Your loved one was abused--how will you react?

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010) reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men are raped in their lifetime.  Sometime in your life, you may be faced with the task of lending emotional support to someone who was abused or assaulted. 

In my work with survivors of sexual abuse, I've seen a common experience: victims feeling hurt and confused after disclosing their trauma to people who had unsupportive reactions.  It is clear that survivors would benefit from loved ones being better equipped to support them through the recovery process.

Here are some of my suggestions for how to respond when a loved one discloses that he or she has experienced sexual abuse:

(This is not a piece about what to do after someone has been assaulted.  If you are in search of what to do immediately after someone was assaulted, see these tips.)

Believe your friendThe recent cultural conversation around the idea of “legitimate rape” illustrates how sexual-abuse victims are often placed in the position of having to prove they’ve been abused.  The scars left after sexual abuse are not always visible, so this can be an overwhelming task, especially when someone is already struggling with the other aftereffects of trauma.  Sexual assault can be complicated and murky.  Many perpetrators are people that the victims have known and trusted, and drugs, alcohol, or head injuries can create fuzzy memories around an assault.  Thus, many survivors are already struggling with self-doubt, self-criticism, guilt, and shame.  Adding your disbelief to the equation can compound the shame your loved one is already grappling with.  Examples of comments and questions that communicate doubt and disbelief are:

  • “I know that guy and he’s a really good guy.  I can’t believe he could do something like that.”
  • “You don’t seem to have any bruises.”
  • “Are you sure he heard you say ‘no’?” 

Instead of comments like these, be diligent about communicating that you believe your friend and that you see his or her emotional reaction as legitimate.

Interrupt and challenge any urge you have to judge.  You may find yourself struggling with the task of believing your loved one or taking her seriously.  This can lead to judgment.  The bottom line is that it absolutely does not matter what your loved one was wearing, drinking, or doing.  It is preposterous to believe that someone who was drunk, high, flirtatious, or dressed provocatively cannot have been raped or abused.  Yet many listeners have reactions that display this type of judgment—e.g., because a victim was wearing a short skirt and drinking at a club, she somehow bears some blame for the criminal act of another.  This judgment can be extremely destructive for your loved one. 

Again, your loved one is likely already struggling with her own feelings of self-doubt and shame and may easily pick up on the judgment of others.  It is important to be careful about what you communicate.  Some things that can sound judgmental are:

  • Direct blaming (“You shouldn’t have tempted him!”)
  • Asking “why” questions (“Why were you there?  Why did you listen to him?”)
  • Implying that a responsible person would have made different choices (“Did you consider distracting him and leaving the room?”)
  • Trying to impart a lesson (“From now on you should think twice before having more than two drinks.”)  (There may be a time for a lesson, but the time for that discussion is later.)   

Above all, remember to save your anger and contempt for the appropriate targets:  those who perpetrate abuse and the culture that allows for it. 

Have empathy.  You care about your loved one.  In this time of need, see the humanity in the person in front of you.  She has just allowed herself to be very vulnerable by sharing this information with you.  Even if your loved one has disclosed abuse from years ago and she has been functioning well as long as you’ve known her, her pain might feel raw again after talking about it with you.  Being attuned to your loved one while still allowing her to have an emotional reaction can help her know that you are there for her.  This might mean letting her cry or get angry and still staying present for her.  You don’t have to force her to talk.  Just let her know that you are available when she needs you, and if she does come to you, listen to her with a kind and compassionate ear. 

Empower your loved one.  By nature, sexual assault is disempowering.  If someone’s physical body is violated, that person can feel like she doesn’t have control over anything.  Don’t add to that process by imposing your beliefs.  Support your friend, but let her choices be hers.  For example, she should ultimately get to decide whether she goes to the police or hospital or who gets to know about her abuse.  (This assumes that your loved one is an adult.  If your loved one is a minor, there are more issues at play that are beyond the scope of this post.)

Know some of the common responses to trauma.  

Recognize that there is grief after sexual assault.  Generally, our society is able to tolerate and respect one kind of grief: loss of a loved one due to death.  But there are many losses that can occur in all of our lives.  Some of the losses that can come with experiencing a sexual assault can be: the loss of feeling safe, the loss of feeling secure, the loss of certain relationships, the loss of innocence, the loss of closeness with others, the loss of childhood, the loss of virginity.  Try to give the same type of care and support that you would give to someone who was recently bereaved. 

Consider connecting your friend to community resources.  Encouraging your loved one to find a trained therapist and/or other community resources (like support groups) can give your friend safe spaces to work through her thoughts and emotions.  This can be especially important if you start to worry that her emotional reaction is veering down an unhealthy road (for example, she starts to drink heavily or isolate herself from others).

Recognize your own feelings about what happened.  This can be a difficult time for everyone involved, including you.  You may struggle with your own sadness, anger, distrust, or other emotions.  Maybe you know the perpetrator, too.  Or maybe you have a conflicted relationship with your loved one.  Get support and be thoughtful about taking care of yourself–it will be hard for you to be helpful to your loved one if you are overwhelmed or burned out. 

Even if you are not currently faced with this situation, I encourage you to think now about how you would respond to a loved one. 

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever been in this situation?  How did you respond?  How do you think you will respond if it happens in the future?