Some Things to Remember When You’re Supporting A Survivor…

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).

The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors

In July 2011, National Public radio’s All Things Considered aired Shankar Vedantam’s  segment entitled “The Key to Disaster Survival? Friends and Neighbors” which highlights the importance that community-based networks of support play in insuring survival in the occurrence of a disaster. Citing data from Hurrican Katrina, the 2003 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, disaster researcher Daniel Aldrich demonstrates that “communities are not the sum of their roads, schools and malls. They are the sum of their relationships” and suggests that “Instead of practicing earthquake drills and building bunkers, we could reach out and make more friends among our co-workers and neighbors.”

Residents check an earthquake-damaged house in Sukagawa city on March 11, in the Fukushima prefecture in Japan. A researcher says that after large-scale natural disasters, it's frequently friends and neighbors who are key to survival.

Listen Up!

By Connie Burk

During a stay at a friends’ home a few years ago, I came across the book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk . Within the first few pages, I was running down the stairs hollering for my partner to ‘come read this!’

The biggest take away for me was that I could listen to and love my kids without trying to solve their problems.  “Mama, I’m bored” would normally evoke a response ranging from, “Why don’t you go outside and play?  You have an entire playground out there!” to “I’d be bored too if I spent all my time moping around begging to watch t.v.” or “You had a chance to go to Mia’s house today but you refused to finish your chores.”

A black and white photo in which a small child smiles towards the viewer in the arms of a man facing away from the camera and down a path that curves into the blurry distance. This book suggested that the most compassionate listening involved…LISTENING!

Not problem solving or pointing out my kids’ many failings or schooling them on the cause and effect of their current condition.

This was news to me.  I am an advocate, an activist, a Mid-Westerner:  such people are doers.  We DO things.  When someone I care about is suffering, I shift into high-gear problem solving. But that kind of “doing” is sometimes just anti-listening, protecting me from my own feelings of worry, sadness, defensiveness or anger. I have to ask myself if I am interested in acknowledging someone’s experience or in them simply not having the problem.

Instead of “doing” when my kids said they were bored, the book encouraged me to look at them, take them in and engage with empathy—no problem solving, no minimizing, no lectures.  “Oh, you are bored.  I know that can be hard, especially half-way through summer!”

It turns out, this is much sweeter than the burden of trying to fix everything or teach the next life lesson. AND more importantly, it opens the way for them to solve their own problems, instead of taking over with my own solutions.

The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, the more I realized this is what I was craving in my own relationships.  The minimizing, the fixing, the mini-lectures disguised as helpful tips—all felt like rebukes.  What I really wanted was for someone to listen with empathy. As friends  and parents, we often say “you can tell me anything.” But in order to make good on that offer, we have to set aside bad habits and actively cultivate the skills to listen well.

Harder is Harder.

By Connie Burk

What do you do when you are worried about something in your relationship or a friend’s relationship? When you notice your friend’s partner do something that seems controlling? Or your date gets angry in a way that is scary? What if the behavior you’re worried about is in the “grey area” – not abusive, but maybe not okay either?

Lots of folks have these grey area concerns and think: “This isn’t bad enough to say anything. And maybe I’m wrong. If it was worse, I would know what to do. I’ll wait to see if it gets worse and do something then.”

Survivors and friends and family alike have said, “If they did something violent, I’d know exactly what to do, but…”

It can seem like dealing with outright violence is easier to address because it is clear, not in the murky grey area. But this is a false logic. The truth is, harder is harder.

 The more damage someone has experienced, the further isolation has separated folks from one another, the longer emotional abuse and victim-blaming worm their way through a person’s life, the harder it is to tease out the threads, reach out for/reach out to help, and minimize the harm.  The more time a person who batters has to set up a web of coercion and control, the harder it is to get away from the abuse.

It’s not easier to ask someone a friend about her partner hitting her than to ask her about her partner yelling at her.  It’s not easier to tell your friend you are afraid of your lover than to tell a friend you think your lover might have a problem with control.  Harder is harder.

People who batter know both of these things: that no one wants to be the uncool sucker who overacts, and that harder is harder.  They rely on the hesitation.  The impulse to ‘wait and see’.  And they work to ensure their control is complete before friends decide to try to connect or intervene.

That doesn’t mean everyone needs to drop relationships at the first sign of a red flag.  But, it does point to a practice of reaching out at the first sign of trouble, to check in and talk about concerns, as strong defenses against abuse.