Dating Someone Who Has Dealt With Sexual Assault? Here’s What to Know
Did you know that someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds? That eye-opening statistic, which comes from he Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), demonstrates just how prevalent sexual violence is today. While sexual assault can happen to anyone — regardless of age, race, religion or orientation – one thing that applies across nearly all cases is that it can have lasting effects on a survivor’s mental and emotional health, as well as their relationships. That’s why if your partner has experienced this kind of trauma, it’s crucial to educate yourself on how to be supportive.
Everyone deals with the trauma in their own unique way. That said, a 2018 report published by Samuel Merritt University revealed that there are some common things many survivors struggle with: feelings of shame, guilt, denial, isolation, and difficulty trusting others and setting boundaries. Additionally, they may experience physical symptoms, such as insomnia or eating disturbances, and psychological symptoms, ranging from flashbacks, phobias and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
RELATED: How to Support Sexual Assault Survivors
While it’s totally possible to build a healthy, happy relationship with a survivor, doing so will require some careful consideration on your part. Here’s what two trauma experts advise in order to ensure your partner feels safe, heard and loved.
Let Them Take the Lead in Sharing
No matter how curious or concerned you are, pressuring your partner to talk about their assault before they’re ready could hinder the healing process.
“When survivors decide to tell their story, they should determine the timing of disclosure and how much detail is shared,” says Erinn Robinson, press secretary for RAINN. “The feeling of being pressured and not being in control of your own story can bring back the feeling of loss of control over your body during sexual assault. Many survivors talk about how losing control of their story after assault can feel like a second traumatic event.”
Licensed clinical social worker Melanie Shapiro agrees that it’s critical to be patient with your partner, and to provide a safe space so that they feel comfortable revealing information.
“Avoid taking it personally if your partner doesn’t want to share, or needs space or time alone to process,” she adds.
Once your partner is comfortable talking to you about their assault, the best thing you can do is to listen without any judgement. While it may be tempting to ask a lot of questions about the events to have a deeper understanding, Robinson warns that doing so could be unintentionally detrimental.
“Often, these questions will make it sound like they’re blaming the survivor for what happened, or suggesting that the survivor could have avoided the attack by doing something different,” she explains. “Let the survivor take the lead.”
As it can be difficult to know what to say when your partner begins letting you in on their experience, a great place to start is by reassuring them that you’re there for them.
“Let the survivor know that the assault was not their fault, and remind them of this when they need to hear it,” notes Robinson.
Set Clear Boundaries in the Bedroom
It goes without saying that you’ll need to be extra careful about how you navigate intimacy if your significant other has experienced sexual assault. Shapiro suggests launching a conversation in which you encourage your partner to be transparent about their likes and dislikes, or even discussing possible ground rules that might make them feel more secure. Would it be helpful for them if you ask for consent when having sex? Would they prefer to be the one to initiate intimacy? What are their personal triggers? Are there any words you should avoid?
“It avoids confusion or miscommunication and can make intimacy feel safer,” explains Shapiro. “It can offer your partner the option to decide what does and does not feel safe. And having that control can be supportive and empowering for a survivor.”
Your partner will likely need to rebuild a sense of trust where sex is concerned, all while rediscovering what’s pleasurable to them after their traumatic experience. Because of this, it’s imperative to let them get comfortable with communicating their needs and exploring intimacy at their own pace. Once you’ve established some ground rules, you can demonstrate that you respect them by continually checking in — simply asking “Does this feel OK?” is a straightforward way to do so.
Suggest Other Sources of Support
There are several potentially helpful resources for sexual assault survivors. One way to show you care is to make a few recommendations for how they might seek support. That being said, there’s a difference between making gentle suggestions and pushing them to pursue healing even if they’re not ready yet.
“Realise that only they can make the decision to get help,” says Robinson. “You should never pressure them into it or make them feel bad about their choice.”
According to Robinson, some of the most beneficial resources include the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) and RAINN’s 24/7 Online Hotline. Calling such numbers can help survivors connect with someone at their local rape crisis center. The online chat service also offers a way for survivors to receive support, advice or practical information from one of RAINN’s trained professionals. Note that these resources aren’t for survivors only — they’re also available for any loved ones who have been impacted by the assault, so you may want to take advantage of them, too.
Offer Up Your Presence Without Pushing Them
In the aftermath of the assault, your partner may be faced with a situation in which they’re forced to confront their trauma head on, such as if they plan to report the assault or seek medical attention. Offer to be there with them without pushing them to invite you along, or taking it personally if they’d rather go it alone. Also, if your partner opts to seek therapy, you might want to volunteer to accompany them for a session.
“Couples counseling can be effective when someone in the relationship is dealing with the effects of trauma,” says Shapiro. “And it can be really helpful to get perspective on how each person’s [trauma] history impacts the relationship.”
According to Robinson, it can be painful to disclose details of the assault, and some survivors may even feel like it causes them to relive it. As much as you may suspect that therapy could help your partner to facilitate the healing process, allow them to decide when they’re ready to go that route. Additionally, it may be important for your partner to seek individual counseling before you go to therapy together.
Above all, it’s imperative to understand that every individual’s recovery happens at their own individual pace. All you can do is keep reminding your partner that you care, listening to them when they’re ready to talk, researching and suggesting helpful resources, and showing up when they need you.
“There is no one-size-fits-all that applies to survivors — each person’s story and healing journey are unique,” explains Robinson.
When you feel unsure of how to be supportive, don’t underestimate the impact of a simple question: “How can I help?”
There are a multitude of different ways to show support, and what works for one person may not for another. The best way to figure out how to be there for your partner is to simply ask what they need. Remember that helping your partner to heal requires making them feel as empowered as possible. That means allowing them to take the lead when it comes to sharing information, re-building a healthy sense of intimacy and taking charge of their own distinctive recovery process.
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