Abortion and Ruined Relationships

Theresa Burke
with David C. Reardon
Forbidden Grief: Chapter 16
Reproduced with Permission

Tasha and Steve had been dating for six years. They shared a passion for music. As aspiring song writers and vocalists they were both immersed in the task of building a reputation in the music industry. They had developed a unique style that blended a pop country sound with lyrical and soulful harmonies. Together they performed in local night clubs and did occasional gigs at fairs and outdoor festivals.

They also enjoyed a large circle of friends, many of whom admired and even envied their ideal relationship as lovers and artistic collaborators. As soon as Tasha and Steve saved enough money to buy their dream house, nestled in a river worn cleavage of the Appalachian mountains, they were going to marry.

It was August when Tasha first discovered she was pregnant. The blistering heat, chronic nausea, fatigue, and dehydration forced her into an air conditioned emergency room only moments before one of their biggest shows of the summer. The diagnosis of pregnancy actually brought surprising relief for Tasha, who was beginning to suspect she was suffering from some peculiar disease. But on the way home from the hospital, Steve's silence created a deafening rift between them.

"I know you are upset about us missing the concert," Tasha reluctantly commented, as if they had just bungled the opportunity of a lifetime. She waited anxiously for him to acknowledge the pregnancy, but Steve only looked disgusted and continued his silence.

For the first time, Tasha felt disconnected from him. She wondered if he would have offered a more comforting reaction if she had been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn't long before Steve's feelings finally burst out. "We have to get rid of it. This whole situation is not in our plan! We can't do this, you know."

They drove almost the rest of the way home in silence, as bile snaked its way up Tasha's throat. She felt determined to have her baby, but she could not imagine being happy without Steve in her life. He was a part of her, too. At that moment a powerful panic gripped her. She could hardly breathe. "I don't want to lose you," she pleaded.

Steve was jarred from his hypnotic stare and broke his silence. "I suppose we could go on and get married," he said flatly.

For a moment, Tasha could breathe again. Even this underwhelming offer to accelerate their marriage plans was enough to give her hope.

But then, he continued emphatically, "But it would be hard to do everything we've been dreaming about You know, Tash, having a baby is a lot of work. You can't be out all night singing and then take care of a kid, you know. Things between us will change. Our love will be different"

The menacing chest pressure on her lungs returned, more forceful than before. Tasha looked at him with pleading eyes, unable to speak.

"But this is your choice," he cautiously reminded her. "I will support whatever you decide. Remember, you have to make this decision because you are the one that's pregnant."

Tasha rejected the idea of an abortion. But Steve's lack of support and intimidating emotional distance began to make an impact. She might well end up alone and abandoned. Why risk changing what they already had? Why jeopardize a blossoming career and a passionate relationship? Why chance alienating Steve with a baby that he really did not want?

Steve sounded so sure of himself. He was so practical, so clearheaded. Although he promised to be there for her, Tasha knew he simply wasn't ready to be a father. What if he resented the baby? What if he were to carry a grudge about this into their marriage? Clearly, he wanted her to have an abortion.

Steve's gentle nudging proved more effective than his steely silence and angry demands. Soon, Tasha began to surrender her hold on her excitement about the baby in favor of Steve's justification. When Tasha finally, reluctantly, agreed to have an abortion, Steve put his sheltering arms around her. With a firm squeeze he pledged his heart and soul to her forever. "We'll have other kids someday," he promised. "I'm gonna build you a big old house and you can have all the babies you want." Tasha clung ferociously to these last words - like a mantra to help her conquer the overwhelming anxiety and fears of "her choice."

Eight years later, Tasha sat in my office. After the abortion, she said, her relationship with Steve was never the same. Their nights were no longer worn comfortably, fitting their bodies like a second skin. Sex had no sensation; it just reflected the numbness of her heart. Tasha's consistent indifference toward Steve constantly reminded him of his failure. He felt a heavy and desperate unspoken guilt for not having the courage to help her give their baby life. Their baby's death hung over them like a funeral shroud. Even their music became discordant. It was as if their creative spirits had been sucked from their souls.

Tasha and Steve tried to part ways after a stormy and somewhat abusive split. But they kept coming back together in an attempt to mend the fractured picture of their lives together. Steve found comfort for his wounded virility in drunken binges, womanizing, and an addiction to pornography. Tasha sought refuge in the isolation of depression. She was imprisoned by agoraphobia (fear of public places), which only reluctantly offered her day passes to see a psychiatrist.

Everything about their relationship echoed the barren landscape their lives had become. Tasha recalled their bleak status:

There was an eerie stillness to our relationship. A disconnection, a loss of passion, music, and everything else we once shared. It all resounded with the echo of my empty womb where nothing grew, my body where nothing hurt, my life where nothing lived . . . it was the black hole. Our life went on in this vortex . . . with no love. He did his thing to shame himself, and I retreated into my numbness and depression. It was a sentence of eternal abandonment.

Relationships in Trauma

In trauma theory, it is well recognized that traumatic experiences affect not only the traumatized person, but also the attachments and relationships of that person to loved ones and the community. According to psychiatrist Judith Herman:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience . . . and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.1

Traumas related to sexual molestation and abortion are particularly damaging to one's ability to trust and engage in relationships. In the case of abortion, some form of relationship, whether casual or committed, was directly involved in the circumstances that led up to the abortion. It is not uncommon, therefore, for relationship issues to become mixed up with unresolved abortion trauma.

After an abortion, some women will become overly fearful, insecure, and dependent in their relationships with men. Others, deeply plagued with self hatred and guilt, become convinced they don't deserve a devoted relationship. Such individuals will push the loved one away in an unconscious effort to sabotage their relationship. Still others will become stuck in a pattern where they recreate situations of abandonment, helplessness, shame, betrayal, or destruction.

Research shows that abortion is much more likely to damage a couple's relationship than to enhance it.2 It may also inhibit women's ability to maintain lasting relationships in the future. Evidence of this is seen in studies which show that women with a history of abortion tend to have shorter subsequent relationships with men compared to similar women without a history of abortion.3 Women with a history of abortion are also significantly more likely to go through subsequent divorces.4

There are many reasons why abortion can damage subsequent relationships. In many cases, an abortion will deeply damage women's ability to trust men, including their husbands. This lack of trust can lead to both increased conflict and increased breakups. Lack of trust is seen in the many cases where women will enter into a marriage while keeping their prior abortions a secret from their husbands. The fact that they keep this secret reflects a fundamental fear that their husbands will judge them, reject them, or simply "hold it over their heads."

In other cases, the foundations of a relationship are eroded simply by the failure of the man to help the woman feel healed and forgiven. This is especially true if the woman enters into the relationship with the hope or expectation that it will fill the hole in her life that was left by her abortion. If, for example, a woman tells her fiance about a past abortion but he dismisses it as unimportant, she may experience his lack of concern as a lack of empathy, and even identify it as akin to the cold reaction of the boyfriend who impregnated her and encouraged the abortion. Conversely, if she senses any feeling of aversion or judgment on the part of her fiance, she may carry into their marriage a seed of doubt about the completeness of his trust or the sincerity of his love.

Sharing the secret of a past abortion is not easy. Neither is it easy to respond to such news in a way that acknowledges the other person's feelings without implying either dismissal or condemnation. The latter is especially tricky, since the apprehensive post abortive woman or man is often inclined to read between the lines and see reactions that are not intended or even truly there. If either or both partners are hesitant to bring the subject up for discussion whenever thoughts or concerns about it arise, this, too, tends to distance them from each other.

However, even if a couple has perfect communication skills and are completely supportive of each other, the reenactment of unresolved abortion traumas will inevitably lead to crises not only for the woman, but also for her partner and children. Similarly, abortion trauma related to substance abuse, sexual dysfunctions, anger, and depression, to name a few, all pose stresses for future relationships.

Pact of Silence

The passion of youthful love had intensified Elaine's first sexual experience. She was trusting, open, and inquisitive about her sexuality. Her passion led to an abortion, which distorted her views of sexuality and intimacy. Though she and her boyfriend broke up after the abortion, they never truly separated. For two decades, Jeffery continued to call her at least twice a year. But they never once spoke about the abortion. Reflecting on the origin of her trauma, Elaine finally wrote the following letter to her childhood sweetheart:

Dear Jeffrey,

It has been 20 years since we shared our intimate moments. Do you remember? We were in love! We would find a quiet back road where we could feel and touch and show and share love. We'd run off whenever we could. I was always so proud of you. You were popular - remember? You were the best player on your high school soccer team. And I was the one you loved. I knew, because it was me you touched and fondled. And so, by your love, I too was popular.

Remember that day in November? We drove far away to a clinic, so I could find out if I was pregnant. We certainly could not chance being close to home. And then we waited.

I still remember sitting on my parents' bed when I called for the results. Positive. What did it mean? I was pregnant. What did that mean? I was going to be a mother. I'm not even sure what that meant. Did I want to be what my mother was? The more I thought, the more I saw this child . . . smiling, laughing, kicking a soccer ball with you. What a beautiful vision. I started thinking of names - didn't you?

The holidays came, we seemed not to worry about it. Then came January, the cold, empty, lonely time. You came and said to me that you knew where we could go for an abortion and your friend's father - you know, the one who always called me "the Virgin Mary" because I was Catholic—would pay for it. I remember the sadness. I remember getting very drunk the night before the abortion and throwing up on you and all over your mother's car. I think how you deserved it.

Then you took me for the abortion. I was okay. We'd have another baby someday. Because of my love for you I was willing to kill. You would never leave me. But you did. Coldly, in anger, and quickly. And there I stood with my grief.

We killed our child. And now forever, we are bonded together as parents of a child without a life. We have nothing in common but all these years later, you still call. We're two marriages, two children and ten states later. You still call me every year. You tell me each time that you love me. Why? Why didn't you love me then?

I think I'll never ever know what love is. Because I loved and it caused me to kill. I know you are still dealing with your grief. I relive it all each time you call. I still hurt, I still ask why.

It took Elaine years to identify the source of her pain. Because of her abortion, she had developed numerous emotional and sexual dysfunctions. Real intimacy was something she had never achieved. For her, sex and love were intermingled with feelings of destructiveness. She reenacted this theme through her actions and fantasies. One way in which this destructiveness was manifested was through repeated promiscuous affairs with married men. She gained great pleasure and satisfaction from watching the affairs destroy marriages in a slow, draining fashion. She achieved a sense of power and control when she was the one who orchestrated the end of a relationship rather than having the separation inflicted upon her. Through custody battles fought for children, she experienced feelings of conquest when the fathers were separated from their children, recreating what had been done to her.

Elaine did not consciously plot and scheme her behavior. Nonetheless, she unconsciously gravitated toward these predictably disastrous relationships because they predictably reenacted themes associated with her traumatic abortion.

Jeffrey, for his part, continued to call Elaine over the years to reassure himself that Elaine was okay. They always spoke of their present concerns - the weather, jobs, kids, and partners. But they never spoke about what bonded them together, the abortion. They shared an understanding to forget the unmentionable, and yet it still connected them. For Jeffrey, the abortion was the source of his sense of obligation to Elaine. His twice a year calls were a salve for his own unresolved grief. Through the calls he sought to gain assurance of Elaine's well being and happiness, to offer her encouragement and comfort whenever needed, and thereby to ease his guilty conscience.

Keeping the Memory of Baby Alive

While uncommitted relationships almost always end very quickly after an abortion, more committed couples will often find that the abortion, while damaging their relationship, can also act as a relational glue. Such was the case with Nicky, whose promiscuous lifestyle following her first abortion only ended when she met a "perfect guy." She knew he was the man she would marry, so she wasn't at all upset to learn she had become pregnant.

I did not want to have an abortion. I told him that I had already had one when I was 18. I was just a kid then. Now I was 25, I had a job, I was an adult, I could actually have this baby. I had health insurance. He just would not hear of it. He said that he would not have a baby now. I could not make him have a baby now. He would not agree, absolutely not. He would not marry anyone because they were pregnant. That was a stupid thing to do. I told him I didn't need to get married. He said no way was a kid of his going to be born without [his parents] being married. That would make him look like a jerk. I begged him for two weeks, cried, argued. Finally, the date had to be set if I wanted to do it. He just refused to discuss it anymore. Period. He would just walk away if I brought it up. "Just do it."

I wrestled with the idea of having the baby anyway. He said he would hate me forever. What would I do without the guy I loved? I would have his baby but not him. In the end I almost called my Mom to tell her I was coming home, but as the phone was ringing I hung up. I made the decision in that instant that I would have the abortion and marry the guy. If I had the baby I might not have the guy I loved.

Anyway, I married the guy about two years later. A year after that I wanted to have a baby. He was never home. Always out doing some team sport. I thought a baby would be good. We had been married a year. He would not hear of it. He said he was too young to have a baby. He was 27, not ready to have kids.

Actually, he was not ready to be married. He had done so many thoughtless things to me during our boyfriend and girlfriend period, people wondered why I would marry him. We fought constantly. He was never treating me the way I wanted to be treated. I wondered for years why the heck didn't I break up with him. I would meet other guys and have affairs with them, but never just break up and start dating the new guys. Why not? Years later I realized why. Because I had made that deal with myself that I would marry him. I had to marry him. I had had an abortion for him.

As Nicky learned, in some cases abortion can cement a woman to even the most dysfunctional and unsatisfying of relationships. In many cases, women seek to hold onto the memory of their lost pregnancy by maintaining a relationship with their aborted child's father. He is the substitute for their child. Or, in his fertility, he may even be seen as holding the promise of replacing the child that she lost.

Nicky's experience was similar to that of Penny, who came into counseling along with her boyfriend David.

There is so much love in the expectancy of a child. I was so scared, but I was excited too. Wow! Me? A mother? David a daddy?

My excitement soon fumed to anxiety when I realized that the baby was not being welcomed with such enthusiasm. David did not feel so thrilled. He said it was a terrible thing to get married just because of a baby and we would resent each other later. I couldn't bear the idea of being resented. I blamed myself for how angry he was. Then I began to resent the child . . . then I had an abortion.

I wasn't prepared for how this affected me. I felt like somebody came in and grabbed a chunk out of my heart. I went home and part of it was missing - the part of my heart that was for that child. Somebody took a piece of my heart. A part of me died.

As time went on, I began to realize how selfish David was. I was filled with rage at him. Everything he did got on my nerves. He played sports a lot, and it seemed that every weekend when I needed him most to get through the depression he couldn't be with me because he had a game. I began to despise those stupid games! They were apparently more important than me! Secretly I hated him . . . but for four years I continued to date him, make love to him, buy things for him, and plan my future with him. In between our time together I would cry. I was with him, but alone. He didn't know me at all! That hurt so much.

As Penny and David discussed their differences, it became apparent that they had very little in common. She felt repulsed by his love of sports, while he existed to play them. She did not like his friends, his style of conversation, or his level of intimacy. David did not like her emotional demands, her neediness, or her relish for "feeling" conversation. Their communication was poor. So the obvious question arose. "What do you enjoy about each other?" I asked. Both sat looking at me, blank faced. Then they looked at each other. The unanimous answer in a giggled outburst was: "Nothing!"

David and Penny had stayed together as a means to figuratively "keep their baby alive." They were trapped by a form of complicated mourning. They had sacrificed their child so that their relationship could survive without resentment. Since the price they paid for maintaining the relationship was the termination of their pregnancy, their unhappy relationship had to be endured as a memorial to their lost child. In that memorial lay the pain of loss and isolation, re experienced each day by Penny. Unable to work through her grief and loss, she clung ferociously to their relationship. The thought of giving up David, despite the fact that she knew he would never meet her emotional or intellectual needs, was akin to giving up her baby.

Their relationship served to buy them time. It allowed them to put off their genuine aching grief over the death of their baby until it was more bearable. Their countless relational conflicts became a means of focusing the pain of their loss into something more tolerable. Once Penny became aware of these dynamics, her real grief over the abortion flowed out effortlessly. After that, it was easy for her to say goodbye to David and move on to a future that promised more personal and relational fulfillment.

Poisoned Relationships

As Sasha learned, unresolved grief over a past abortion can poison even the most committed married relationships.

My marriage ended 12 years later. In hindsight it was a slow death from the very beginning. When the pain of my abortions began to consciously surface more strongly, I went through a grieving process. I began reading a couple of books written by women like me, who had aborted their babies. They allowed me to see that I was not alone. They allowed me to see that I wasn't crazy. I finally could cry. And cry I did. Even as I am writing this, tears are beginning to fall for my babies, my little girls.

But my husband was disgusted by my grief. I felt very rejected, and in turn, I rejected him. All the years we were together I could not stand to have him touch me. Sex became a vile, disgusting thing for me. I always pushed him away.... The destruction of a precious sweet child totally destroys the beauty of the sexual union that created it.

Anger and grief obstruct productive communication, prohibiting problem solving and making intimacy, both personal and sexual, a futile effort. When the anger and grief are associated with a past abortion, their effect on a relationship can be even more toxic since discussing the abortion can raise so much anxiety that it is difficult to address in a respectful way.

For many couples, the topic of a past abortion is so threatening that it is simply banished, at the expense of authentic connectedness. Pamela shares how she, too, felt cut off from her husband due to his inability to share her grief.

Next to the pain of the abortion, the next pain was the fact I couldn't grieve with my husband. He just couldn't (wouldn't) face it. When he would start to consider the horror of it all, he would stop short and "tune out. I personally think it was too depressing for him to contemplate. I felt completely alone. I grieved alone. I hated him for that. This impacted every area of our marriage. I was repulsed by his touch and felt so much anger it was impossible to be close to him.

An abortion often reveals the weakness or even destructiveness of a relationship. In many cases, however, an abortion may compel women to stay in a flawed relationship because they no longer believe that they deserve anything better. According to Casey:

I felt if I didn't marry my aborted baby's father, no one else would want me because of what I'd done. My sense of unworthiness increased, and my ability to do the "right thing" in raising a child was in question. My husband was abusive, but I felt he was treating me as I deserved. My abortion made me feel like dirt, and I allowed others to walk all over me.

Because of her abortion, Casey lost all sense of personal dignity and self respect. She didn't believe that she deserved better treatment or a better relationship. This made her more dependent on the relationship she already had, and therefore more tolerant of the abuse that followed. Her need for punishment left her exposed to her husband and others who were continually pricking her painful emotional wounds. By becoming a perpetual victim, Casey recreated the helpless, depressed emotional state that had accompanied her abortion. By the time she entered a program for post abortion healing, there was nothing of her marriage left to salvage. Only after she was freed from the guilt and shame of her choice was she able to leave her abusive husband.

When Love Turns to Hate

A young girl's first experience with romantic love is likely to be idealized and highly charged. The same passionate zeal that is the well spring of youthful love, however, can also fuel a deep and lasting hatred. This was 1~year old Kim's experience. She had been involved with an older boy whom she loved with all her heart and soul. After she became pregnant, she felt abandoned and betrayed when her "knight in shining armor" responded with anger and rejection rather than protection or support. Shortly after her abortion, she made the following diary entry about her boyfriend.

I will never be the same!
I refuse to care about you again,
I can't, won't give you my love,
I have tried and failed at the impossible.
I will leave you now and never look back
You hurt me so badly inside
I trusted you, but I was betrayed
I gave you everything I had
I put you first in my life
All you did was use and hurt me
If you knew the pain I felt then
And only then could you understand
I guess I just fell too hard for you.
I'll accept now the truth
I have opened my eyes and now I see,
You'll never be there for me.
I want to kill you, you lying bastard!
Oh God I want to die! Oh God, how I wish I was dead!
I hate my life so much, God, how I hate my life.
I don't even know who I am anymore.
I am not the girl I was. I want my baby back . . . God I want my baby!

Her boyfriend's rejection and the subsequent abortion corrupted Kim's innocence. Her passion for love had become a passion for hatred. She felt violated, abandoned, and fragmented. She swore she would never trust again. Kim hardened herself to love and life, became angry and defensive, and had frequent thoughts of suicide. She felt like a stranger to herself and found it difficult to have faith in her own judgment. She gave up the flute, an instrument she had previously played with dedication and enjoyment. She experimented with drugs and alcohol, and her grades dropped at school. She knew she would never be the same again. Her dreams shattered, she was left with emptiness, grief, and intense rage.

Abortion can shake the foundation of the psychological and spiritual lives of those who have aborted. The act itself can foster resentment and alienation and, in the case of July, an intense anger and desire for revenge:

I hate myself for what I did. I feel angry at my boyfriend for being such a jerk. I thought he loved me. After promises that I was so incredibly special to him, I had to get an abortion. It was such a slap in the face. I wish he was dead, or got AIDS, or was mutilated in an accident, or had something horrible happen to him. I hope he can never have children. I hate his guts.

In the Elliot Institute survey, 47 percent of the post abortive women surveyed reported feeling hatred of those involved in their abortion, 35 percent reported hatred specifically of the man who made them pregnant, and 22 percent felt hatred of all men in general.

Heightened levels of anger are even more common than hatred. Eighty one percent of the post abortive women surveyed reported that their abortions produced feelings of anger, with 50 percent describing their anger as "rage." Moreover, 59 percent stated that they began to lose their tempers more easily, and 48 percent reported becoming "more violent when angered" after their abortions. Statistical analysis revealed that these higher levels of anger and hatred of others were strongly associated with feelings of self hatred and unforgiveness of self.

Anger is a protective armor. It tells the rest of the world that a boundary has been violated. Our society would like us to swallow our anger, and many of us do. But swallowed anger can contaminate our thoughts. It can consume our energy and resources. It can lead to still more injustice and violence, and contagiously infect others with anger and hatred.

Anger is also a precursor to grief. When one cannot grieve, one can at least be angry that there is a reason to grieve. If the grief process is blocked, however, and mourning never occurs, anger and outrage can become an ingrained part of one's personality.

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