By Tiffany Sostar, for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services

There are a lot of survivors of sexual violence in the world. This means that many relationships include at least one survivor, and it can be difficult to know what to do (or not do) to support a partner who has experienced sexual violence. It can be a painful and confusing experience for everyone involved, but there are ways to support your partner after they have trusted you with their story.

Sexual violence is any sexual contact without voluntary consent, and it can occur at any point in a person’s life. Disclosing sexual violence, whether it happened years ago or more recently, is a significant decision for someone, and your immediate response can make a big difference.

According to Janelle Boisvert of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, it’s important to actually say ‘I believe you.’

“It takes an incredible amount of courage to disclose this, and they’ve likely rehearsed many times,” she says.

“It’s so important that they know, before anything else, that you believe them.”

Here are some suggestions for anyone dating a survivor of sexual violence.

Support for them

  • Recognize the survivor’s story belongs to them. Don’t pressure them to report it to police, to tell their family or friends, or to confront the person who hurt them in this way. Respect their choices around if they tell their story, who they tell it to, when they tell it, and how they choose to do so. Let the survivor control the process of the disclosure. You can do this by listening to them, letting them lead the conversation, and by resisting the urge to become over-protective. For example, you could try using the same language to describe the assault that the survivor uses. “It’s really important that if we want to be a good support, that we help them regain their own power, and one of the best things we can do is listen and let them choose for themselves,” Boisvert says.
  • Many survivors experience a lot of self-doubt, shame, and guilt. They may ask themselves ‘Is this my mind playing tricks on me?’, ‘Will people believe me?’, or ‘Could I have prevented this?’ Validate their experiences and listen as they process these fears. Say ‘It’s not your fault’ and ‘I believe you’.
  • Lisa Lewis of Lethbridge Family Services suggests, “Try to listen with no interruptions, with kindness and openness, and to validate their thoughts, feelings, and even physical experiences, since some people process through somatic experiences like sickness, headaches, and pain.”
  • Try not to take it personally if the survivor needs to step back from a conversation, activity, or event. This can be particularly difficult for partners, because it can feel like rejection. Remember that the process of responding to and recovering from sexual violence may be long and non-linear. Be patient, and let your partner know that you are not taking their reactions to the assault personally. Allowing them to feel whatever they are feeling, without having to hide it, is one way to be supportive.

Self-care for you

  • Be aware of your own strong emotional reactions, and be mindful about when and how you express them. Allow yourself to express your big reactions in private initially and with your own support systems. Consider journaling, speaking with friends (with the consent of the survivor), or accessing professional help. Your needs, wants, and boundaries are valid.
  • Recognize that you will also need support. It will take time to process your thoughts and feelings and having external support will help you do so.
  • Be honest about your feelings – honesty builds relationships and connection. “In the long term (honesty) builds trust,” says Lewis. “If you don’t know what to say, admit that you don’t know what to say.”
  • Boisvert adds, “Every time someone does their own work to educate themselves about sexual violence, and to unlearn myths about sexual violence, they’re taking the pressure off the person who has been harmed in this way to have all the answers.”
    Respect, communication, honesty, validation, believing, and offering understanding and patience – these will all build trust, and trust will help your relationship get through this experience.

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