When a mother
becomes aware that her husband or partner has sexually abused
her child, she immediately experiences shock
and confusion and is torn in her loyalties. This is normal. She may feel anger and rage
at the offender
for what he has done, but many factors play into her emotional response
and her decisions
. These include, but are not limited to:
- Age of child - Disclosure by adolescent and older children may allow more ambivalence as child may exhibit problem behaviors and perpetrator may adamantly deny.
- Severity of sexual abuse behaviors - If the abuse incident is less invasive, the mother may struggle with life-altering decisions regarding reporting, court process, and possibility of jail for partner.
- Possibility of misinterpretation of behavior - If perpetrator gives plausible explanation, creating the possibility of doubt, the mother may get stuck in confusion and doubt.
- Partner's dominance and control - If the mother has assumed a lesser role in the home, and the partner is dominant and controlling, ability for clear, independent thinking may be compromised.
- Prior marital conflict and ruptured relationship - If the mother already doubts the validity of the relationship, this may be the event that spurs independent action away from the offender.
- Domestic violence and prior consideration of leaving the relationship - This variable works both ways. The presence of domestic violence can predict the mother's crisis in making a decision due to learned helplessness characteristics. However, it could also be the impetus needed for the mother to finally leave a destructive relationship.
- Length of relationship - If the mother has been in the relationship for a number of years, and if the partnership contained significant positive elements, the ambivalence and difficulty in moving away form the relationship is more difficult. The mother may not have seen anything prior to the disclosure. The information and process will be traumatizing.
- Prior betrayals of trust such as affairs - If the partner has been unfaithful in other ways, and the mother has forgiven and continued in the relationship, she may be prepared to leave him and be independent.
- Mental health diagnoses and impaired reality testing - If the mother suffers from a mental health issue (depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia), her ability to function, make decisions, protect a child, and move to safety as necessary will be impaired.
- Presence of siblings in home - Fear for the safety of other children can elicit positive protective action by the mother.
At the point of disclosure, mothers know that hard choices have to be made. She knows she is torn. Some mothers may fear speaking their true feelings, judging them as wrong and inappropriate. However, the child victim also experiences a similar ambivalence. Few fathers are all bad. The more positive fathering abilities and the good times and memories impact the choice to say good bye to the relationship and the offender.
Mothers may temporarily suspend the relationship but hold hope for the future.
Following disclosure of sexual abuse by a husband or partner, the choice is much more complex and multi-sided than a choice between two family members, perpetrator or victim. Choices are always made in a social context with layers of contributing factors. Historical influence, religious beliefs, attitudes of extended family members, financial options, and host of other variables have a part in the mother's thought and decision process.
Mothers face an elemental struggle for survival. Her level of self-esteem will impact her ability to make effective choices. Mothers may be confused about what to do, are concerned about the needs of all the people affected by their potential decisions, remain aware of obligation and duties, and struggle with the conflict between their personal needs and the needs of others. Self-esteem and a sense of empowerment are central to the ability of mothers to respond effectively.
Hooper (1992) describes four features of a mother's response:
- They pay attention to other relationships, not just the perpetrator and victim and evaluate conflicting relationships and responsibilities over time.
- Mediation and negotiation results in ongoing change in the status of risk and relationship, and mothers vacillate in motivation, determination, and commitment to specific action.
- The process of potential reunification involves risk-taking.
- Most mothers attempt to resolve conflict through communication.
Professionals continue to maintain a perspective that the mother's choice to remain with the perpetrator is the critical factor informing them of her ability to provide protection.