When a loved one experiences any form of interpersonal violence, it can be scary, confusing, shocking, and it may leave families feeling helpless and unsure of how to respond. The family members of someone who experiences sexual violence, domestic/dating violence, and stalking can be impacted greatly. An issue many families run into is not knowing what to say or do to help.
What can I say and how can I help?
- If you are a friend or family member of a victim/survivor of sexual assault, your support can be instrumental to their recovery. Remember there are culturally specific ways that communities may address sexual assault and respect individual responses. You can help by:
- Respect a victim/survivor’s decisions. It is important that you listen to the victim/survivor and find out what he/she needs. For some survivors, helping them regain control will be important. Even if you do not agree with the victim/survivor’s decisions, respect those decisions.
- Listen and be available. Provide a safe environment and set aside time to talk. You do not need to provide answers or solutions. Just listen. If this is too difficult for you, direct the victim/survivor to someone who can help.
- Believe and accept. Sometimes family and friends may fall into the trap of believing some of the myths surrounding sexual assault-particularly that the victim/survivor is somehow responsible for the assault. It’s best if you are supportive by believing the victim/survivor and being non-judgmental. Victim/survivors respond in different ways to an assault, whether by fighting back, dissociating, or not resisting the perpetrator. Questioning, criticizing, or feeding into the “what if’s” can slow the recovery process.
- Offer a safe place to stay or stay with the survivor. Having family or friends close at hand can provide a sense of being safe and protected. Allow victims/survivors to determine where they want to stay and with whom.
- Recognize that recovery can take a long time. It is important for significant people in the victim/survivor’s life to refrain from suggesting or even hinting that the victim/survivor “should have gotten over it by now.” Each person recovers at his/her own pace.
- Be gentle, sensitive, and respectful of the victim/survivor’s wishes for closeness or affection. Victims/survivors may want affection or they may need distance. If you are not sure what they want, ask before acting and recognize that what they want may change from time to time.
- Deal with your own feelings. Typically family and friends have strong reactions when someone they care about has been assaulted or raped. You may feel anger, rage, guilt, confusion, or blame. Just as the victim/survivor must express emotion, so must you.
- Rather than expressing this emotion to the victim/survivor, you should deal with these emotions with someone else. Sharing your own difficult feelings with the victim/survivor may add to the feelings of guilt and remorse that they may already be feeling. In essence, it may only make healing more difficult for the victim/survivor. Be conscious of not disclosing the victim’s identity when talking with someone else.
- If you are the victim/survivor’s intimate partner, understand the impact the sexual assault may have on sexual interactions. Since sexual assault violates an individual in the most personal way, if you are the intimate partner of a victim/survivor, you have a special place in the healing process. You should be aware of all of the points listed above. In addition, it may be important for you to seek counseling, either for yourself or with your partner, if asked. It is not unusual for both victims/survivors and their intimate partners to request assistance in dealing with issues around sexuality, intimacy, and trust after the violation and trauma of a sexual assault.