Supporting friends and partners who may have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking
Seeing a friend who is struggling or in pain is always challenging and supporting someone who has experienced sexual or relationship violence is no different. Offering your support is incredibly important as many people can feel isolated, lonely, ashamed, and confused after such experiences. Offering gentle, consistent, and nonjudgmental friendship is important during this time.
Connecting your friend with resources can be incredibly helpful. See seeking care and healing for a list of medical, emotional, academic, and legal resources on campus and in the greater Middlebury community. If you are concerned for your friend's wellbeing or safety at any time (i.e. if you suspect that they may hurt themselves or someone else) it is imperative to get help from any of the resources in seeking care and healing.
The following guidelines might be helpful as you and your friend navigate a difficult time:
- Believe your friend. More than almost anything, your friend needs your trust. Avoid "why" questions (e.g. why didn't you leave? why were you there?) and instead ask what would be helpful, how you can best offer support, or who you could call for them.
- Let your friend make the decisions. Sexual and relationship violence can take away the person's sense of power and leave them feeling helpless. Making decisions can help your friend take back control and feel empowered. Try presenting your friend with options and offering support for whatever they choose.
- Don’t define the experience. Do not label the event “rape” or “sexual assault." It is the right of your friend to make sense of his or her experience without needing to make it conform to predefined categories.
- Assure your friend that this is not their fault. Sexual and relationship violence is never the fault of the survivor.
- Care for yourself. While your friend's need for support is often assumed, it might be less apparent when friends of the survivor need help dealing with the trauma. "Secondary victimization" sometimes refers to the negative effects experienced by those who are not the direct targets of a violent act, but who are intimately involved in supporting a survivor. These effects often include shock and disbelief; feeling of rage and helplessness; fear for the survivor’s safety; preoccupation with the violent event and its aftermath; difficulties in your relationship with the survivor; responses to past trauma triggered by the current situation; and loss of security and trust. Remember that it is just as important to care for yourself in times of stress as it is to care for others, and seek support from someone you trust, including any of the resources available on this website.
Supporting a partner
There are feelings and reactions commonly experienced by the significant other of someone who has experienced intimate partner or sexual violence, whatever the status of the relationship might be. It is important to know that as you support your partner in their healing process, you are not alone.
Learning about and living with a partner's experience(s) of sexual and/or relationship violence can be confusing. It might be hard to listen when your partner wants to talk about certain aspects of the abuse, or it might be difficult if your partner chooses not to share any information about their experiences with you. No matter how your partner chooses to engage with you around their experiences, the knowledge that they have experienced something traumatic can be a lot to hold on to as a partner. You might be hesitant to let others know about the abuse for fear of how they could react. You may experience feelings of guilt or responsibility, believing that somehow you could have prevented the abuse. It is not uncommon to feel anger at the survivor, at others around you, or at your partner’s assailant. You might also be unsure as to how to best to approach the issue of physical intimacy with your partner. Avoid pressuring or resuming intimacy/sexual activity with your partner until you both talk about his/her boundaries and level of comfort. Respect your partner's new boundaries (ie. around trust, safety, sex, intimacy, etc).
All of these feelings are understandable when someone you care about has experienced intimate partner or sexual violence. The important thing to remember is that these feelings need to be recognized and addressed—by you and by your partner—in order to work through a traumatic situation.
Adapted from Dartmouth College's "Get Help for My Partner." Original content can be found here.