In 2012, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the United States were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. This means that whether you know it or not, every day that you are out in the world interacting with others you are encountering survivors of sexual and relationship violence.
They hand you your morning coffee and hold elevator doors for you, send you birthday cards and jog past you on the Back Cove trail. They are among your classmates and coworkers. Your best friend might be a survivor, or your parent, or even your partner.
The endless parade of victims-of-the-week on Law & Order: SVU, screenwriters’ lazy reliance on rape as a backstory for female characters, and whatever the hell is up with Game of Thrones can give the impression that all survivors are consumed by their experiences of victimization, whether because it breaks them or because it sets them on a path toward vengeance. As viewers, we see or hear about the event and observe its immediate consequences, but the credits tend to roll before the long-term work of healing and rebuilding relationships occurs.
In real life, violence is more than just a plot device. Some people feel defined by their experiences, but others do not. Some experience long-term consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, while others don’t. Most go on to have sexual and romantic relationships in the future. But in spite of the fact that these experiences are devastatingly commonplace, models for how to be supportive partners to those who have experienced them in the past are scarce.
The good news is that as long as you’re a decent person who cares about the wellbeing of others, it’s not rocket science. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy or intuitive.
You may be thinking that because your partner hasn’t ever disclosed an experience with violence or abuse to you, you’re in the clear. I hate to burst your bubble, but that isn’t necessarily so. While some survivors are forthcoming about their past experiences with new partners, others prefer not to talk about them for a whole host of reasons. Even if you aren’t aware of your partner’s history, a practice of being sure to always get consent, respecting your partner’s boundaries, and expressing your support for other survivors can help communicate to everyone you care about that you are a safe person worthy of being trusted with their body.
But beyond those basics (which we should all be doing anyway), here’s a little extra guidance on being a supportive partner and ally to someone who has experienced trauma:
If your partner chooses to share their story with you, give them the space they need to speak freely and without judgment. It’s normal to feel upset or angry when you hear that someone you care about has been hurt in the past, but try not to let those feelings take control of the conversation.
Believe your partner, even if what they are saying feels hard to believe or challenges your existing beliefs about another person. False reports of sexual and relationship violence are rare and on par with rates for other violent crimes, but the consequences for survivors who are met with rejection and disbelief by peers and loved ones can be significant and long-lasting.
Understand that you can be a source of support for your partner, but that doesn’t mean you should be their savior. Recovering happens as survivors regain their sense of agency by having control over their own lives and making the choices that are best for them on their path toward healing. Trying to “save” your partner or doing things “for their own good” may be well-intentioned, but can ultimately be harmful.
Remember that your partner is still the same person they were before they shared their experience with you. There is no need to change the way you think about them or treat them unless they ask you to do so. Being conscientious of their history and how it affects them does not mean that you need to treat them as though they are fragile.
Your partner may have certain words, places, people, actions, body parts, or other reminders that are associated with the trauma they have experienced. Consider asking what they are and how you can best assist your partner in either avoiding or coping with those reminders or triggers when they arise.
If your partner does have a reaction to something that reminds them of their past experiences, try not to take it personally. It can be difficult to see a person you care about have a panic attack, especially if you feel in some way that you are responsible. But so long as you were doing your best to respect your partner’s boundaries, it likely has little to do with you. Try to focus on being the support they need in that moment rather than dwelling on what you feel you may have done wrong.
Many survivors find that healing is a lifelong and nonlinear process. New or different manifestations of past trauma can appear months or years after the danger has passed. Sometimes these changes occur in response to life events or transitions, such as the birth of a child, but other times they can feel quite arbitrary. This may be frustrating for both you and your partner, but it is normal.
Trauma affects everyone differently, so not all of these suggestions will apply to every situation. But having the chance to build healthy connections and relationships with others is one of the most important steps for healing. By being good friends, strong allies, and supportive partners, we can help the people we love and care about feel safe in the world again. It won’t fix everything--but it’s a start.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual or relationship violence, help is available year-round:
Maine Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-871-7741 (you can also text chat this number during normal business hours)
Statewide Domestic Violence Helpline: 1-866-834-4357
Have a sex question or story for Kaylee? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.