Guest post by WAVAW Volunteer, Nicole Wayara
In the midst of working through my own trauma and remembrance (as well as fighting the latter) of my assault, I’ve had the support of many incredible women. As well, a few choice men. One of the biggest issues that I sense women in intimate relationships face post-trauma are the newly developed needs they have intimately. I’m talking physically, emotionally, sexually, the whole deal. For myself, the majority of my necessary supports throughout survivorship have been a combination of all 3. It isn’t surprising that a lot of partners (in my case, men) have difficulty navigating how best to support a girlfriend or spouse after assault. The common phrases I’ve heard have been “I’m always here to talk, you can tell me anything,” and “I cannot imagine how you went through that”—both appropriate, both supportive, but ones which I felt were lacking actual action. Aware of the perhaps onerous task that befalls those amazing partners who support women after assault, I’ve compiled a resource below to encourage and strengthen your capacities.
1. Become an Active Listener
Engage with her language, mirror her emotions, create healthy spaces if she needs to be vulnerable and share her experiences. You don’t necessarily have to know all the graphic details of her assault—this doesn’t necessarily aid you in supporting her better. This is tricky though, as in instances where a survivor may want to disclose their account to a trusted confidant it is really crucial to give them the space, time, and attention that they need to feel heard and validated. You may not fully understand how she’s feeling, and if you don’t, that’s ok.
Ask her if she wants to talk about it/“check in.” If you want to talk about it, ask her if she does too—and don’t always assume she does. This was huge for me with a partner who was very angered and upset when he heard about my experience. He wanted to talk about it at times which I felt were inopportune (when I was comfortably relaxing in his company, or completely not fixated on discussing the matter). When he would bring up his anger, or try to engage me in a discussion about my assault, I tensed up and shut down simply because I wasn’t interested in talking about it. In circumstances such as these, gauge to see if your partner is willing or desires to have a conversation about her experience. A lot of our ability to continue with life after assault (i.e. survive) is to repress or block out memories and pursue lifestyles, activities and company that grant us peace and comfort. Let her be the grandmaster of discussion; if she makes comments that you believe are opening up the conversation, engage. This leads me into the next point…
2. Take it upon yourself to foster a safe environment—Don’t equate her not wanting to talk about her trauma as her having “gotten over it”
This is crucial, and must be unconditional. It is not simply reserved for your living room, but for the places you may interact intimately. Ask how your partner feels about specific items being kept in the house. If you have knowledge that she’s experienced aggravated sexual assault (potentially with the use of a weapon), take it seriously. Don’t leave triggering paraphernalia lying around in spaces she will encounter. Take it upon yourself to ask her if things are ok—don’t just wait for her to object. Her silence does not necessarily mean she feels ok.
3. Don’t take it upon yourself to fix her
The repercussions of sexual assault may range in effect—from psychological PTSD to physical scars, bruises or broken bones. Despite all of these, it is critical to treat a survivor with the dignity they were not afforded during their assault. This means not infringing on their ability to self-care, and being a means of support if they are unable to do exactly that.
4. Establish new boundaries
Don’t take it personally if she’s not into sex! This is tricky, but be mindful of the fact that sex may be the last thing your partner may want. It’s important to separate any lack of sexual desire from your partner’s feelings about you. The fluidity of sexuality is real—after trauma this may be manifested in a decreased or increased libido. Asexuality, hyper-sexuality, all of these are not abnormal, and in fact are reasonable (with or without having experienced sexualized trauma). Everyone responds differently to their experiences of assault, and that is completely ok. Her libido may intensify, or not. The way she views her body may change. Most important is to remember that she is in control of her own body and sexuality, and to convey that as much as possible. Having healthy continuous and open communication on what both of your intimate needs are can make her feel more comfortable. If she shares specific details of her trauma, be mindful to steer clear of similar mannerisms, actions or scenarios comparable to her assault, as these may trigger her.
5. Don’t infantilize or police her
Sexual assault and rape are indicative of a lack of consent. Unequal power dynamics were at play, and one person had control over another, your partner. Survivors need to feel they are able to take back control of themselves in a myriad of ways. Often, the partner who supports a survivor may become fearful for the safety of their loved one. However, this shouldn’t translate into making a survivor feel like they’re more restricted or controlled than ever because of a fearful partner. A survivor may feel a heightened sense of anxiety or unsafety. It is important to make safety plans that best alleviate her sense of discomfort. These safety plans shouldn’t be mistaken for defense against harassment though, so whether they are in place or not, followed or not, it is crucial to recognize that the plan is a reaction—not necessarily a deterrent—to assault.
6. Do remind her that you’re here to support her and are in her corner, wanting what is best for her
She is the expert of her own experience. Believe it or not, she may know exactly what she needs and perhaps requires your assistance to achieve or satisfy her emotional, physical and psychological needs. Prioritize those before your own understandings of what you believe she needs. Gentle suggestions to support her in receiving more professional help are great. Telling her to seek counselling—not so much.
7. Take time for yourself
This stuff is hard! Be realistic with your expectations for both your partner and yourself. You are a human, and there is a capacity that we all have in supporting others. It is first and foremost a priority that you are gentle and kind to each other and yourself. Take the time to recharge, invest in your mental health and access your own supports if you feel your partner may be unable to reciprocate that care to you.