How to Support Your Partner Who’s Survived Sexual Assault: The United States is in the middle of tackling a monumental problem: sexual assault and harassment. Seemingly, every other week, people are calling out actors, CEOs, and news anchors for their sexual misconduct. Furthermore, the #metoo movement has caught significant traction online. It has become painfully clear that sexual assault and harassment permeates throughout our society. In light of this, your partner has disclosed that they are also a survivor of sexual assault. With this new information, how do you properly support them? What do you say? What do you do? This article is going to explain just that, specifically, how to support your partner who has survived sexual assault.
Ask, Don’t Assume
When trying to help a person work through a problem, you never want to assume that you know exactly what they need. This could not be truer for supporting someone who has survived sexual assault. Instead of assuming that you know the right answer, ask the person what they need. However, be sensitive of when you actually ask the question. Choose a time where the two of your feel comfortable and emotionally grounded to have a conversation. After all, you don’t want to have this conversation at the end of an argument. Once you’ve found a time that works for the two of you, here are some questions to get the conversation started.
- “How can I best support you through this?”
- “What do you need from me at this time?”
- “I want to help you the best way I can. What does that look like to you?”
- Even though you may not know what you want, can we brainstorm together some ideas of things that I could try and then you can give me feedback as we go.
- How will I know when my “support” doesn’t feel like support to you?
Even when asking these questions, your partner may not know the answer, and that’s completely okay. They may not know the answer, but they will know that you care, and that you’re not assuming that you know best for them. Healing from sexual assault isn’t always a clear path, which leads to our next section.
Healing takes time. The pain of a sexual assault isn’t the same as breaking an arm or a leg. The growth process can last years after the initial incident. Therefore, if you truly want to support your partner, you cannot force growth. You can’t just fix the issue. Though this may sound obvious, it is important to remind yourself of this. There will be days where you want things to simply go back to “normal.” To be frank, supporting a partner who has survived sexual assault is going to require compromise, work, and most importantly, patience. Here are some activities to instill that patience.
- Go online and read the growth process of other survivors of sexual assault.
- Expand your perspective by talking to loved ones.
- Read Survivors & Partners: Healing the Relationships of Sexual Abuse Survivors, and other relevant literature.
- Practice empathy by placing yourself in your partner’s situation.
- Give yourself permission to be upset. The situation is hard for everyone. You and your partner did not ask to experience this issue. It just is. There are no easy answers. Healing takes time.
Additionally, it’s important to know that your partner may never fully heal from their experience. Your job is to simply accept them for where they are without any expectations. Furthermore, you partner may appear to have sudden shifts in their mood (e.g., things feel normal and then suddenly negative). Your responsibility is to be flexible, while reminding your partner that you are not the person who hurt them. The two of you are in the present and are struggling to each a healthy sexual connection together.
Create a safe environment
Another way to support your partner who has survived sexual assault is to create a safe environment. You want to create a space that promotes growth and invites comfort. You can do this by being mindful of your language, feelings, and actions. Regarding the former, we unconsciously can use language that is insensitive to survivors of assault. One example is to say, “This mid-term just raped me.” By using rape in a trivial manner, you insult those who have actually experienced it.
Your actions also play a significant part in creating a safe environment. Sex is a huge part of many relationships. However, surviving sexual assault can naturally bring certain challenges to a person’s sexual expression. To be clear, these challenges are unique to the person. One individual may crave space and avoid physical contact, whereas a different person may engage in risky, sexual behavior. Regardless of your partner’s sexual presentation, don’t force anything. If they need space, give it to them. If they want more consensual sex, don’t judge them for it. Collaborate with your partner in finding a sexual relationship that is comfortable for the two of you.
Additionally, it is important to highlight the difficulty in creating such a sexual relationship. For instance, sexual comfort and expression can come easily in the beginning a relationship, only to wane as the relationship develops. For some, entering long-term commitment can lead to vulnerability and pressure to behave a certain way. Essentially, sex may be fine in the beginning, only to experience challenges as the relationship becomes more serious. The survivor of sexual assault may also experience unique triggers later into the relationship, which may come as a surprise to their partner. Ultimately, creating a satisfying, sexual relationship with your partner can take effort and patience. Don’t rush it.
Making the Bedroom Safer
Once again, creating a satisfying, sexual relationship for both the survivor of sexual assault and their partner can be a challenge. One way to mitigate this difficulty is to have clear communication pertaining to sexual preferences and behaviors. During the next sexual encounter with your partner, have them take the lead. Take a “step back” so that you’ll have to match their energy and needs. Ask the following questions to facilitate this process.
- “Do you like it better when I touch you like this...or like this?”
- “Which positions make you feel uncomfortable? And why?”
- “Is it better if you can or can’t see me?”
- “Do you want to go faster, or should we slow things down?”
- “How rough do you want things to be?”
During this time, it is also important to observe your partner’s shifts in body language and mood. Not everyone can perfectly verbalize what they emotionally and sexually need; sometimes, the body conveys a person’s triggers when the mind cannot. When you notice a sudden shift in energy or mood, check in. These quick shifts in energy or mood can be caused because a past memory was triggered. Do they want to discuss their triggers right when they occur? Do they want to discuss their triggers after sex is over? Do they want to be held during a trigger, or do they simply want space? Of course sometimes people might just experience a shift in mood or energy for totally different reasons. The point is that simply noticing these changes puts you in a position to initiate a conversation to better understand your partner’s experience of being in the bedroom with you, and to shift your behaviors in such a way to meet their needs. The sooner you know the answers to what is behind the shifts in mood and energy the better. Talk to your partner about their preferences on triggers when the two of you are both in a content, safe space. Once again, your partner is a survivor of sexual assault and may respond differently than people who have only experienced safety in the bedroom. Understanding how to navigate your partner’s particular triggers is essential for a mutual, satisfying sex life.
Give Yourself Permission to Feel Bad
Healing from sexual assault can be a very challenging, exhausting experience. Being sexually forced to do something is a horrible event to have to recover from. Because of this, it can be easy for the partner to minimize their feelings. A common thought is, “I wasn’t sexually assaulted, so why am I complaining?” It’s true that you do not have the terrible experience of sexual assault; however, that does not invalidate your emotions. Another common thought is, “I didn’t do this horrible thing, so why do I have to deal with it?” The partner can understandably feel angry that they have to sacrifice so much, that they can’t have a “normal” relationship. However, these legitimate angry feelings often lead to guilt; essentially, the partner feels bad for feeling frustrated. Instead of bottling these emotions, it is crucial to have a healthy outlet.
Pushing your feelings to the side and pretending to be okay simply adds to your emotional labor. Discounting your emotions ultimately creates an environment ripe for resentment. If you truly want to support your partner, you have to give yourself permission to feel bad. It is a pain that you have to compromise, it does suck that sex isn’t what it used to be, and it is draining that you have to be so sensitive to the needs of your partner. To be clear, you’re not a bad person for having these feelings. It’s what you do with them that really matters.
If you want to support your partner who has survived sexual assault, you need to have self-care. As mentioned earlier, you’re going to feel exhausted, irritated, and sad at times. Instead of discounting these emotions, air them out to people you feel secure with. Call a friend or family member and express your concerns. It’s better than bottling these feelings up and becoming resentful. Additionally, find the activities that bring you happiness, relaxation, and comfort. After all, how can you support someone else if you’re running on E? Here are some common forms of self-care.
- Listening to your favorite songs.
- Going out with friends.
- Exercising at the gym.
- Reading a book.
- Going to the theater.
- Setting time aside to masturbate.
- Taking a hot bath.
- Going for a run.
- Engaging in your favorite hobby.
Naturally, this list is non-exhaustive. There are so many different things that you can do to recharge. The goal is to simply find an activity that works for you. Once again, surviving sexual assault is truly a laborious experience. However, don’t discount what you’re going through. Only by engaging in self-care can you support your partner who has survived sexual assault. The Center for Growth has offices in Philadelphia, PA, Ocean City NJ, Mechanicsville VA, and Santa Fe NM.