HELPING SIGNIFICANT OTHERS THROUGH THE TRAUMA
OF SEXUAL ASSAULT:
FAMILY MEMBERS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVORS
The divorce rate among sexual assault survivors is extremely high. Often the significant other has grown up with preconceived notions (myths) about rape and cannot deal with the fact that someone else has “had” their spouse, even against the survivor’s will. When the survivor has post-rape sexual problems, the significant other may interpret unwillingness or inability to have a normal sexual relationship as a rejection. Also, a sexual assault might bring other family problems to the surface. Advocates must address the problem of working with significant others of survivors. Significant others might make the situation more painful if not informed about what has happened.
How does sexual assault affect people – either the primary or secondary victims of this crime? How can those closest to a survivor do “the right thing?” It is those closest to a survivor who will influence how well the recovery process proceeds.
People who have been sexually assaulted may not react to the sexual aspects of the crime, but instead react to the terror and fear experienced. One reaction of the survivor could be, “I could have been killed.” One way to explain this feeling is to ask the significant other to remember or imagine a situation in which they felt powerless and afraid. Ask them if they felt alone, fearful, and needing comfort.
The goal of crisis intervention with relatives and close friends is twofold:
First, to assist with their own feelings about sexual assault and the effect it might have in their relationship with the survivor. Second, to assist the family and friends in giving support.
Sexual assault is an emotionally charged situation surrounding the family immediately after the rape. Some of the reactions you might expect from friends and will include (but is not limited to):
*Distress that the survivor has been injured
*Anger at the offender that might be taken out on the survivor
*Anger that the survivor didn’t “fight harder”
*Anger that the person hadn’t been “careful” enough
*Feelings of revenge on the offender
*Feelings of guilt that they were not there to protect the survivor
*Sense of loss for themselves for the survivor or for the family
Listen to what the partner, father, and other family members are saying. As they express their feelings they will be better able to help the survivor express theirs. Provide accurate information and encouragement – give them permission to react to this crisis, also. Friends and family may have a difficult time talking about sexual assault. The advocate can be a safe place to discuss their concerns and vent their feelings.
When you’ve had a chance to listen to what has been said, you can give the family some concrete information about what the sexual assault represents to the survivor. First, the significant other and family should know that the threat of death or injury was uppermost in her/his mind – not the sexual episode. Second, you should try to dispel myths about rape that the family may have grown up with, i.e., “If she didn’t fight back, she must have wanted it.” The third thing you want to stress is that, since this is a mutual crisis, they should support one another. The family can support their loved one by providing a place to share feelings without condemnation and by assisting in mobilizing the survivor’s coping skills. The survivor should be allowed, not forced to express their emotions.
Questions about how they feel now and what bothers them the most are useful. They are not threatening and should allow them to talk about the most immediate concerns. Remember, too, the survivor wants to talk about other things. Often the sexual assault may leave them concentrating on other problems and it is important to talk about these. Probably the most practical suggestion is that you communicate your own willingness to let the survivor talk. Because of your closeness to them, the survivor may be more sensitive to your feelings. If you are distressed, it may be impossible to talk to you. They may also try to protect you. In these and other cases, where they really will not be able to talk to you, encourage speaking with someone trusted. Remember that the sexual assault has brought up feelings of powerlessness. Encouraging them to talk to whom they want, when they want, is more helpful than feeling it is necessary to talk to you.
In the case of a virgin, female support may seem most important. It is a good time to discuss the pleasure involved in sex, as well as to reassert the person’s right to decide when and with whom to have sex.
If the family has strong religious convictions, they might have trouble dealing with the “sin” aspect of the sexual assault. The survivor may feel as though they committed the sin. If the family agrees with or promotes this idea, the psychological ramifications could be tremendous. The thing to remember here is the Bible deals with sexual sin in terms of agreement of both parties to the act. Rape is mentioned in the Bible as something which is abhorrent to God and is punished; here, the rapist must take the responsibility for these actions.
This crisis is very much akin to the grieving process associated with the loss of a loved one. The survivor must be allowed to grieve – it will lead to eventual healing, and the healing of the family. If the family tries to get the survivor to forget it or deny it by shrouding the incident and feelings in silence, they only force them to bury it more deeply. This can cause problems for years afterward.
Overprotecting the wounded loved one can be just as harmful as denying the crime. If they constantly try to insulate the survivor from hurt, they keep them from confronting feelings. Keeping the survivor in a thrice locked gilded cage and taking away car keys is not the answer, either. Survivors must live in this world when their “protectors” are no longer there. They must be allowed to regain control of all of their life.
The advocate’s key roles in intervention with the families and partners of survivors should be educational in nature.
1. Explain the inherently violent nature of sexual assault as a crime, helping family members to understand that the survivor’s experience has been more of a life threatening one than a sexual episode.
2. Prepare the family for the predictable psychological and physiological consequences of the sexual assault.
3. Help the family to understand that they are most productive when they assist the survivor in mobilizing their own best coping abilities as an autonomous adult rather than a sheltered child.
4. Explain to the family how to provide an accepting and safe environment into which the survivor can release troubling thoughts and feelings without fear of condemnation or critical response.
5. Discuss any sexual indifference by a partner toward the survivor. Help the partner to identify the components of change in feelings and see the congruity of the feelings.
6. Discuss any sexual incompatibility or indifference before the assault. Encourage both partners to discuss this fact and not to blame the sexual assault for pre-existing problems.
Helpful Do’s and Don’ts for the Advocate
1. Don’t be openly critical.
a. This can cause defensiveness and anger.
b. It can cause the family to stop talking with you and thereby:
1) Decrease useful venting, and
2) Render you powerless to help.
2. Do focus supportively on the partner’s injury – be aware and let them know you are aware that they have suffered a loss.
3. Do let them know that although it is like grief, it need not be permanently debilitating. They will never forget it, but they can go on.
4. Do encourage significant others to support one another.
5. Do give any information and support you can.
6. Do let them know you care.
7. Do offer a male counselor for male survivors or male family members if available and requested.
Options Available to Family and Significant Others.
1. Strengthening the survivor’s resources against harm.
a. Counseling and gynecological services.
b. Support groups.
c. Physical relocation and family protection.
d. Cooperation with the criminal justice system.
2. Avoidance Behavior
b. Conspiracy of silence
3. Attacking Behavior
a. Retribution fantasies.
b. Blaming the survivor.
c. Displacement of anger on to would-be helpers.
d. Inaction to avail oneself of counseling.
WHEN THE SILENCE IS BROKEN
(A guide for men who love and live with women who were sexually abused as children)
Charles E. Harris, M. Div., CSW-ACP
INCEST RECOVERY ASSOCIATION
Dedicated to Aiding former Victims of Incest 6200 N. Central Expressway, Suite 213 Dallas, Texas 75106 (214) 373-6607
For the women who have trusted me with their stories, and the men they love.
At some point in time you decided to share your life with someone who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. You may have talked with your partner about this information from the beginning, or it may have surfaced only recently.
Regardless of when you became aware of the abuse part of her past, at some level of your being you have probably known all along. You may not have known that you knew, but you knew. This kind of knowledge is difficult to respond to because it is based on feelings and subtle intuition rather than factual information.
Yet, even when the information becomes specific, not many people know what to do. This pamphlet has been prepared as an aid to those who love and live with former victims of sexual abuse. It is written with the male partner in mind since the vast majority of my clients have been female, but I am not unaware that many men were also abused as children. I am also aware that some women may be in a gay relationship. If the information herein is helpful also to female partners, I am grateful.
There is no substitute for accurate information. The problem of sexual abuse, especially when it is incest, carries such an emotional impact that many people do not want to think or talk about it. Even some therapists shy away from the specifics and the intense emotional expressions that accompany them. As a result, most of us tend to respond to sexual abuse situations out of ignorance and emotion. When we do this, we only make matters more difficult for everyone involved.
If you are going to function in a supportive way to the woman in your life who has been abused, then you have a responsibility to learn as much as you can about sexual abuse. Part of her struggle over the years has been that she had to live alone with a painful secret because she felt there was no one to whom she could turn. She may have even been given misinformation as a child in order to intimidate and control her, e.g., “Your mother would just die if she knew about this.”
When she finally shared her secret with someone, chances are she wasn’t believed or, if she was believed, she may have been blamed for her own victimization. Along with the guilt, shame, fear, betrayed trust, and rage she couldn’t show, she now has to deal with confusion. She couldn’t trust her own thoughts and feelings, her own sense of reality.
For her to feel your support she needs to know you believe her and that you care enough to be informed. This means some reading on your part. A brief reading list can be found at the end of this pamphlet.
Your community may offer support groups for spouses of sexual abuse victims. Check with your local Mental Health Association for this information.
Treatment May be Lengthy
Some human behavior problems respond to brief therapy. You have a few sessions with the therapist, you make the changes you want, and you’re feeling better fairly quickly. On the whole, this is not true for people who were sexually abused as children.
Several factors need to be considered: the specific nature of the abuse, the age of the girl when it occurred; how long it went on and how long she carried the secret; how significant people in her life responded when she told how she perceived the situation, etc. As you can see, the involvement is complicated.
This kind of entanglement usually takes time to unravel. While there is no way specifically to predict an exact amount of time, I usually tell my clients to count on six months to two years, maybe longer. This may sound like a long time to you, but remember that the woman you care about has had many years of coping with this problem alone. She won’t be able to just lay it down and walk away. There may even be times, years into the future, when old memories and feelings resurface and she will need help and support. She’ll need you to stand by her through the ups and downs of her growth. Deep wounds take time to heal.
Understand Your Responsibility
When we are victimized by a certain situation or type of person, we tend to generalize the experience and be wary of all similar circumstances or people. This is especially true of children who have been sexually abused. Normally this generalized fear carries over into adulthood.
Since the vast majority of sexual abusers are male (one resource says over 90% are male) you already fall into the category of an abuser. This, of course, doesn’t make you one, but the little girl part of your wife or girlfriend may not know the difference. To that little girl you may represent the source of a lot of unresolved pain.
Adults who have been abused as children often replicate an abusive situation in their adult relationships. At times you may be treated by her as though you have been abusive. Indeed, you may even feel provoked into saying or doing abusive things. It is important for you to maintain your perspective and not be “hooked” into playing out the role that has been cast for you by her childhood perpetrator.
You are not responsible for what happened to the woman in your life when she was a child. You can’t help her forget it or undo it. You are responsible for how you relate to her now.
Every relationship has its own peculiar problems to be worked through. Your wife is learning to know the difference between her perpetrator(s) and you. If you have not been abusive, then you need not feel guilty for those times when that difference becomes fuzzy to her. If you have been abusive in any way (verbal, emotional, physical, sexual), then you need to admit it, stop it, and get help for yourself.
From time to time she will have feelings and memories surface that are not necessarily related to you. Even if she knows the difference, she may be unable for a period of time to keep those feelings and memories from affecting her relationship with you. You will need to recognize this as a part of her healing process (if she is in treatment) and learn to be supportive and patient.
Develop Your Communication Skills
Several years ago an expert in the art of communication wrote, “dialogue is to love what blood is to the body” (Reuel Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue). Relationships begin with some kind of attraction and mutual interest. They can only be sustained over the years, however, by effective communication.
It is therefore important that you learn and practice clear, direct ways of communicating your feelings so that relationship problems can be dealt with as they arise. Your spouse’s experience as a child probably included not only a breakdown in communications in her family, but also a suppression of clear, honest expression of thoughts and feelings. In order to protect her “secret” she most likely had to guard against revealing any thoughts or feelings even remotely related to the secret.
This natural protective response in her helped her through her childhood, but at the expense of having a lot of emotional “unfinished business” from the past. Communicating is a major skill necessary for resolving life’s daily problems. When people don’t have that skill or are not allowed to use it, then unresolved daily problems tend to collect into an emotional slush fund that interferes with future relationships. This is true for all people, not just sexual abuse victims.
It is this slush fund of unfinished emotional pain that drains relationships of their lifeblood. The only way to restore life to the relationship is a transfusion of good communication. There may be a lot of emotional pain in this process, but it is necessary if healing is to take place.
There will be times when your behavior triggers some of her pain from the past. What you may not realize is that the reverse is also true. Some things she does may also stir up in you feelings from years ago you thought you had forgotten. Only effective communication will get you through these times.
Begin To View Your Relationship As A System
In your relationship, each of you initiates and each of you responds. Each of you impacts the other with his or her behavior. Each of you brings a certain amount of unfinished business to the partnership. The specific nature of the material from the past may differ widely. Its similarity is that it is all “unfinished” and, therefore, affects your behavior in the relationship.
If you can begin to accept that your past experience coupled with your present behavior plays a dynamic role in your relationship, you will be doing a valuable service to both you and your wife. For yourself, you will be seeing the world from a more realistic perspective. The service to your wife may help ease the blame she has felt for a long time.
Most sexual abuse victims believe (as children) that they are to blame for their abuse. They reason, falsely of course, that as a child they should have been able to do something to stop what the adult was doing to them.
When this self-blame is not corrected, these women tend to believe that any problem in adult relationships is all their fault, too. You, owning your part of the relationship will help the woman in your life absolve herself of the false guilt she has carried for so long and will enable her to see her part in this relationship more clearly.
Problems of sexual function are common for sexual abuse victims, especially while they are working through their past trauma. The sexual problems of victims usually take the form of one of two extremes. They may either totally close themselves off as a sexual being, or they may become very active sexually to the point of promiscuity.
Each response is understandable, considering the dynamics of sexual abuse. The person who shuts down sexually is probably doing so in order to eliminate, or at least minimize, the emotional pain associated with her abuse. This withdrawal may be limited to only lovemaking and intercourse, or it may include any form of physical contact or affection from another person perceived as threatening. Some learn to “do their duty” for their partners, but usually with little or no personal pleasure and a lot of resentment.
The person who reacts toward the extreme that she becomes so sexually active she harms herself and her relationships has her reasons, too (the reasons aren’t always fully conscious). This woman has difficulty distinguishing between love, caring affection, and human warmth on the one hand, and sexual behavior on the other. She tends to equate the two and believe that in order to get care, warmth, etc., she has to be sexual. She usually finds men who are happy to manipulate her confusion in this area.
Sometimes victims will vacillate between these two extremes. Neither extreme brings them what they need, and both can be frustrating and threatening to the spouses.
The man in this kind of relationship needs to be supportive of his wife’s struggle with her sexuality, while at the same time finding ways to sublimate his own sexual needs. Exercise and masturbation are two ways to gain some relief from sexual tension. Some men think they can’t exist without sex from a woman. This, of course, is a myth. If you are one of those men who have fallen prey to this myth, you might want to have a few visits with a qualified therapist to explore this type of thinking. What you learn could be helpful to you and might keep you from putting unrealistic expectations on your wife to take care of your sexual needs.
Many men in our culture tend to equate closeness with sex. They don’t know how to be nurturing and physically close without expecting sex. Such men place undue burdens on their wives. When the wife needs the nurturing and closeness, but not the sex, she is faced with a difficult decision. Either she risks offending her significant other when she accepts the closeness and refuses the sex, or she betrays herself by giving sex in order to have any form of affection. If this woman happens to be a former sexual abuse victim, this scenario is probably a reproduction of her dilemma as a child.
The sexual part of your relationship with your wife may be the most difficult for you to handle. You can help yourself and her by using this time as an opportunity for you to grow in your awareness of yourself and the area of human sexuality. You will find some helpful references on maleness in the reading list at the end of this pamphlet.
You Are a Part of What’s Going On
If you have read this far, you have no doubt become aware that I view your wife’s abuse as not just her problem, but something the two of you share. Your acceptance or rejection of this premise will play an important part in your relationship with her and in her resolving her pain from the past. Most sexual abuse victims live with a sense of isolation. At first it is the secret they must keep that forces them into a private world. Then, if they tell their secret, they are often made to feel that they are different, even contaminated, for what has happened to them. For you to take the attitude that it is “her problem” alone reinforces this feeling of isolation.
In the introduction of this booklet, I proposed that at some level you probably “knew” that your wife was a victim of sexual abuse. Let me explain what I meant by that. I’m not talking necessarily about conscious, verifiable knowledge. Perhaps “sense” would be a better word. Because none of us grows to adulthood having achieved all our development tasks, we each bring that “unfinished business” I mentioned earlier into our relationships. We are usually unaware of this process going on inside of us.
Part of our attraction to other people and/or situations is that we “sense” in them an opportunity to “finish” the learning and growth tasks we didn’t finish at home with our parents. We usually don’t have words to describe this attraction, which may indicate that the process is not fully conscious. It is nonetheless strong, however.
An honest question might be “Why would I be drawn to someone who was abused as a child?” There is no single answer to this question. There are several possibilities to explore. Perhaps you, too, in some way experienced abuse when you were young and you sensed, “Here is a person who will understand.” It may be that you were not a victim, but that someone in your childhood was, i.e., your sister, a friend, even your mother. Helping your wife through her abuse pain may be a way to make up for not being able to resolve the pain of that person in your childhood. Another possibility is that as a child you may have been shy around women. Part of your attraction to your spouse may have been that because of her abuse you sensed she wouldn’t be threatening or domineering.
The possible combinations of attractions are endless when you get down to specifics. In general, however, the unfinished business people bring from their childhood plays an important part in how they pick a mate. I urge you to be willing to explore your part in this attraction process.
It may be that you will want to see a therapist yourself for guidance along these lines. This doesn’t mean you are pathological. View it as an opportunity for growth both as a person and in your relationships. At some point in time your wife’s therapist may recommend marital or relationship therapy. I hope you will be willing to participate.
There is Always Hope
People can and do change. Even though having been sexually abused as a child is one of the most difficult traumas a person has to resolve, many women (and men) do overcome the pain and find fulfillment in life. When you live with a person who is in the process of overcoming the pain, you become a part of that drama. While you are not responsible for your partner’s past, you are responsible for your part in the relationship that exists today. You can be part of the resolution of your loved one’s pain instead of part of its perpetration. And she can help you grow, too. I wish you well as you grow together.
Copyright, Incest Recovery Association, 1986.
Charles E. Harris, M. Div., CSW-ACP is a pastoral counselor/social worker practicing in Arlington, Texas. He has worked in the area of sexual abuse for several years treating adult and child victims and their families as well as perpetrators and their families. He has been a group leader with Incest Recover Association since 1983.
Armstrong, Louise, Kiss Daddy Goodnight; Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, NY, 1978.
Bass, Ellen and Thornton, Louise, editors, I Never Told- Anyone; Harper Colphon Books, 1983.
Brady, Katherine, Father’s Days; Seaview Books, New York, NY, 1979. Gil,
Eliana, Outgrowing The Pain; Launch Press, San Francisco, 1983.
Goldberg, Herb, The New Male; Signet Books, 1979. Zilbergeld, Bernie, Male Sexuality; Bantam Books, 1978.
ASSISTING THE SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVOR FOR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS
Let the survivor know you’re willing to listen. Because of the nature of the crime, it’s sometimes difficult to talk about it. Be a good listener. Allow them to “talk it out” if they want to – to you or to someone else.
Let them know you care and that it’s important to you that they feel safe again.
Allow them to make decisions and take control of their lives at their own pace. The rapist just took that control away. You may help make decisions but don’t overprotect.
Be stable and secure for them. They will need reassurances that they are still the same person, not “dirty” or “ruined”. In general, a male survivor may be more controlled in his response to the crisis and less inclined to talk about it. Encourage him to talk, but don’t force him. Be supportive. Be open when he wants to talk.
Everyone reacts differently in a crisis situation. However the survivor is reacting to this crisis is right for them.