Being There – Effectively Supporting Your Loved One to Heal from Sexual Assault
Updated: Apr 1
It’s a world-wide epidemic. Everyone I have ever cared about has been impacted in some way by sexual violence. Everyone you have ever cared about has been impacted in some way by sexual violence. Thanks to countless amazingly brave people it’s beginning to get more attention. #MeToo.
I want to offer, to everyone taking the time to read this, to everyone struggling with how to support the people in your life who’ve been sexual assaulted, a framework for how to Be There. For how to develop and maintain a healing relationship with your loved one as they go through their healing process.
First – A Few Concrete Steps From The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network
Short term –
Start by believing
Express empathy and compassion
Meticulously avoid any overt or subtle messaging that your loved one is somehow accountable or responsible for the assault
Reinforce your willingness to support them
Let them know the assault doesn’t change how you feel about them
Use the language they use
Long term –
Avoid judgment of their process or pressure to “hurry it up”
Continue to check in
Continue to engage in resources
Both you and your loved one must practice self-care
Hold them accountable without being demanding or providing ultimatums
Now - Some Really Valuable Things That Need To Be Said Before We Go On.
1) You're capable of helping your loved one overcome their assault experience. It isn't an easy road, but it’s absolutely possible.
2) You’re going to make mistakes - - and that’s ok. Don’t bother denying it. But you’re also reading this. And that means you’re willing to try. So, thank you. Thank you. Even if the people you’re trying to care for don’t know how to say it… Thank you.
3) If you’re not going to also take care of yourself, you’re probably doing more harm than good. People who’ve experienced sexual violence don’t have the energy to take care of you when you’re feeling burnt out. You absolutely must take care of your own needs first and foremost.
4) Your role is incredibly important. The person you care about was likely assaulted by someone they know, quite possibly by someone they once trusted, and/or someone who was/is in a position of power. Being a person of integrity and trust in your loved one's life is so absolutely invaluable. When you make mistakes remember to Apologize. Not just with words, but by doing better the next time. Healing is a process. It’s often messy. Moments can sometimes feel like hours (for you and your loved one both). But taking accountability for your actions can mean the difference between a moment of healing and a widened rift in relationship.
5) This is only a framework. This article is in-depth but it isn’t comprehensive. Take the time to look up some of the words in here that you don’t understand. Defining everything and doing this subject the justice it deserves, is going to take more than a blog post.
Now – Why You’re Here.
Supporting your loved one to heal from the wounds of sexual violence is about effectively balancing Patience, Reality, and Hope. You and your loved one both need this balance.
We need the Patience to tolerate the healing process, and everything that comes with it. We need to be firmly grounded in Realistic expectations of what to expect and what is possible. And most importantly, we need Hope that healing is possible, and that all the struggles will be worth it.
Please remember - being out of balance is absolutely to be expected. There is no perfect way to heal from a sexual assault. Try to take the long view, by remembering that being out of balance today or this week/month isn’t a failure. In fact, some days we need a little more patience, while on others a little less reality. Healing is a process, and you’re not balancing on a tightrope - - you’ve got room for error.
Patience – Learn How To Tolerate All The Ups & Downs Of The Healing Process.
Get to know the impact – Learn about your loved one’s triggers, their needs, their resources, and their strengths. Be compassionate as they continue to discover these things for themselves. No one who has ever experienced a trauma could sit down the next day, or even years later, and write out a list of everything that is ever going to trigger them.
Remain tolerant of the process – Let go of any expectations that healing should look a certain way, take a certain amount of time, ever truly be over, or even need to happen at all.
Don’t pressure them to finish healing, move on, get over it, or just drop it. If any of these thoughts cross your mind and feel like they might make their way to your lips, it’s time to walk away for a while. It’s also likely time to find some more support for yourself. Find your own resources, strengths and community. Being frustrated, feeling alone, scared, tired, helpless… are natural and normal parts of your process. Secondary trauma is very real. The impact of assault does not stop at the person who was assaulted. Please, find support. Many amazing therapists can help you process your experience so you can keep being there for your loved one. Secondary survivor groups are also fortunately becoming more common. You aren’t alone.
Reality - The Objective Truths Of Supporting Your Loved One After Trauma
Injustice is something done to us. Healing is something we must do for ourselves. As hard as it truly is, you cannot heal your loved one. You can be there. You can support them. But you cannot heal them. Neither can any therapist, energy worker, or holy person. They must do the work themselves. But doing it themselves doesn’t mean doing it Alone.
It’s your responsibility to support your loved one as best as you are able – You can provide support, encouragement, community, and some level of safety. You can spend quality time with them, remind them that they’re valuable, loved and unbroken, and help them to feel safer (often this could require creating significant life changes - changing addresses, jobs, schools, and/or contact information).
Again, you can’t effectively care for your loved one if you’re not caring for yourself first. Most therapists, myself included, can tell you how perilous it is to try and nurture someone else from an “empty cup.” If you’re burnt out, everyone is losing.
Not being able to heal your loved one, and not having infinite capacity to support them are not failings.
Healing is a process that takes time and is often a dance between steps forward and steps back. There aren’t any quick and easy fixes. Set-backs can be draining. They can feel like defeats, but they aren’t. They are merely steps in the confusing and complicated, MC Escher stairwell looking, landscape of trauma healing.
Some modalities/types of therapy for trauma have been scientifically shown to produce long lasting measurable results. And, if your loved one doesn’t want to try them, don’t push your agenda. It can’t be stated enough, empowerment is the key to trauma healing.
Supporters must find a balance between offering support and resources while giving their loved one room to make their own choices of how, when, where, and why to proceed in their healing process.
The most important phrases to remember in this whole article… Disempowerment was at the center of your loved one’s trauma. Empowerment is at the center of their ability to heal. Never silence, criticize, mock, or invalidate someone who has experienced an assault. They did the absolute best they could to survive while being assaulted. And they’re still doing the absolute best they can. Don’t give up on them. And be Patient.
Hope – Be Proactive About Building And Maintaining A Belief That The Process Of Healing Is Possible And Worth It.
Find workable options – In the midst of a traumatic situation we are left with very few to literally no options but ones of last resort. Hope, on the other hand, exists when desirable options are present and we believe that we can achieve them.
Create goals – Support your loved one to create both short term (daily even hourly) and long term (weekly/monthly/yearly) goals.
Create your own short and long term goals for personal healing, as well as how you’re going to better prepare yourself to help your loved one’s healing (Brown, 2011).
Hope is a state of mind – It is not something we can feel without first believing that it exists” (Brown, 2011).
Hope is teachable (Brown, 2011). You can literally help our loved one learn to be hopeful by practicing hopefulness yourself. A skilled therapist can be an immense resource is learning to be hopeful.
When you build resiliency, you’re also building hope. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back. Resiliency can be taught and learned after a trauma, but it serves us best when we learn it early in life. Teach your children at a young age how to be resilient, and you’re setting them up to thrive even through significant hardships. Ways and resources to foster resiliency:
Be in connection with affirming community members
Find and/or create spaces that validate you and your loved one
Make every day meaningful
Learn, learn, learn from your experiences
Seek out opportunities for self-discovery and growth
Nurture a positive view of yourself
Challenge negative thinking and work to maintain a hopeful outlook
Take care of your body, and practice body positivity
Share your talents and gifts with others
Write this list down somewhere and keep adding to it
Supporting your loved one is not always going to be a straightforward or easy task. Remember to take care of yourself, remember to empower, remember to hope.
If you or a loved one is working to move through a process of healing from sexual assault I strongly encourage you to find more support. It can be through a survivor group, a therapist, a spiritual community, or even an activist organization, but connecting with others is so very important. Isolation breeds shame, and shame breeds dis-ease.
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.
Brown, B. Brene Brown at the Up Experience 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJo4qXbz4G4&t=186s&list=PL2mxF5eIwj6EM7U4IRPjA8WhAFtZI2cJ_&index=1
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, https://www.rainn.org/articles/how-respond-survivor.