“Significant others” (i.e. friends, family members, and partners of the victim/survivor of sexual violence) are also involved in the aftermath of the incident and may experience some of the same emotions as the primary survivor. It’s normal to want to support and help the survivor cope with their feelings, but to also need to deal with your own feelings regarding the incident–as well as the impact of the incident on your relationship with the victim/survivor.
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 or the recommendations for How to Support a Friend
Common Feelings of Significant Others
- Concern for the victim/survivor.
- Confusion about how to deal with the trauma.
- Difficulty understanding why the assault or violence happened.
- Helplessness – wishing you could have protected the survivor or prevented the violence.
- Wanting to “fix” the situation so that life can “get back to normal.”
- Guilt over “buying into” some of the myths surrounding sexual violence, such as a survivor provoking or asking for the assault or viewing the victim/survivor as a willing sexual partner in the incident.
- Shame regarding the reaction of family members, acquaintances, and the community, should the sexual violence 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 can return with the help of a nurturing, patient partner.
- Feeling out of control, which is a natural response. Someone has intruded in the life of this person that you care about, 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 or worry about retaliation and further violence, rather than focusing on their own healing.
- Frustration with the legal or campus systems.
- Anger. Anger is a normal response to sexual violence and can be aimed at the assailant or the systems that don’t seem to work. Although anger is expected and justified, significant others need to understand that venting anger on the victim/survivor will further their feelings of guilt and self-blame. Sexual violence 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. However, significant others are welcome to access support off-campus or on-campus through the:
Things to Remember
- Giving support means listening without judgment, believing the victim/survivor, being realistic about what help or support you are willing and able to offer, asking how you can best support them, being compassionate and patient, not trying to “fix” the survivor or the situation, and not buying into the harmful myths surrounding sexual assault.
- No one deserves to experience sexual violence! Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim/survivor. It does not matter that what the victim/survivor wore, drank, did, if they hitchhiked, if they went home with the assailant, or whatever it is believed made them more vulnerable. These things do not cause sexual violence. Perpetrators do.
- Significant others are responsible for dealing with and finding support for their own 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 internalize or silence their feelings and cause them to distance from those they care about.
- 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. Do not ask questions that could be construed as to imply blame.
- Many survivors blame themselves for the violence 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 incident.
- 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 sexual violence 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.