Couples' stories of challenging effects of incest: Keeping the heart lines open

Susan J. Faulkner (1998)

Incest is a prevalent issue affecting approximately 20% of women in the United States (Russell, 1986; Wyatt, 1985). Only with the emergence of the women's movement in the 1970's, have women's stories of the reality of incest, previously denied and re-labelled, been heard and validated. Many of these women become involved in relationships, and these relationships are, then, often influenced by the effects of the incest. Given the dominant patriarchal underpinnings of our culture, it is not surprising that the entire story of the impact of incest is still emerging. One example of this and the focus of this study regards couples' experiences with incest. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of how couples affected by an incest history are able to deal with and reach a sense of resolution over the effects of incest on their relationships. Using qualitative methodology, six heterosexual couples with a woman incest survivor and a partner who is not, who described their relationship of at least three years as having been affected by the incest history, and who described themselves as having made significant progress toward resolution of these effects on their relationship were interviewed. Drawing from narrative and solution-oriented perspectives, stories of the couples' experiences in coping with and challenging the effects of incest were explored with emphasis on: their meanings of resolution; strategies and practices they used to accomplish resolution; impediments to their process of resolution; and any changes that occurred within their relationship as a result of this process. The study couples' narratives suggest that the impact of incest on relationships is never fully resolved, however, couples are able to create preferred relationships and full lives together "in spite of" this ugly and destructive history. Using numerous strategies, including but not limited to, a team approach, frequent communication, support for the relationship, externalization of the effects, and challenging underlying patriarchal ideas of love, sex, and commitment, couples were able to re-author their lives so that they felt empowered over the effects of incest and more fully committed to one another.