How You Can Help – For Partners
It can be tremendously inspiring to witness someone’s recovery process close at hand. At the same time, being in an intimate relationship with a survivor in the process of healing can be challenging. Difficulties with trust, intimacy, and sex, may be present. Your partner’s healing process may dominate your time together. You may feel confused about some of their behaviours and you may feel guilty or inadequate that you can’t take away their pain. Your partner may withdraw, take their anger out on you, or abstain from sexual activity for long periods of time. It may be hard for you to remember that these behaviours may have nothing to do with you personally. Here are some suggestions that may be of help to you.
- Listen to your partners’s feelings. Avoid suggesting to them how they should feel, such as “you should feel angry.” Encourage your partner to express the wide range of feelings they may be experiencing. Yet, at the same time, allow them to decide for themself when and how they will do this. Expect that they will have positive as well as negative feelings. Not uncommonly, some survivors have feelings of warmth and love toward the perpetrator for the non-exploitative part of their relationship especially if the abuser was also nurturing.
- Let them know you believe their story. Probably one of your partner’s biggest fears is that they will not be believed – they may even often have difficulty believing the abuse happened; they will only tell you what they can trust you with. Let them know that you believe what they tell you about the abuse. By denying, distrusting, or minimizing their experience, you will only strengthen their fears and push them back into silence. They need a calm, accepting, encouraging response. Don’t press for details and don’t focus on sexual details.
- Share your own feelings appropriately. It’s okay to share to your feelings of anger, sadness, and grief. In fact it may be helpful for a survivor to hear that you feel outrage or pain about their abuse. On the other hand, it’s very important that your feelings are not so strong or out of control that they feel that they have to take care of you. They may feel guilty about upsetting you and may stop expressing their own feelings in order to protect you. Recognize your feelings as separate from your partner’s. Be aware that angry and retaliatory behaviour can hurt your partner by making them feel anxious, out of control, and powerless. If this starts to happen, you may want to seek support elsewhere.
- Reinforce that the abuse is the offender’s fault – not the survivors. Reassure your partner that whatever they did or did not do was the right thing for them to do at the time to survive the sexual abuse. Help them to reverse their feelings of guilt, self-blame, and denial by always placing the responsibility for the abuse on the offender. Emphasize that, no matter what the circumstances, they are not to blame.
- Validate what they see to be the effects of the abuse. As a part of healing, it is important that survivors begin to link past events with current problems and make sense of these connections in their own way. Even though the connections your partner makes may sometimes seen illogical to you, accept what they say as valid. No one else knows better than your partner does how the abuse has affected them; no one else can do this “sorting out” process for your partner.
- Let them make their own decisions. In order for the survivor to regain or feel in control of their life, it is important that they are not overprotected. This means encouraging them to trust their own instincts, ideas and opinions. Recognize that changes or decisions they make may affect their relationships including their closest ones. Help them gather the information they need to make decisions. Support them in any future disclosures or confrontations they may or may not choose to do.
- Ask permission before offering physical support. Unless you have a firmly established custom of expressing affection in your relationship already, do not rush in with physical contact with your partner without asking for permission first. Some survivors may experience uninvited physical contact as an intrusion. It may remind them too much of the unwanted contact they experienced when they were being abused. Other survivors may find touching, holding, and hugging to be comforting. The important thing is for your partner to decide what they need or want.
- Accept that this relationship will have stresses and strains due to the long term impact of sexualized violence.
- Beware that some of your partner’s feelings about the offender may be inappropriately directed at a safe person. A survivor may transfer some of their feelings onto a partner with which they may feel safe. This may be confusing. When you believe this is happening one way of coping with this situation is to let your partner know when they are making expectations and judgments about you that don’t fit with how you see yourself. Gently point out when you feel your intentions are being misunderstood. If you start to feel defensive or aggressive resist acting this out with your partner. Instead, admit your reactions openly and look for ways to bring them under control.
- Respond to sexual problems with love and patience. In order to heal, your partner may need to stop doing anything sexual that they don’t feel comfortable with. They may not want to have sex at all for long periods of time. There are ways you can help to make this process easier for both of you. Talk openly about what is going on between you sexually, and encourage them to do the same. This may make things safer for them and keep the two of you emotionally close. Recognize that many of the needs you normally fulfill by having sex can be met in other ways. Be patient and open yourself up to other ways of being close while they are healing.
- Reinforce the fact that they have survived. Whatever they did or did not do was the “right thing” for them in order to survive.
- Recognize and respect your own limits. Try to keep tabs on your own emotional resources and don’t give beyond what you are capable of giving. If you do, you may end up resenting or withdrawing from your partner. Remember that no one person can give a survivor everything they need, nor can anyone make up for what they have experienced. Encourage them to find support with other people, not just with you. Spend time taking care of yourself. Hearing about their experiences may stir up unresolved issues and strong feelings about your own experience. It may be important for you to have outside support for yourself such as professionals, friends or family. Make sure you get the survivor’s permission before you talk about the abuse to others.
- Accept that you can’t fix it. As much as you want to, you can not take away their pain or struggles. Some people think they have to do something in order to help a person get over pain, but often there is not a lot you can actually do. Some emotional pain is inevitable and it is their work to transform their feelings. Your place is not to make it better – your place is to be a loving supportive partner through hard times.
Crisis and Victim Service support is available for family, partners and friends. Please call the Service Access Line (604-383-3232) in Victoria, or VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808.