Whatever the status and make-up of the relationship, there are feelings and reactions commonly experienced by the significant other of someone who has survived sexual assault. You are not alone.
The important thing to remember is that these feelings need to be recognized and addressed by both you and your partner, so as not to create further distress in an already traumatic situation. University Psychological Services can help. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call (330) 672-2487.
Rape and sexual assault are not acts of sexual motivation or sexual gratification, but rather acts of violence that use sex to dominate, humiliate, and control. Many people confuse this violence with sex because the same body parts are involved. Therefore, sometimes people respond to a survivor of a sexual assault as if s/he had provoked, wanted, or enjoyed it. To the contrary, the assault often leaves the survivor with a deep sense of violation and emotional upset. Understanding this reality of sexual assault is important to the processes of healing and recovery for you and your partner.
There is no prescribed method of healing from sexual assault because each person's experience will vary. Healing takes time and begins with compassionate support from loved ones and friends. Here are some strategies that you may find useful in helping your partner recover from the trauma she or he has experienced.¹
1. Believe your partner. Studies have shown that the reaction of the first person to whom a survivor discloses his or her story, whether positive or negative, will affect the way in which healing occurs. Believing your partner without question or hesitation is the most important thing you can do for him/her.
2. Assure your partner that it is not his or her fault and that he or she is not to blame for the assault in any way. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important that we help them understand that, no matter what happened, it was not their fault.
3. Be there. Listen non-judgmentally. It is a natural response to analyze and question when someone tells us a story. However, active listening skills teach us to talk less and listen more. Never question a survivor's actions, details of the assault, or why your partner feels the way he or she does. If you are having difficulty understanding what your partner is saying, try to clarify by paraphrasing what you do understand. In addition, you can reflect back to the person the feelings you have heard him/her share to ensure that you are not assuming your partner's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.
4. Assure your partner she or he is not alone. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. You can be the most helpful just by being there. Your presence can reassure the survivor and allow him or her to work out his/her feelings in a safe environment.
5. Empower your partner. Because rape and other types of sexual assault are crimes that take away an individualâ€™s power, it is important not to compound this experience by putting pressure on your loved one to do things that he or she is not yet ready to do. Remember, it is always up to the survivor to make choices that will affect the healing process. Providing your partner with resources and options will help him or her regain the control that was lost.
6. If your loved one is willing to seek medical attention or report the assault, offer to accompany him or her wherever he/she needs to go (health center, police station, etc.).
Below are helpful phrases that you can use to empower a survivor of sexual assault or encourage your partner to talk:
Actions and phrases to avoid when helping a survivor of sexual assault:
¹Information on helpful and non-helpful responses adapted from the VAASA Volunteer Manual, 2nd Edition, 1998 and Avalon: A Center for Women and Children "Active Listening" handbook.