to be. There’s moral outrage.”
For the wife, the power dynamic is very likely still going on, and we don’t know what she stands to lose behind the scenes, especially when there are kids involved.

“They are also mothers who are trying to protect their kids, and she needs to work through her anger in a healthy way, while taking care of her children,” Salzburg says, adding that it is often very empowering for the wife of a sexual abuser/assaulter to hear she is a victim, too.

“It's very often empowering to hear it’s a trauma. I tell them you’re going to feel crazy for a long time, and that’s actually normal. Many women live with knowing something is wrong for so many years. You live with the relentless dual reality and a huge piece is ‘can I even trust myself?’”

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