This article was also posted on the Good Men Project
When I was 17 I dated a woman who was 19. Quickly, I learned she had been abused as a child. I didn’t know how to be with her beyond caring for her as lovingly and gently as i could. Later when I was 19, and in college, I dated another woman for 3 years while she was regularly being abused by her grandfather. Once again, I was thrown into the unknown, and while I did my best to support her during all these years, that experience left me with a mistrust for myself and for men that would take years to unravel and heal from. Almost 30 years later, these experiences still affect me, as I’m they affect these two women. This article is my sharing of some of the wisdom that I gained as I did this work.
Sexual abuse and assault can happen to anyone. Most often, we hear about it happening between partners, but what is the best course of action when we hear that our partner was just assaulted or that they reveal to us that they have a history of trauma or abuse? For most couples, this is a challenging situation rife with triggers and hurt. This list is a simple way to begin the support process with a partner who needs it. Each item could be a blog post unto itself. If you require further support, please contact me or any other mental health professional directly.
1. Let them know you believe them
When someone experiences sexual abuse, there’s a whole lot that might happen inside of them, including disbelief, shame, denial, confusion, self-blame, and so much more. The best thing you can do is support them in seeing clearly by simply stating that you believe them. Truly, stating this is more important than getting clear on the details.
2. Ask them “What can I do to help?” (literally, use these words)
This is the best way to support your person in knowing you’re willing to help but not pressure them into anything. They might want to talk. They might want to report the person who assaulted them. They might stay silent. Again, they are in a very tricky place where it’s often hard to know what to do, and the last thing they need is someone who is trying to push an agenda on them. If your partner shares a clear answer with you, the best thing you can do is follow this request as closely as you can.
3. Ask them how you should keep their story private or confidential
Again, in such a situation, things are intense and possibly confusing for your person, so it’s best to ask them instead of assuming anything.
4. Ask them first before you do anything related to their abuse/assault
Beyond the above, it’s best to check with them before you do anything that might make their situation more intense, more confusing, or more triggering. When you start pushing your agenda, as well intentioned as it may be, you run the huge risk of making things worse for them. And because this is a situation they have no choice around, it’s best you check with them and abide by their choice. They may want to keep things under wraps. They might want to scream it from the rooftops. Whatever you do, make sure to listen to their feelings, follow their pace, support their desires, and abide by their boundaries.
5. Emotional resources are not infinite
Whatever is happening for your person, it will likely impact you and call for some of your emotional resources. Be prepared to be triggered yourself and to feel painful and unfamiliar emotions and sensations. Be prepared to hang in there with your own feelings until your loved one is stable. If you are not aware of this, your emotional resources might run out without you having the opportunity to integrate and care for yourself so this doesn’t happen. Running out might look like a lot of things, but it will generally mean you have less space for their healing/recovery, less patience, less availability, less responsiveness, and less commitment on your part. It’s important for you to learn to gauge your emotional resources so that you can be fully present to your person and to yourself, and let them know when you need to self-care.
6. Self-care is vital
If you’re like a lot of men (or just like many humans), emotional self-care may not be something you know how to do well. This is where a good therapist or a good friend can be extremely useful. Abuse and assault can have an impact on you that you can’t feel (yet, or ever). If you decide to share about what’s happening to you, it’s important to check with your person to let them know you’d like to get support from someone else for the purpose of self-care. Have a conversation and agree about how much you can share with your support person in terms of what’s going on with your survivor person. Self-care can look like different things to different people. Generally the focus should be to engage in activities that are full of “goodness”. I know, this is vague. Overall, this means self-care is less about distraction (which is another form of numbing which only pushes away emotional challenges for a time) and more about resourcing or allowing your nervous system to calm down and integrate.
7. Recovery and healing take time
Every person’s recovery/healing from trauma/abuse is unique, and so is your own integration/healing from being impacted by what is happening to your person. Like grieving, recovery happens over time and in layers and on it’s own schedule. It cannot be rushed, and the only way is through all the feelings that come up. Some you will be able to share with your person, some you will need to handle this on your own or with your support person.
8. Empathy makes all the difference
Emotional intelligence is extremely important. It is a huge and complex topic we might cover further in the future. For now, the basic aspect of emotional intelligence is empathy, which is another way of saying that someone is allowing feelings to arise in the presence of another person as they are feeling their feelings, and the shared experience results in a sense of connection, which is one of the simplest form of healing.
A less optimal version of this is called "sympathy" which is another way of saying that one person is able to imagine and feel how the other feels by recalling similar enough experiences.
9. Witness their anger and make space for all their emotions
This is another version of (8). Their anger and other emotions will come up as they process and integrate and heal. Do not take it personally as that is the only thing they have control over at that point in their recovery. Don't take offense to generalization of "all men" during the anger. Support their expression. The act of witnessing is one where you add nothing and take nothing from their experience. Also, if they are open to it you can create a space for them to express their anger physically and safely. This can look like a room or wall to break bottle and plates on (use safety glasses and gloves) or something to hit with a sledgehammer (my old totalled van worked for a friend of mine recently.
And, accept that you cannot fix it and might not be able to do anything concrete to help. Be be prepared to simply listen and provide a secure space for your loved one to give full vent to their emotions and the disorientation that they are likely to feel. Those emotions can be hard to witness.