Supporting a Loved One
As the loved one of an adult survivor* of sexual assault, you play a critical role in the healing process. Educating yourself and processing your own emotions (anger, guilt, powerlessness, fear, etc.) are steps you can take to more effectively support the victim and yourself.
*For information on supporting a child survivor, click here.
Defining Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual attention or sexual contact committed by force, manipulation, bribes, threats, pressure, tricks, or violence. This includes child molestation, rape and attempted rape, sexual harassment, and incest.
- Perpetrators can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members.
- Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault; no one ever “asks for” or deserves to be sexually assaulted.
- Sexual assault is a crime with complex motivations that can include violence, anger and power, and sexual desire.
No One Way of Healing
While having a checklist of what to expect during the healing process would be helpful, it is not possible. Healing deals with emotions and there are no universals. As you support the victim, patience is critical; healing time varies from many months to many years. Do not expect an “end,” but instead recognize that the victim is engaged in a process and the mark of success is not “getting over” the assault, but rather getting on despite the assault. Some of the variety of emotions that a victim may experience include:
- wanting normalcy
- avoidance of intimacy (sexual and/or non-sexual)
There are many feelings and stages that follow a sexual assault. More than one of these emotions is likely to manifest itself at once; there is no particular order, and other emotions may also be experienced.
Providing support to a sexual assault survivor can be difficult due to your own feelings and responses to the assault. Here are some concrete steps that you can follow:
- Believe the victim and reassure them that you know the assault was not their fault, and that you still love them.
- Recognize that there is no right or wrong way to handle an assault and validate that the victim did the best they could under tremendous stress. Fear often paralyzes people. If they “cooperated” or submitted to an assault, that does not make them a willing participant.
- Encourage the victim to get the medical attention they deserve even if there is no apparent physical injury. In order to provide additional support for the victim going through a medical examination or the legal system, consider contacting an RCC counselor/advocate.
- Allow the victim to talk at their own pace, despite your own possible discomfort with too much silence, or detail or repetition.
- Respect the victim’s decision to report or not to report. Only they know if they are up to the enormous challenge that reporting entails.
You can provide better support to the victim if you also work to process your own emotions. Your needs and the victim’s are often not the same. Although it is important to be honest about your feelings, do not look to the victim to alleviate your pain (anger and frustration) or to return to the way they were before the assault. This is not possible and the victim will be grieving this loss just as you will.
In addition to wanting your life and the victim’s life to return to normal as quickly as possible, you may also want to retaliate against the victim’s abuser. You may feel that by expressing your wishes the victim will feel believed and supported—sometimes this is the case. However, by constantly expressing these feelings, the victim may become overburdened and may feel additional guilt for your frustration and anger.
Remember that rape crisis lines are not solely for victims. As a loved one, you may use RCC’s helpline and other services to help you in your healing process. The support you provide to your loved one through your strength and your respect for their process can be a very important factor in their healing.
Our helpline is not just for survivors. If your loved one was assaulted, you deserve support and healing too.