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Sexual assault can have a profound and long-lasting impact on a survivor’s well-being and in several domains of their life. You may observe traces of its effects in the way a survivor carries themselves, the way they interact with others, in their self-esteem, or in the way they will treat their relationships. If your girlfriend, boyfriend, or partner has experienced sexual violence, there a few things you should keep mind.
It might take a survivor some time to disclose abuse to their partner. When they do, please be willing to listen and believe them. As an intimate partner, you can be a great source of support and have the potential to help in their healing process. It’s important to know that there may be new dynamics in the relationship that didn’t exist before. Please be patient and understanding. The survivor has suffered through a traumatic experience where they lost control and ownership of their body. As a trusted partner, it is important to listen and respect the choices they make.
Sex might be an area of discomfort with triggers that remind them of the abuse or assault. Do not minimize their feelings or take it too personally if your partner sets new boundaries. It may not be about you. For a survivor, sex and pleasure may be tainted with feelings of being unsafe. It is important to have open communication with you partner. Have ongoing conversations with your partner about what you can do to help them feel safe and be sure that you are always asking for consent and checking in.
Survivors of sexual assault may also be dealing with mental health issues such as depression or PTSD. You may find your partner isolating themselves or suddenly in tears. If your partner shuts down on you and is pushing you away, this may be a coping mechanism for them. Instead of getting angry and frustrated, be patient and forgiving. Give them space if they ask or hold them as they cry. Be willing to listen to them and remember we are all humans and it can be hard to let people in.
Finally, loved ones of survivors may find that they are also in need of support. Individuals who start to internalize a victim’s experience and are under emotional duress may be experiencing secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can have similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is very important for supporters to seek help and ensure that they are taking the necessary steps to take care of themselves. If you can’t take care of yourself, then you won’t be able to support someone else.
Help is available. For more information about sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and survivor services at UW-Madison, visit www.evoc.wisc.edu.
Written by Arlyn Gonzalez, UHS EVOC Project Assistant and Social Work major.