The Effects of a False Accusation of Sexual Abuse on the Spouse of the Accused

Lesley Wimberly*

ABSTRACT: False accusations of sexual abuse can be devastating to all concerned.  The author discusses the traumatic effects of a false accusation from the perspective of the spouse of the person accused.

In the last decade, much has been discussed as to the effects on individuals who have been sexually abused as children.  Recently, the effects of false accusations of child sexual abuse upon the accused have come to the attention of mental health professionals.  But little mention has been made of the impact of false accusations on the accused's family and spouse.  In working with VOCAL and the thousands of families who call us each year, I have had experience in counseling with these little-acknowledged victims of the child protection system.  I have witnessed the internal destruction of marriages, and have seen those families who have held on, managing to move forward and remain united.  I have also, through the accusation my husband faced 10 years ago, experienced this devastation firsthand.  At this national conference, I think it is time to speak on the behalf of those who find themselves in the position of being the wife of the accused, for, all too often, in the heat of battle to prove innocence, and the tremendous financial and emotional demands that are placed on the accused's family, the wife and her private hell is not even discussed.  It is time we look at this issue and begin to heal.

There are phases through which the accused, his wife, and their family must travel from the onset of the accusation, through the investigation, trial, and aftermath of this nightmare.  The first requirement for surviving false accusations of child sexual abuse is the strength of the human spirit.  How that strength is sustained is a personal choice.  Some use meditation.  Some believe in an inner-self or the power of the mind.  Others choose religion.  Whatever your choice for personal strength and courage, your very life will depend upon it.  Those families and individuals who did not have this sustenance have met with great difficulty and very often become victims, to the point of losing their marriages, and even losing control over their own lives.

As a family goes through the legal system, all members will internalize the trauma in their own way.  Much like a family that has suffered the death of a child, each parent will grieve, in some instances differently.  Unfortunately, the "death" is not final, but lingering, leaving in its wake permanently changed people.  Once the spouses emerge from the case, they may realize that each has changed so radically that their spouse views them as a stranger.  They may, in fact be very different from what they were at the beginning of their journey into this "twilight zone" of the child abuse hysteria.  The change may be so drastic as to break down communication and ultimately destroy the marriage.

I believe that relating my own experiences will assist those of you here today in understanding that what you are feeling or have felt is not strange, or even wrong.  You will realize that you are not alone, and that there is hope.

The first time I saw in print the accusations against my husband was through the petitions filed against him by his former wife.  He had been seeking visitation with his only child since his former wife had refused visitation or even phone contact.  This visitation frustration had been brought on by the former wife's resentment over our marriage.

The allegations were in graphic detail, and because the child, being only 3 years old at the time, could not verbalize specifically to law enforcement these acts, the case remained in family court.  (Later, law enforcement would drop the case in its entirety because of the continued bizarre and impossible accusations of the former wife.)  I had only been married to George for a little over one year.  I had brought into the marriage three young daughters and a son by my prior marriage.  I found myself sickened and immobilized by the thought of even the remote possibility that such accusations were true.  I immediately spoke to my own children to see if they had witnessed or heard anything strange.  To my relief, they were as outraged as I had been.  A feeling of guilt began to invade my mind as I had realized that for a moment I had experienced my own fear and doubt that there may have been some iota of truth to the allegations.  This guilt grew daily as I witnessed my husband's pain.

George's reaction was one of anger, disbelief, and extreme grief ... for if indeed his baby had suffered molestation, he agonized over who did it, for it certainly wasn't him.  He, too, suffered guilt in the feeling that he had not been around to protect his child from this horror.  In the three long years that followed, the dynamics of both our personal relationship and our family dynamics changed radically.

Within the first few months, we were continually on a seesaw of emotions, for when he was down, I was up, and visa-versa.  We went through the motions of living — mechanically working and coming home and watching television, without seeing what was on the screen.  The children began to hate the stepsister that had changed their once happy parents into cold robotic strangers.  They grew sullen, argumentative, and demanding.  The worst was what happened to our intimacy as man and wife.  During a time when we needed each other's physical comfort more than ever, every sexual touch, kiss, or caress would bring the details of the accusation flooding into my mind, sickening me with the visual thoughts, invading my dreams, haunting me with nightmares.  The close, loving, experiences that were once so treasured, the warm and deep oneness, became soiled and made dirty by the accusation itself.

My loss of this most private and precious part of my life turned into a burning hatred toward the former wife.  Having never before experienced hate (dislike, yes; hate, never), and having been taught since childhood that hate was wrong, I began again to grow in guilt, which would compound my hatred.  Thus a vicious emotional cycle began to envelop my daily life. Just as a child's innocence is destroyed by these cases, my own innocence had been lost.  I had learned to hate.  I had found an ugly side to myself that until now I didn't know existed.

In the meantime, the demands of family life continued.  Children still needed love and attention, and the annual calendar ticked off the family-associated holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas ... all days to celebrate the family and the joy of children.  George would lock himself away during these times, both physically and emotionally, for such celebrations only pained him deeply.  When we would be out driving, just viewing small children at play would drive him deeper into his dark, brooding depressions.  In the meantime, I had to be the family's pillar of strength, for the demands of our other children needed to be addressed and stability had to be maintained.  It grew more and more difficult.

I found myself deep in my own personal emotional and spiritual turmoil, torn between my devotion for and impatience with my husband (for, I selfishly thought, it was his past that was causing my problems), and attempting to appear to the world and our children normal and content.  In my attempt to keep it all together, I began to deteriorate emotionally, crying at strange times, and being emotionally distant at others.

I realized that I had to prioritize the important issues in my life.  Because of my religious faith, I placed my belief in a Higher Power at the top of my list of priorities.  According to my belief, the next then would be my husband.  After that, the family.  By prioritizing my life, I began to find order in chaos.  I turned to religious and philosophical readings for strength and inspiration when I would experience doubt or fear.  I looked at my husband through his eyes, to understand how I would feel if it were my only child being separated from me and if I had been the target of such accusations.  I worked on understanding the motivation of his former wife (this was the most difficult) in her problems with alcohol abuse, loneliness, and the emptiness of her life.  I learned that by allowing her attack on us to so adversely affect me, I was letting her win.

I began to accept my humanness and understood that the emotions I was experiencing were normal, not wrong, and that I needed an outlet.  The falsely accused immediately learn who their real friends are.  Most will suddenly drop you upon hearing the accusation.  I found that such friends were not true friends and that I was better off without them.  VOCAL didn't exist then, so I had no one to confide in outside my own family, and I couldn't show weakness to family members, for they needed my strength.  Fortunately, I had a very large German Shepherd who loved to go for long walks.  I would slip out late at night or in the wee hours of the morning and would talk to him, the birds, or the 'possum, mumbling to myself as we would briskly hike through the dark neighborhood.  My Shepherd never changed in his love and faithfulness to me, and always regarded my ranting with a knowing look and a wet doggie kiss.

I kept busy, keeping daily journals, investigating the background of the former wife, gathering information that would show the her propensity to fabricate occurrences in her efforts to attain power over our lives and that of her child.  I talked with our attorney, and assisted my husband in his own emotional and spiritual growth, and he in turn, began to help me.

We began to use the seesaw of ups and downs, and when I was down, he would help me and I would reciprocate.  Slowly, surely, the deep emotional and intimate commitment we had once shared returned ... threefold in its strength and beauty.

We went to court and won.  But our first court victory was short-lived, for George's former wife moved to a different state, and leveled the same accusation again.  To date, we have gone through three state jurisdictions, and won in all three.  Now this desperate woman has run again.  We could have her found through federal assistance, under federal child-stealing laws, but we know that this wouldn't resolve anything.  We knew that once located by the federal agents, she would be arrested, and the child would be placed temporarily in a county shelter.  The mother would then state she ran because she "believed" the child to have been molested.  The whole issue would begin again, and the ultimate victim of a fourth trial would be the child, who has not had contact with us for over seven years.  We had run short of funds, and our other children need a chance at a normal life.  It is at this point my husband made a Solomon's choice, deciding not to divide the child with the sharp sword of the court, and backed away, hoping that someday she would seek him out on her own.

We founded VOCAL in California in 1984 and it has become my therapy.  I still feel a smoldering anger deep inside me for I see around me the thousands of cases brought on by similar circumstances.  But channeling that anger into something productive, such as helping others face this nightmare and seeking legal and legislative change, has, in turn, given me personal growth and opportunity.  I went back to school and changed career fields from engineering to law.  Once only a woman whose priorities were that of a "yuppie" who dealt primarily with the superficial and materialistic and my own family, I now give back to life what I have taken.  What could have been a tragedy became the challenge of our lifetime.  It wasn't easy, it took years of hard personal work, but nothing worthwhile is gained with ease.  Through this realization, I have learned that life can deal a vicious blow, even to people who are good, law abiding, and gentle, and that in such times of trauma, if we persevere, we can rise above the challenge and become the very best we can be.

* Lesley Wimberly, along with her husband, George, is the founder and head of California VOCAL, located at P.O. Box 1314, Orangevale, CA 95662.  This presentation was made at the National Association of State VOCAL Organizations (NASVO) in Sunnyvale, California on September 23, 1990.  [Back]

[Back to Volume 4, Number 3]  [Other Articles by this Author]

Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.