This piece is adapted from Staci Haines’ excellent book, Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. A version of this portion appears in Chapter 17 “Partnering with Survivors of Sexual Abuse. ”
It’s Not Your Fault
One of the most difficult things for friends and family members of someone experiencing abuse is remembering that your loved one’s pain is not your fault. It can be easy to think that if we had just done something differently, this situation could have been avoided: “If I had just told Kayla that her boyfriend seemed like bad news the first time I met him, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten to this point,” or “I really should have been calling her—I just got so caught up in everything going on with work. ” While it’s always great to reflect on your choices and to think about how you might want to do things differently in the future, at the same time, it’s very important to remember that the person who has been abusing your loved one is the one who made the choice to cause harm.
Blaming yourself can be a really smart way to avoid feeling the emotions that come when you let yourself acknowledge the fact that someone you love is in pain, but ultimately, it will be more supportive, both for you and for your loved one, to let yourself experience these emotions fully. You can support your loved one, but you can’t fix or make the effects of the harm they’ve experienced go away. Guilt and shame usually make it difficult for us to be present—if I’m thinking “I should have… If only I had…” the whole time I’m listening to my friend, it’s going to be a lot harder for me to hear the things he’s asking me to do to support him.
Many years ago, when I was first training as a therapist, an instructor of mine said “People you’re working with are coming to you because they’re sitting in a fire. Their friends and family are often telling them to get out of the fire, or to put the fire out—and often times they have a lot of ideas about exactly how that should happen. Our job isn’t to get them out of the fire or to put it out. Our job is to be someone who can sit there in the fire with them. To be able to ask: “How hot is the fire today? Is it hotter or cooler than it was yesterday? What is on fire now? What are you afraid might catch fire next? And, perhaps most important of all: What’s fireproof?” Being a witness, being able to sit with and listen to your friend’s story is often the most valuable support you can offer.
No Saviors, No Patients
You are not a savior, and your friend is not a patient. She is not broken or hurt, and it is not your job to rescue her. When friends & family get stuck in savior/patient roles, it ultimately disempowers everyone. The truth is, it is incredibly courageous to come out about experiencing abuse and it is incredibly courageous to support someone in surviving and healing from that abuse. Many survivors and their loved ones stay in denial about the abuse instead. Acknowledge and appreciate yourselves and each other for this.
It will help you to learn about domestic violence, abuse, and patterns of coercive power and control. We’ve compiled an extensive list of resources about patterns of abuse, experiences of survivors, and the recovery process here. It’s much easier to avoid pitfalls such as savior/patient roles when you know what’s going on.
Practice viewing each other as whole human beings. Tell each other regularly what you appreciate about each other. Talk about the vulnerability and the strengths that you see in each other. Give yourself lots of props for hanging in there. No patients or saviors are needed.
Take Care of Yourself
As someone supporting a survivor, you need to be very attentive to your own needs. Often, friends and family of survivors give to the point of depletion, because the situation seems to call for it. Learning to recognize, negotiate and take care of your own needs will serve (and potentially save) your relationship with your loved one. While surviving abuse often creates moments or periods of intense crisis, the process of recovery and healing takes time. If you are committed to supporting your loved one over the long haul, it is critical that you keep your own resources intact and replenished.
Consider getting support for yourself as well. Supporting your friend will likely stir up complicated feelings for you, as well. Reaching out to friends or a counselor can help you get what you need in order be able to continue to support your friend.
Make sure to continue making time to do things you enjoy. Whether it’s a hobby, making art, exercising, or spending time with friends, make time for the things that give your life meaning. This can create a place of balance and renewal for you, which can help you continue to bring joy into your relationship with your loved one as they are healing.
You Get to Change, Too
When someone you love is healing and changing, you get to change too. By being a support, you are getting a close-up look at what human beings can do to each other. This may call into question some of your basic beliefs about people and societies. How could this happen? Why is this still happening? What can I do? Friends and family go through their own stages of denial, shock, feeling and integrating the trauma. It is normal to get angry at those who harmed your friend and to grieve the losses that she/ze/he suffered as a result of the abuse.
Showing up for your friend during this time can also expose some of your own experiences of harm or trauma. You may find yourself reflection on experiences from your own past, or coming up against issues you thought you had successfully avoided. You and your loved one can learn together and use your reflections and your growth to support one another in growth and healing.
Adapted from Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines (2007). Published by Cleis Press, San Francisco. (Originally published as The Survivors’ Guide to Sex by Cleis Press in 1997).