The family members and significant others of the survivor of sexual assault or abuse are also involved in the aftermath of the assault and may experience some of the same emotions as the primary survivor. They not only want to give support and help the survivor cope with their feelings, but the significant other/family member also needs to deal with their own feelings regarding the assault and the impact on the survivor and their relationship with the significant other/family member.
Significant others may feel responsible for taking care of the survivor or helping the survivor make decisions. If someone discloses their experience with sexual violence to you and you don't know what to say or do, it can help to explore this resource on Knowing What to Say to a Trauma Survivor
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 they 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 as a willing sexual partner in the incident.
- 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 further 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 their 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, which is a natural response. Someone has intruded in your partner’s life, and nothing feels the same; 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 their 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 the survivor's feelings of guilt and self-blame. Sexual assault is never the survivor's fault.
- Difficulty expressing feelings or asking for help. Significant others feel that because they aren't the primary survivor, they shouldn't access survivor support systems or that they should be able to handle it. It's also true that they may find a lack of support systems for secondary survivors (significant others/family). Others involved can access support off-campus or on-campus through the:
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 them to regain control over their 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 they hitchhiked, if the assailant went home with them, or whatever it is believed made them 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 their 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 them to distance from those they care about and lead to feelings of further isolation.
- 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 what 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 their fault, that they did the best they could in the situation, and that they 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.