Dear Margo: When the Past Winds Up in the Present

Margo Howard’s advice

When the Past Winds Up in the Present

Dear Margo: My husband and I have been married for 10 years, and for the most part, things have been good. Now, that has all changed. Through a family member, I found out some disturbing things about my husband, his past and his beyond-dysfunctional family. Apparently, he was forced (as a preteen) to watch his gay cousin masturbate, and it continued into his teen years, with my husband becoming more involved with the gay cousin — helping, masturbating himself, etc. He also had a sexual relationship with a female cousin well into his teen years. And as if that were not enough, supposedly he and another brother molested their younger sister.

I confronted my husband about all of this. In the beginning, he lied and denied it. Later, he came clean about everything but vehemently denied molesting his sister.

It’s been almost a year since this news came to me, and I am still living in shock and disgust. Shortly after I discovered this, I sought counseling because I was having a hard time functioning on a daily basis. That came to a standstill when the counselor wanted to start couples counseling and my husband refused. So I am left with many questions and much confusion and shame. He, on the other hand, feels everything is OK.

Am I dwelling on this too much? With the exception of just a few females in the family, no one else in the extended family knows anything. — Struggling

Dear Strug: Your husband was clearly the victim of abuse. If he molested his sister (a disputed fact), it would be consistent with abusers having been abused themselves. However, because he admitted to everything — but denied the sister’s mistreatment — I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially because you say things were fine until a family member gave you the background.

His unwillingness to get counseling indicates he has come to terms with his past, and it sounds as though he is functioning well. I suggest that you continue counseling, however, because you are the one who is troubled. I believe in rehabilitation and reform and the statute of limitations. — Margo, painfully

Conflicted and Ambivalent

Dear Margo: I need help. I am married to a great guy, but I frequently find him annoying. (This feeling did not surface until after we got married). The poor guy tries very hard to avoid upsetting me, but he fails miserably. I am sometimes disgusted with myself for the nasty and mean things I say to him when I am angry. We stay married because I cannot find a reason to leave him. However, I think staying with him only makes the two of us miserable (he disagrees).

On top of that, I want to move back to my home state, which is just a few hundred miles from our current home. My husband likes where we are now. Should I just move without him? There are several practical reasons for going back. I feel trapped. I am not happy if I stay, but it just feels wrong to leave. I do love him, but I do not feel I need to have him in my life to be happy. — Going in Circles

Dear Go: Yours is a letter in which one does not have to read between the lines; one can just read the lines. You are seriously ambivalent about what to do. Finding this “great guy” annoying is a cover for deeper discontents. You are not living where you want to be. You’re feeling trapped. You snipe at him and then feel awful — but you can’t stop doing it. You are unhappy and believe you do not need a mate to be happy. Resentment certainly has to figure in.

Were I you, I would have a trial separation, and the time apart will likely give you the answer about how you want to live. Marriage is not for everyone, and a guy doesn’t have to be a bum for a woman to want to call it a day. Not every divorce need be tied to abusive, addictive or criminal behavior. Good luck sorting this out. — Margo, experimentally

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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32 Responses so far.

  1. avatar D C says:

    I think I understand pretty well where LW#1 is coming from.  You grow up being warned of and protected from “The Boogy Man”, and then find out he’s sharing the same bed with you.  One of my older brothers used me to practice his hand work on for a while.  Through counseling as an adult I was able to get past it. He lives in another state and we have no contact, but I have wondered if his daughter was ever put in that position.  Knowing his wife, I don’t think so.  She’d probably shoot him, which would certainly not cause me to shed a tear. 
    Continue going to counseling without him, like Margo said.  It make take a while to work through this, or you may find that you cannot live with it.  But ending counseling and just “getting over it” like your husband would prefer, is not a good option for you.  It’s like trying to keep the furniture dry when your house is being swept away and sinking into the flood of a storm surge.  You eventually get tired of trying to hold everything up and fall down. 

  2. avatar Cindy M says:

    L #1: I don’t feel qualified to weigh in, because of the severe nature of it.
    L #2: Go with trial separation. It might help clear *his* head too. Absence might make the heart grow fonder…might not. It’s best to get this sorted out before more time passes, or children come into the picture. It seems quite a bit of your unhappiness stems from being away from where you’d like to live (back home); I can relate.

    • avatar Cindy M says:

      I want to add, L #2, that it might do to give husband an ultimatum: “Let’s move back to my hometown/state; see if we are better together there. Because I’m REALLY unhappy here, and you don’t want to understand that.” If he loves you and wants the marriage to work, thrive, prosper he should be willing. Unfortunately there’s still this pervasive attitude that it’s the woman who’s got to make the changes, put up with, sacrifice, adjust…blah. I began “educating” my husband early on that it’s about *US.* He’s got to give to the relationship as much as I.

      • avatar D says:

        Ultimatums are generally terrible ideas, and this case is not an exception.  He may want to stay where he is because of “practical reasons” (e.g. good job, cheaper housing) or because he just likes where he is.  The question I would really like to ask the letter writer is why she got married in the first place.

        • avatar judgingamy says:

          I agree D. Let’s say LW insists her husband come with her, he gives up a good job, can’t find another one, is generally miserable, and LW STILL decides she wants to leave him? He would have wrecked his life trying to make her happy and would still come up empty.

  3. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) Continue counseling, while minimizing the family get-togethers.
    2) Trial separation sounds good to me.

  4. avatar Mona Lisa 222 says:

    LW#1:  My husband was sexually abused as a child–his history is quite extreme, actually and involves him (as a child) participating in some behaviors he is horrified by today.  So I can truly understand the feelings that come up for you in learning about this.  But I also understand that the most helpful reaction on your part is compassion and concern rather than horror.  Unless you have reason to believe that he (not you, HE) remains troubled by his past or is abusing others, your role should be to love and support him rather than judge him. 
    It may be that one reason you’re having such trouble finding compassion for him is that you did not learn of the abuse directly from him.  (I did learn of my husband’s abuse from him, before we were married.)  It may feel as though he kept a secret from you–you may feel betrayed.  This is understandable but I think it’s your issue to work through. 
    I do wish you all the best with this.  I know this is a difficult and complex issue.

    • avatar fallinginplace says:

      I too wondered whether LW#1 was misdirecting her disgust at her husband rather than the person(s) who forced him into this behavior. By all means continue counseling if it helps you, but bear in mind that your husband was the victim, not the victimizer.

      • avatar judgingamy says:

        That’s an interesting point about being disgusted with the victim of abuse instead of the perpetrators. Sadly, it happens a lot, I think even more often when the victim of sexual abuse is a male. I wonder how this even all came out.

  5. avatar L T says:

    I normally agree with Margo, but seriously?!?! LW#1’s husband’s “unwillingness to get counseling indicates he has come to terms with his past”?!?!
    At best, to me it shows an inability to come to terms with how upset his wife is. At worst, he’s never dealt with these issues.
    I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the last person I knew who had “come to terms with his past” ended up having molested his granddaughter and eldest stepgranddaughter — and was fortunately caught before the other girls got old enough to garner his attention.
    I cannot imagine being so blase about this, ESPECIALLY when he won’t even to go couples counseling to help his wife deal with it.

    • avatar Kathy says:

      I agree completely.  Refusal to go to counseling when you’ve got this type of history suggests you have gotten good at burying it, but not dealing with it.

      • avatar mac13 says:

        Burying it is a way of dealing with it. When buried it doesn’t rule your life every day.

        • avatar bobkat says:

          No, but it does have a way of coming crashing back at a later time. The only effective way to deal with trauma is to face it and deal with it by talking about it with a professional.

          • avatar mac13 says:

            I disagree. A lot of people think that way.  The truth is, “dealing” with it means putting it to rest.  Putting away as much as humanly possible. I spent several years in counseling with 3 different therapists. All 3 helped me to understand; 1, it can’t be undone. 2, don’t let the hurt rule the rest of your life. 3, forgive yourself. 4, put it in your past and leave it there. Facing it and dealing with it are just toss away terms. Until you are able to lock it away deep in your memory, you face it every day. Facing it means nothing.

    • avatar mac13 says:

      His wife is upset that he has found a way to deal with his past sexual abuse. And she can’t. It probably took him years to get past it or at least hide it deep in his memory. She wants him to go to counseling. Why? So it can be dredged back up and on his mind all the time? She should tell him how proud she is that he has been able to lead a somewhat normal life after all that has happened to him. L T, not every person that has been abused will end up an abuser. Some do, yes. Maybe the majority, but you can’t lump them all together. As far as he didn’t tell her but that she found out thru someone else is the worst thing that he has done in my opinion. Secrets like that don’t stay hidden as is with this case. He should have told her about his past. If I were both of them I would sever ties with the person that is spreading the word.

      • avatar L T says:

        I am aware that not everyone who is abused becomes an abuser. I’m also aware that the ones who are most likely to are the ones who haven’t truly dealt with what happened to them.
        As I said in my post, though, it’s just not the being a victim of abuse that would concern me. The real warning signs are that he denied that it ever happened before he admitted it to his wife — whom he hadn’t told before they were married, and that’s a pretty big deal — and that he refuses to go to counseling with her.
        Thing is, she wasn’t asking him to go to counseling for himself. The counselor wanted them to come together to help her deal with these issues, and he couldn’t cope with that, even for the sake of his marriage. To me, that’s a BIG warning sign that he has not, in fact, dealt with it.

        • avatar mac13 says:

          L T, do you have any idea how an abuser gets away with it for so long or forever? They humiliate the victim. Make them feel worthless. Make them feel that they deserve it and deserve no better. Tell them they really want it. Convince them that no one will believe them. How this young man got past this we will never know. I would say it is a miracle that he did. Now his wife is all about how awful SHE feels.  How SHE went to counseling. How SHE is shocked and disgusted. How SHE is in shame. All the time reinforcing what the abuser probably made him feel. He is the victim, not his wife. The fact that she can’t see that is beyond me.

          • avatar L T says:

            With respect, I have to disagree. You’re making it sound like the wife is being completely selfish and victimizing him all over again.
            But she’s not the one who kept this a secret. That’s him. She’s not the one who lied when directly asked about it. That’s him. She’s not the one who refused to help her spouse that reached out for help. That’s him, whether you think she should have needed help or not. The abuse wasn’t about her, but these issues certainly are.
            These are all trust issues that remain very present in their marriage. And they’re caused by what appears for all the world to be his inability to deal with something he suposedly “got past”. Which makes me think he’s not past it, not at all. People who have come to terms with something don’t generally deny it happened, even if they don’t particularly want to dwell on it.

          • avatar mac13 says:

            The trust issue here is the only issue there should be. He should have told her at some point before marriage that he was sexually abused as a child. The details are too painful to talk about. She needed to be told that. No more. As for denial? I have my own theory about that. Maybe in a previous realtionship he confided about his past and was rejected because she was disgusted, confused, and shamed. Just like his wife is. Once bitten, twice shy.

          • avatar Carrie A says:

            I’m sorry but that excuse is complete and total b.s. He was rejected before because of his past so he somehow thinks that justifies hiding it from the next person he dates? No, sorry, it doesn’t. He still owed her the truth so she could decide if it was something she could live with. Unfortunately not everyone would be able to get past it but that doesn’t mean he gets to hide it. He owes her some support since it was his lies that put her in this state. The fact that he doesn’t care enough to even do that makes me think she should reconsider the marriage.

          • avatar mac13 says:

            You know, I am shocked, disgusted and shamed (just like the LW is) that there is no sympathy for the victim. He owed her “I was abused”. “It is too painful to talk about”. He should owe her NOTHING more. If she can’t respect that, he is sooo much better of without her and I pity the next man she ends up with. She is one of those that has to make it “all about me”. Self centered. If the victim was a woman, everyone would be up in arms over the way she has been vilified.

          • avatar L T says:

            I wasn’t going to respond again, because you and I clearly have very different ideas of what it means to deal with something, and I suspect we will never come to agreement on that.
            But then my curiosity got the better of me after reading your latest post.
            Are you, or have you ever been, married or in a committed lifetime relationship? I ask because I find your wording so odd.  You speak of what he “owes” his wife as if she were an acquaintance, friend, family member, or even casual girlfriend for whom it would be improper to ask questions that were too personal.
            To me, a marital (or marital-type) relationship is very different.  You do “owe” a spouse, for lack of a better word, support even when it makes you uncomfortable, and honesty on matters you needn’t share with the rest of the world.  The LW doesn’t speak of plans to have children, but if they do, she does need to understand the person she is choosing to share that with, and needs to know that he’ll tell her the truth and be present when she needs him — even if he doesn’t think she should need something.
            And frankly, I can’t imagine being married to someone who kept something so major from me, lied to my face when asked about it, and acted like I had no business needing help to deal with it.  I don’t think you should have to share every random thought with a spouse, but something this major, yes, there does need to be understanding and communication, because it raises issues that affect the marriage.

          • avatar mac13 says:

            I was using “owe” because that is the word Carrie A used. I truly believe he needed to tell her he was abused.  And to tell her the details that HE was comfortable with. I can’t imagine a man asking a woman who was raped before they were married about all the details if it was painful for her, and she told him she was past that. It becomes lurid curiosity in my mind. And to me that kind of curiosity is damaging. Yes, I have been married. I have children and grandchildren. I am now a widower. My wife knew that I had been abused and I also had mixed feelings about my sexuality. We had a wonderful life together. I attibute that in part to the fact she accepted that I just could not talk about what happened to me.

  6. avatar luna midden says:

    Who from LW1’s husband’s family ‘inflicted’ this learning session on her? If it was his younger sister…. Then, yes, it was justified… and I, as the LW would be alarmed, and INSIST on counselling, since he denies molesting the younger sister. (even if the younger sis was molested, he could have been a victim too, if his brother was the dominate one, forcing the whole situation…again, therapy NEEDED!).. I am not a male, but, masterbation in front on one another… occassionally happens according to some things I have read. Neither is cousins having sexual relations while growing up. Rare, but it happens. Yes, his family is dysfunctional, strange…..   but, it is possible he has gotten past it… OR HE IS NOT READY TO DEAL WITH IT YET! This is her husband’s burden.. and unless there is reason for anyone to suspect for him to molest children, I do not know why she is soo upset. He did not put himself in that position, he was born into it.

    • avatar Davina Wolf says:

      It keeps occuring to me that he did molest the younger sister and doesn’t want to discuss the issue in counseling.  I can see why the letter writer is upset–the husband hasn’t been truthful and is uninterested in helping to ease her mind.    

  7. avatar beiskaldi says:

    If LW#2 were a male, every female advice columnist I’ve ever read, including Margo, would be telling him to go to counseling to find out why he feels the need to be so cruel and treat his wife so badly, and probably insinuate verbal abuse to boot. LW, you should seek out counseling to see why you can’t control your harpy urges, and also to figure out what is at the root of those urges to begin with. It will help you learn to talk productively to your husband and discuss everyone’s feelings and happiness or lack thereof. Then you can figure out whether separation is necessary.

    • avatar mac13 says:

      Wow, even though I kind of agree, I have to wonder; what does he do to set her off even though he tries not to. She sounds like a generally unhappy wretch. What led her to that? Counseling first the marriage counseling. If she can’t then leave the poor guy so he can move on and have a chance at a happy life.

    • avatar jezoebel says:

      True. If LW2 was a guy, he’d be ripped to shreds in this column. Even if she does push for a move back home, trial separation, etc., she sounds like nothing will ever make her happy. Go to counselling to deal with your unhappiness before your husband is the one that decides on a “trial separation”.

  8. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – I completely agree with Margo. The lady still needs counseling to deal with what is now her issue.
    LW2 – Also agree except the trial separation. Why? If she can’t commit to the marriage then she needs to commit to a divorce and let this poor guy go. Purely anecdotal but I do not know of any, not one, trial separation that did anyone any good other than help them decide a divorce was the way to go. Fork. Done.  

  9. avatar Allaroundtheworld says:

    Letter #1 really struck a cord with me and it took me a few days to really put my thought together. As a child who knew he was gay I was already feeling out of place in the world. Living in a very vitrol religious family didn’t help. Then when I turned 11 and started to be molested by a male church member for 4 years. This left a major scar on my emotional state. Not only did I feel hate about myself about being gay but the molestation just made the darkness even deeper. I tried to commit suicide a few times but I did finally get a way at 16 and left my families religious cult. Eventually I did get mental help and I’m happily in a loving relationship of 24 years. He didn’t know anything about it until maybe the last 5 years until I was ready for it to be told, and that was only because my molester found me after I had moved 5 states away and tried to get in contact with me and I broke down. Now the problem I have is that so many people think when a male gets molested, he automatically becomes a molester. Thats not true, only a small percentage will. And in the letter, the wife is condeming the husband because he has come to terms with his molestation and has moved on with it. Some of the things that he is said to have done isn’t even stated as fact, she used the words “Apparently, he was forced to” and ” And as if that were not enough, supposedly he and another brother molested their younger sister.”  This is not fact, this is hearsay. Which family member told the wife about this? Why? The husband did admit he was molested and didn’t molest his sister. That word supposedly is the word which makes me think it didn’t happen. There isn’t enough information in this letter to know what really happen, but the wife has no right to blame the husband for being a victim. She has no right to force him into therapy if he doesn’t want to (even though he probably should go) it’s his own choice, and she shouldn’t be listening to every bit of gossip from his obviously disfuctional family because I’m sure the story has gotten bigger and uglier with each telling. From one victim to another, healing is different for each person, not everyone has to do the same thing but with time and support we all will become stronger either for ourselfs or for eachother.

    • avatar Carrie A says:

      The question is not who told the wife about this and why but why didn’t the husband? Hiding something this huge from the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with is wrong. She was owed the truth but he lied to her. It’s no wonder she’s struggling with it now, especially since he continued to lie to her after she found out. I think it’s more about the trust issue it’s created than the actual abuse. And he owes her some support and help with that.

    • avatar mac13 says:

      AATW, I fully understand what you mean. I too realized at a young age, I was gay. But after all the abuse I received I was terrified of a relationship. I figured all the violence was just part of what being gay was about. It took me years to realize that counseling could help me. I am disheartened that some of the posters here have no clue what it takes to get over abuse. The “face it and deal with it” attitude is shocking to me. I feel a woman would never be told that.