Family, friends and partners
If you are supporting someone who has been raped or sexually abused it can be painful and confusing at times. It is often difficult to know how to act or what to say.
It can take a long time for a survivor to be able to talk about what has happened to them. It is important for them to be listened to and believed, regardless of when the abuse happened. If they chooses to talk to you, you can make it easier for them by:
- Making time to listen without judging, criticising or questioning.
- Not forcing them to talk. Be patient.
- Reassuring them that no-one has the right to rape or abuse and that every person has the right to be safe, in all circumstances.
- Understanding that survivors can experience a range of different reactions and emotions. They may feel calm and controlled, or feel nothing. They may feel anger, guilt or worthlessness and they may feel suicidal. These are a natural response to their experience. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way for a survivor to react – and whichever way they do react is ok.
Do . . .
Listen – to what they have to say in their own time. It might not be easy for them to start talking to someone about an event that they have kept to themselves. It may be difficult because they may have been told not to tell anyone by the abuser.
Believe – they need you to believe. People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. It is important to believe.
Respect – their feelings and decisions. If they start to cry let them. It can be part of their healing process.
Remember – they are not to blame. No-one wants or deserves to be abused. The blame lies with the abuser, not the survivor.
Recognise – the courage it takes for them to speak out. This must be respected and praised.
Empower – survivors who has experienced sexual violence may feel that they have no control over what is happening to them and how their are feeling. A major step towards healing is for them to regain a sense of control over her life.
Don’t . . .
Pressure them into talking about, or into doing things, that they are not ready for. Let them decide when they are ready. If they don’t want to talk to you, don’t take it personally. It can be incredibly difficult to begin talking, and they may find it easier to talk to someone they don’t know.
Tell them what to do. They need to be in control. You can help to explore options that are available to them.
Tell them to forget about it or say “It happened a long time ago, why does it suddenly bother you now?” Healing can take a long time and some people block out or try to forget traumatic events as a way of coping. Remembering can be triggered by events such as marriage, changing job, the birth of a baby, starting a new relationship, or even smells, colours or sounds.
Ask them why they didn’t fight back. People can freeze when confronted with a terrifying situation. Also, it can be the safest thing not to fight back. They have nothing to justify to anyone.
Ask why they didn’t say anything sooner. If it happened when they were young they may have tried to tell someone but have been ignored or disbelieved. They may not have been able to understand or describe what happened to them. They may have felt entirely to blame for the abuse, have been threatened or have been too frightened to say anything. Most people do try to tell someone at some point.
Cast doubt on what they tell you. Do listen and believe them, and be accepting of the way they are reacting. The fact that you are listening and believing DOES help.
What about sexual contact?
If your partner has just been assaulted or has remembered past abuse which they have blocked out, they may find sexual and intimate contact difficult. It is important to realise that this is not your fault. It is to do with their feelings and memories. Reassure them and let them take things at their own pace. With your help, understanding and patience they can heal from the trauma.
Taking care of yourself
It can be easy to forget that you need to look after yourself too.
- You are not a miracle worker. You must be a special person for them to trust you.
- To make time to look after yourself. YOU are important too.
- You might feel helpless at times, but just being there is important in itself.
- To be gentle with yourself.
- That you may need support too, so that you can continue to be supportive. It can be hard to see someone you care about in pain and distress. Being able to talk to someone in confidence can make a big difference.
If you need information, guidance or to seek support contact Rape Crisis Scotland’s national helpline on 08088 010302 (freephone, 6pm – midnight every day). We offer family, friends and partners face-to-face support of up to 6 weekly or fortnightly 50 minute sessions with a support worker.