Support for Significant Others

The family members and significant others of the survivor of sexual assault or abuse are also, in many ways, survivors of the assault and may experience feelings similar to that of the primary survivor. He/she not only wants to give support and help the survivor deal with his/her feelings, but the significant other/family member also needs to deal with his/her own feelings regarding the assault and the impact on the survivor and his/her relationship with the significant other/family member.

Significant others may feel responsible for taking care of the survivor or helping the survivor make decisions. He/She may want to give the survivor support but doesn’t know how or what to say or do.

Common Feelings of Significant Others

  • Concern for the survivor
  • Confusion about how to deal with the trauma
  • Difficulty understanding why the assault or abuse happened
  • Helplessness—wishing he/she could have protected the survivor or prevented the assault, and wanting to "fix" the situation so that life can "get back to normal."
  • Guilt over "buying into" some of the myths surrounding sexual assault, such as a survivor provoking or asking for the assault or looking at sexual assault as sex instead of violence/abuse and viewing the survivor asa  willing sexual partner
  • Shame regarding the reaction of family members, acquaintances, and the community, should the sexual assault become common knowledge. This shame could lead the significant other to feelings of wanting to distance themselves from the survivor, leaving the survivor feeling isolated, rejected, or blamed for the assault.
  • Temporary loss of intimacy with the survivor. It may be difficult for the significant other to not take this loss personally. A survivor has been forced to recognize her own vulnerability, and as a result may find it difficult to trust enough to be sexual, even when the relationship is strong and nurturing. Being sexual, even in a healthy relationship, brings back memories of the assault. Intimacy will return with the help of a nurturing, patient partner.
  • Feeling out of control. Someone has intruded in your partner’s life, and nothing feels the same. Feeling out of control is a natural response to sexual assault; a sense of control will return with time and healing.
  • Wanting to harm the perpetrator. Although it is a natural reaction, striking out at the assailant may create further crisis and force the survivor to protect the significant other, rather than focusing on her or his own healing.
  • Frustration with the legal or campus systems.
  • Anger. Anger is a healthy response to sexual assault and can be aimed at the assailant or the systems that don't seem to work. Although anger is expected and justified, acting out violently will not solve anything. Significant others need to understand that venting anger on the survivor will further her/his feelings of guilt and self-blame. Sexual assault is never the survivor's fault.
  • Difficulty expressing feelings, difficulty asking for help. Significant others feel that because they aren't the primary survivor, they shouldn't be in survivor support systems or that they should be able to handle it. It's also true that he/she may find a lack of support systems for secondary survivors (significant others/family).
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Things to Remember

  • Giving support means listening, asking how you can help, encouraging survivors to ask for what they need, being sensitive and patient, not trying to "fix" the survivor or the situation, supporting the survivor in order to allow him/her to regain control over his/her life, not buying into the myths surrounding sexual assault.
  • No one deserves to be sexually assaulted! Sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor. It does not matter that what the survivor wore, drank, if she hitchhiked, if he went home with her, or whatever it is believed made her/him more vulnerable. These things do not cause sexual assault.
  • Significant others are responsible for dealing with and finding support for their feelings regarding the assault. The primary survivor needs to be concerned with his/her own healing.
  • Pushing the survivor to be intimate or sexual too soon will only slow down the healing process and can be damaging to the relationship. Healing takes time, and it is normal to want the victim to "get over it." "Hurry and get well" messages will only force the survivor to stuff feelings, internalize anger and pain, cause him/her to distance from those she/he cares and lead to feelings of further isolation.
  • A disruption of routine, even without crisis, can produce anxiety. Recognize that you and the survivor may both be in crisis. Prioritize issues that need immediate attention and let go of decisions that can wait.
  • Be sensitive in the way you ask questions regarding the assault.
  • Many survivors blame themselves for the assault or for being unable to prevent the assault. Reassure the survivor many times that it is not his/her fault, that she/he did the best she/he could in the situation, and that she survived the attack.
  • Your own feelings, personally, or your role with the survivor may make it difficult to ask for help. It is extremely important for you to talk about the assault and its effect on you with a supportive person who understands the issues surrounding sexual assault—a friend, family member, a counselor, or an advocate from a rape crisis/sexual assault center can help.

Adapted from information from the Sexual Violence Center of Hennepin County and the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota.