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Supporting a Survivor

If someone you know has told you that they were abused it is because they trust you and they sense that you care for them. Safe, non-abusive relationships are survivors’ most precious resources. You are very important in this process.

One of the most important things you can do for your friend/ partner/family member is to listen to them and believe what they are telling you. Another very important thing for you to do is to make sure that you are looking after yourself. Recovering from abuse can take a long time, so you will need to pace yourself. If you can be consistent and be there for them over a long time, it is better than sitting up all night for a week.

Often people are nervous and afraid to say ‘the wrong thing’ because they don’t know enough about sexual violence. Sexual violence is not a ‘rare disease’ and you don’t need to be an expert to help. If you are prepared to listen, the person will be able to guide you as to the help they need.

Believe them

Survivors are often very afraid of people not believing them or reacting negatively to what they say or rejecting them for what has happened to them. Believe what they say, do not ask ‘Why didn’t you tell someone?’ or ‘Why didn’t you scream?’. Try to keep calm and if you don’t understand why a survivor is reacting in a particular way or why she behaved as she did, remember that that is your problem and not hers. Try not to ask too many questions.

It may be helpful to read about the issues involved, using this website as a starting point. This can help to answer many of your questions.

Do not treat them differently

When someone you care about tells you about their experience of sexual violence or abuse it is common to feel anxious and overwhelmed. It is a compliment to your relationship that the person has told you but don’t be sworn to secrecy – you may need to talk to other people, although this should only be done with care and in confidence.

Do not treat the person differently because of what she or he has told you, they have not changed in the telling. Be clear and honest about what support you can offer them and what you feel you are able to hear. At the same time show your commitment to helping your friend, there are other resources available to them that they may need. When she or he is ready to take the step, they can get support from a local rape crisis centre, similar service, or from a private counsellor/ therapist.

Give practical support

Often practical help can be useful: when someone is shocked and grieving over what has happened to them, or over what they have just remembered, they may not be able to look after themselves at times. The anger, loss and pain can feel overwhelming. If you are supporting someone at such a time stay calm and kind; hot drinks and food, vitamins and a hand to hold are all you need to provide.

Survivors have had their bodies and minds invaded and may have long term difficulties with sleeping, eating, bathing and relaxing. Helping to gradually normalise these activities as part of daily life can add a lot to survivors’ security and self respect.

Build trust

When trust has been abused, the safest thing to do might seem to never trust anyone again. Whilst this might have helped them survive, later on survivors may want to work on building trust.

Think of trust not as something which has to be given, but rather something which has to be earned. Find ways to show your loved one that you are trustworthy – worthy of their trust. Disclosing sexual assault to you is a demonstration of a level of trust in you. From there, your willingness to develop an ability to support her or him will be your contribution. Enabling a survivor to begin believing in the possibility of trust is an amazing way to support your loved one.

Acknowledge your feelings

You may find you are feeling all sorts of things about what the survivor has told you. You may feel helpless, confused, or shocked. You might struggle to understand what occurred, and how the survivor is coping. This is normal, as you are managing what has hurt someone you love.

If this is the case, you may need to talk to somebody about what you are feeling. Don’t expect the survivor to be able to listen to you, as they are coping themselves and questions can be painful. There are people you can talk to.

Contact a friend or a Rape Crisis Centre, or find a counsellor for support for yourself.

Ensure that survivors make their own decisions

It is very important that you let the survivor make their own choices about what they do next. Abuse and rape can leave us feeling powerless and out of control, and survivors need to feel they can be in charge of their lives again.

This means letting the survivor decide whether they want to go for counselling, whether they want to confront the abuser, or report to the Gardai.

You can certainly find out information and locate resources for them, but let them make up their own mind about what they are going to do… even if you disagree or can’t understand why.

Allow space for their feelings

Some survivors may harm themselves in a variety of ways. Some survivors take out their anger about the abuse/ rape on the people they love most, as they are a space location for the expression of hard feelings.

Its okay to object – it’s okay to draw your boundaries: you don’t have to accept that this is an inevitable result of abuse.
Try to understand why your friend/ partner is doing these things and spend time with them working out other ways of dealing with feelings.

Intimacy and sex

Experiences of sexual violence can affect intimacy, be that very close friendships or sexual relationships. Memories of terror and pain may pour out in response to the most gentle touch.

If your partner has been raped or sexually abused they may not want to sleep with you or even have you physically close.
Respect their wishes and tell them that you will not pressurise them, but rather you will assume sex is off the agenda until they say otherwise.

For some survivors, childhood abuse blurred the line between sex and affection and this can affect friendships as much as sexual relationships. Discuss this with your partner/ friend and negotiate what kinds of touch are welcome.

It is very important that survivors feel that they can take charge again in this way and for partners to respect the survivors’ needs, whether it’s just to be held or not be touched at all for a long time. There are lots of ways to show affection and have fun, but the most important is probably talking and listening.

Recommended reading

Laura Davis: Allies in Healing: When the person you love was sexually abused as a child, Harper Perennial, 1991.

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