My Dad Sexually Assaulted My Girlfriend

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Reader’s Question

I am 22 years old and in a four-year relationship. My girlfriend is two years younger, and at one point she had been living with my dad, step-mom, and brother when her mother and she were fighting. During this time (about three months), I later found out that my dad had raped her one night, and had continued to abuse her for the duration she lived there until she moved back to college. During that time I had been doing work up training to go overseas. She had been seeing a counselor during the school year, and when I went in with her for a visit, the counselor explained what had happened. Immediately after I heard this, I deployed to Iraq and had no time to deal with the emotions that came along with that discovery. My girlfriend and I decided to break up so she could be healthy, but now we are back together and I haven’t dealt with this myself. I’m lost about the relationship I should have with my dad because we were close. He has admitted what he has done but has not sought forgiveness, and his wife and his family choose to pretend it didn’t happen. I’m also lost about the relationship I should have with my girlfriend. I have forgiven her, and I know it wasn’t her fault. I love her and I know I want to marry her, but is it the right thing to do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Loyalties are severely tested when one person we love and trust harms another person we love and to whom we have responsibilities of care. Whether (and how) your marriage would work follows on whether you ultimately decide to continue a relationship with your father at all, and if so, how it will be structured.

If you break off relations with your dad, you will always have that gap in your life where he should be. If you do have an ongoing relationship with your dad, your girlfriend will at least indirectly be forced into contact with her rapist for as long as he lives. Either decision sends a message to your girlfriend about how you feel about her and about what happened to her.

So as you have intuited, the first order of business is to deal with this yourself. Counseling with a therapist who is experienced in sexual/domestic violence issues will help. She or he will have done this before and can save you having to reinvent the wheel as you work through your decisions. Once you have decided what you want to do about your father, then the two of you will be in a better position to decide whether you wish to marry.

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If you do decide to proceed with the marriage, pre-marital counseling with a family therapist will help in working out the practicalities. This is especially true if you are going to continue contact with your father, as you and your girlfriend will have dozens of decisions to make, from whom to invite to the wedding to whether and what kind of contact to allow the family with any children you two may have. A therapist experienced with domestic/sexual violence will be able to think of things you might not, both in terms of what scenarios to consider and how your proposed solutions might or might not work out. You also can use this opportunity to better your communication with each other, so that when important issues arise each of you can feel secure in going to the other with it right away.

A final note: rape can, by definition, only be the fault of the rapist. Society in general, and rapists in particular, are prone to blame the victim. For members of society, especially other women, looking for things the victim did or failed to do that caused her to be raped leaves them feeling safer, because of course they do not do those things. For the rapist, the benefit is obvious: he gets to off-load the responsibility for his behavior onto his victim. Even victims, not only of crimes but of accidents and even natural disasters, are prone to rehashing the event and looking for things they imagine they could have done differently. It gives them a sense of power and control that, however false it may be, feels better than believing they are at the mercy of a random universe. This triple whammy of victim-blaming could leave you and your girlfriend feeling that she needs forgiveness, when in fact she needs none. Your marriage will be that much stronger if you can go into it with both of you crystal clear in your minds that she was the victim of a crime.

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