How we handle a disclosure from a loved one can either help or hinder the healing process.
I was devastated.
The disclosure came up after I found myself pressing her and bugging her because she didn’t seem to be interested in sex at all, and like most people, I took it personally, believing that I wasn’t good enough. We were moving into #deadbedroom territory, and sharing my embarrassing concerns with people in similar situations were met with fierce warnings to abandon the relationship as soon as possible, because “take it from us; it’s not going to get any better.”
My pestering must have gotten to her. I almost laughed because I thought she was joking when she told me. In what world could that have ever happened to someone that I knew personally? And then I saw her face. She cried silently, and I cried too, overwhelmed with the idea that someone could have hurt her.
My shield came up. I felt protective of her. I felt the reinforcements of my heart and mind gaining strength to guard her and to thank her for being so honest with me about something that was still, years later, so painful.
And then my thoughts shifted. I’m ashamed now to admit that I wondered if her earlier abuse would turn her into a sexual deviant, because I had heard about how most perpetrators are abused in early childhood. I wondered if it would be safe to have kids around her. I wondered how this would affect me. I wanted to know the ins and outs of what had happened and I felt anxious because she wasn’t telling me anything more.
Weeks and months later, she still hadn’t told me details. My mind was left to wander, picturing a variety of upsetting scenarios, wondering if it had been her father, a family member, a friend. I wondered about the extent of it, thinking that there was a huge difference between sexual touching and rape, between a single incident and multiple, inescapable situations that persisted over time. I was right about some things, but in many ways, I was naïve and could only think in stereotypes because those were all I knew.
Years later, I still attributed many of her behaviours to that disclosure, wondering how her experiences could have impacted her, and never really having the full story.
I didn’t know how to help. And the more I tried to find out, the more closed off she became.
I internalized her distance from me in ways that I could comprehend – beating myself up for not knowing what to do, blaming myself for not being desirable enough or smart enough for her to want to get better, and disregarding my own pain as a partner in a relationship with someone who couldn’t meet my needs because of someone else’s actions. And I couldn’t even leave her, because I didn’t want to hurt her more.
Sexual abuse is one of those things that people don’t talk about. It is common, and has long-lasting impacts that can span across generations. And learning that it happened to your partner can be incredibly scary.
How we handle a disclosure from a loved one can either help or hinder the healing process. We can jump to conclusions based on stereotypes from the way sexual abuse is portrayed in TV and movies. We may minimize the abuse by trying to make it fit into our worldview (e.g., it wasn’t actually rape if it wasn’t penetration). We can suffer from dismissing our own pain, because our partner’s pain can seem much more valid than our own.
So here’s what to do:
1. Support your partner.
Provide unwavering gratitude, empathy, and acceptance for what they have told you and how they feel their experiences have impacted them.
i. No judgment. It happened. Accept it. Make sure that you create a safe space where they can be open about it without worrying that you’ll reject them. Avoid asking questions that can be construed as blaming the victim (e.g., what were you wearing?), focusing more on questions that encourage sharing, (e.g., can you tell me more about it? It’s okay if you’re not ready).
ii. Manage your need for details. You don’t have to be the investigating officer for this situation. As a partner, the best thing you can do is accept what they are willing to share about their interpretation of events, and provide support.
iii. Use empathy (e.g., that sounds awful, I’m so sorry that happened, etc.)
2. Acknowledge the impact on you.
i. You’re allowed to feel. Common reactions include shock, anger, confusion, sadness, grief, and anxiety. All are valid. Don’t trap yourself by feeling guilty for having feelings.
ii. Notice your automatic thoughts without engaging with them right away. Try not to voice them while you focus on providing support. When you have time to yourself or with a supportive person outside of the relationship, consider if your thoughts are fair and reasonable. If you feel they are worth exploring with your partner, choose a time where both of you are relaxed and comfortable.
3. Seek information and support
i. Becoming aware of the impact of sexual abuse can reduce the taboo and give you some direction on how to handle it. Seek online resources or professional consultation with a licensed clinician that can shed some light on the process.
ii .Be aware of the legal challenges faced by sexual abuse survivors who try to seek justice. Many survivors are re-traumatized by having to tell their stories again and again, being questioned, judged, and cross-examined by police officers and the other party throughout the long, drawn-out process. Many survivors will choose not to go down this road, focusing instead on their own survival. Although it can seem like further injustice to refrain from reporting, this is ultimately their choice.
In Ontario, May is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month to bring attention to the devastating impact sexual assault has on survivors. It is also a time to discuss how to prevent this violence from happening and how we can better support survivors. There is still a long way to go to end the stigma of being a sexual assault survivor and to help survivors have easy access to much needed services such as counselling, proper medical attention, and legal support. You can help raise awareness by wearing purple and having these conversations about how to support survivors and stop the violence.
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