Support for You
Sexual assault and domestic violence don’t just affect the person who has been abused or assaulted. It affects family and friends too. You, as a secondary victim, may have also experienced trauma. You may also be seeking help for how you can best support your loved one. You are always welcome to receive help from The Center by calling 844-BE-SAFE-1.
It’s important to know that there is no normal or one way to react when you find out someone you care about has experienced abuse. Regardless of what you’re feeling, these emotions can be intense and difficult to deal with. Learning how to manage these feelings can help you support the survivor in your life and can help you feel less overwhelmed.
As a loved one of a survivor, you may experience some of the following emotions:
- Disbelief. When you first hear about the assault or abuse, you might be surprised or shocked, and you might have trouble believing it happened. After a traumatic experience, it’s common for survivors and those around them to experience denial. It’s important to focus on believing the survivor and acknowledging their story.
- Anger. You might feel anger for a number of reasons: towards yourself for not being able to protect the survivor; towards the survivor for telling you about something that is hard to hear, or because they waited a period of time before telling you; or towards the perpetrator for hurting the survivor. It can be difficult to keep anger from affecting the way you communicate. Let yourself acknowledge this emotion and find a supportive outlet to express it so that your anger does not negatively affect your loved one. Because trust is so important to survivors, consider calling The Center to have a confidential space to talk with a counselor about these feelings.
- Sadness. When you learn that trauma like sexual assault or intimate partner violence happen to someone you care about, it’s normal to feel sad, hopeless, worried, or powerless. You might feel sad for the survivor or mourn how this has changed their life. If you know the perpetrator, you might feel sad for how this has changed your life as well. Self-care strategies and coping skills can help you move through these feelings.
- Guilt. You may feel guilty that you could not prevent the assault from happening or that the survivor didn’t feel comfortable telling you about their experience right way. You may feel guilty that something so terrible happened to someone else and not to you. It can be helpful to refocus your energy on making the survivor feel supported as they move forward.
- Anxiety. You might feel anxious about responding the “right” way or worried about how this event will impact your relationship with the survivor. Reassure the survivor that abuse is not their fault and that you believe them. These can be the most powerful and helpful words for a survivor to hear.
- Fear. Hearing about the abuse or assault that happened to another person can sometimes make us feel unsafe too. Secondary survivors can experience post traumatic symptoms in much the same way that a survivor experiences them: sleeplessness, intrusive thoughts, worry. Support groups or therapy can help you work through these feelings and address your own sense of safety.
- Confusion. You might feel confused by what you’re hearing. You might not understand how it could happen or why it has happened. Sadly, sexual assault and intimate partner violence are more common than we’d like to think. Although you may be struggling with feelings of confusion, especially if you know the perpetrator, you should try to always believe the survivor. They are never to blame for the assault.
How do I practice self-care?
Good self-care enables you to better care for others, especially if there is someone in your life who has survived abuse or sexual violence. The principles of self-care for friends and family are similar to the self-care concepts for survivors, but there are some additional aspects to consider.
- Maintain your lifestyle. It can be difficult to stay emotionally strong if you are mostly focusing on the trauma. Maintaining your lifestyle and continuing to do what you enjoy is important for your emotional wellness. If you enjoy painting, cooking, exercising, spending time with friends, or other activities, keep them up. It may seem challenging to make time to do these activities, but they can be helpful self-care strategies in the long-run.
- Reach out and talk about it. It’s normal to have a difficult time processing the abuse of someone you care about. It can continue to be difficult as time goes on and the survivor begins the healing process. You can call the Center for Women and Families 24-hour hotline to chat with someone who understands what you’re going through. You can also consider talking to someone who is trained professionally to help you deal with these thoughts and feelings, like a mental health professional.
- Make plans. Sometimes talking about what happened can help you cope with your feelings, and other times it can make you feel more stuck. Make plans that give you a break from talking or thinking about the abuse. It could mean starting a new hobby or revisiting one you already enjoy. You could go to dinner with a group of friends who understand this isn’t time to discuss what happened. Maybe you prefer a solo activity, like going on long walks. Let this be a time where you can take your mind off the assault.
- Take time to relax. Relaxation looks different for everyone. You might consider meditation or deep breathing exercises. Maybe journaling helps you sort through your thoughts and find peace. Build time into your day for these moments of relaxation.
What if my loved one says their partner is abusing them, but they want to stay in the relationship?
A friend or family member may tell you that their partner is abusing them. The abuse might be physical, emotional, sexual, or even financial (restricting money from the loved one). Sometimes you might become aware of the abuse through witnessing it directly, or by recognizing the signs of intimate partner violence. If your friend or family member trusts you enough to disclose the on-going abuse, it is important to ask them what actions they would like you to take.
- Help them create a safety plan. Safety plans look different for every person. But even taking a few basic precautions can help save lives and minimize exposure to trauma. (link to safety plan here).
- Help them gather/store important items in an accessible and safe place. This may include copies of driver’s licenses, birth certificates, social security cards, spare cash, a change of clothes, a pre-paid cellphone, a journal, and photographs. This can be really helpful for people who are preparing to leave an abusive situation and/or may need an emergency kit prepared when they leave quickly.
- Develop a code word. If your loved one or one of their children uses a code word with you in person or over the phone, it can alert you to call the police when they are unable to ask for help. This can be especially useful as a measure of protection if their abuser heavily monitors their communication with others.
- Make sure that you are safe. Unfortunately, abusers have been known to retaliate against friends and family members who support the person the abuser is harming. If you feel that you are at risk for retaliation or exposure to violence, please contact The Center to discuss a safety plan for yourself. If you feel that you or your loved one is in danger, always call 911.
You don’t have to handle this situation alone. Watching a friend or family member stay in an abusive relationship can be scary, frustrating, and confusing. You may feel like you are no longer important to your loved one. You may feel like you aren’t making a difference, or that you’re even enabling them to stay in the relationship by maintaining contact with them. These feelings can be really upsetting. Remember that The Center is here to support you, too. Call us any time, day or night.
Sometimes past experiences of trauma can affect current relationships. If you are a non-abusive partner to someone that has experienced past sexual abuse, rape, or domestic violence, you may want help navigating concerns that may arise in your present relationship. You are invited to participate in counseling and therapy at The Center, either alone or with your partner. Call our 24-hour hotline for more information on access to free and confidential services.
Resources for loved ones of people who have experienced sexual assault and intimate partner violence:
- The resource page for Secondary Survivors from Pandora’s Project. http://www.pandys.org/secondarysurvivors.html
- Help for friends and family after a loved one has been sexually assaulted. https://rainn.org/get-help/help-a-loved-one
- An easy to read page from The National Domestic Violence Hotline for friends and family members of people who are in abusive relationships http://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/