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 her behaviours and you may feel guilty or inadequate that you can’t take away her pain. Your partner may withdraw, take her 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 her how she should feel, such as “you should feel angry.” Encourage her to express the wide range of feelings she may be experiencing. Yet, at the same time, allow her to decide for herself when and how she will do this. Expect that she 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 her know you believe her story. Probably one of your partner's biggest fears is that she will not be believed – even she may often have difficulty believing the abuse happened; she will only tell you what she can trust you with. Let her know that you believe what she tells you about the abuse. By denying, distrusting, or minimizing her experience, you will only strengthen her fears and push her back into silence. She needs 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 with her. In fact it may be helpful for her to hear that you feel outrage or pain about her abuse. On the other hand, it's very important that your feelings are not so strong or out of control that she feels that she has to take care of you. She may feel guilty about upsetting you and may stop expressing her own feelings in order to protect you.Recognize your feelings as separate from hers. Be aware that angry and retaliatory behaviour can hurt her by making her 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 hers. Reassure your partner that whatever she did or did not do was the right thing for her to do at the time to survive the sexual abuse. Help her to reverse her 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, she was not to blame.
- Validate what she sees to be the effects of the abuse. As a part of her healing, it is important that she begin to link past events with current problems and make sense of these connections in her own way. Even though the connections she makes may sometimes seen illogical to you, accept what she says as valid. No one else knows better than she does how the abuse has affected her; no one else can do this "sorting out"process for her.
- Let her make her own decisions. In order for the survivor to regain or feel in control of her life, it is important that she is not overprotected. This means encouraging her to trust her own instincts, ideas and opinions. Recognize that changes or decisions she makes may affect her relationships including her closest ones. Help her gather the information she needs to make decisions. Support her in any future disclosures or confrontations she 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 to your partner without asking her 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 she needs or wants.
- Accept that this relationship will have stresses and strains due to the long term impact of sexual violations.
- Beware that some of her feelings about the offender may be inappropriately directed at a safe person. A survivor may transfer some of her feelings onto a partner with which she 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 she is 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 she doesn’t feel comfortable with. She 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 her to do the same. This may make things safer for her 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 she is healing.
- Reinforce the fact that she has survived. Whatever she did or did not do was the "right thing" for her in order to survive the sexual violations. Remind her she has survived the worst and though healing can be difficult and painful, she will get through it just as she survived the abuse.
- 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 she needs, nor can anyone make up for what she has experienced. Encourage her to find support with other people, not just with you. Spend time taking care of yourself. Hearing about her 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 her 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 her work to transform her 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 Information and Crisis Line (383-3232) in Victoria, or VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808.
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