Some people when they hear your story, contract. Others upon hearing your story, expand. And this is how you know.
A client of mine recently relayed a devastating story. After much pushing from her boyfriend to tell him more about her she told him about an experience of sexual assault. And then he retraumatized her by his incredibly terrible reaction. It was literally one of the worst responses I can imagine: expressing doubt, telling her to get over it, and vaguely accusing her of being complicit with the assault.
This article is not written for that guy. F—- that guy.
But it does occur to me that many people don’t know how to respond to a loved one sharing an experience like this. It’s hard! We aren’t really taught how to be with someone in their pain and our society tends to avoid suffering like the plague.
So this article is for the friend or lover who really wants to learn how to be there for the survivor in their life.
Tips for talking with sexual assault survivors
1. Listen more than you talk
You might think this goes without saying but it doesn’t. Sometimes when we are nervous we ramble and you might feel a bit anxious when someone discloses to you an experience of sexual assault. You might have the “I need to have the PERFECT response to this” reaction which can sometimes lead to you overdoing it with words.
2. Listen with an ear towards emotion not facts
We have been so conditioned not to believe survivors that I think, unlike other crimes, we might find ourselves listening to a story of sexual assault with an ear towards judging the truth. If you find yourself getting caught up in listening for facts and imagining yourself as a juror listening to testimony PAUSE and bring yourself back to listening to your friend. Listen for emotions and for ways you might be supportive.
3. Validate their emotions and don’t be fooled by a seeming lack of emotion
As you’re listening to emotions, reflect back to them things like, “I would feel that way too” or “you must have been so scared!” I know it might sound small but even the little act of letting another person know their feelings make sense can help reduce any shame they may feel.
Also, don’t be fooled if your friend/partner seems to have NO emotion when talking to you about it. Survivors can get really good at dissociating (essentially cutting themselves off from themselves or their feelings) and numbing big emotions. This is an adaptive strategy to help people be able to deal with what has happened to them. It is no way means they are lying or are not actually feeling a lot of emotion underneath the surface.
A previous supervisor once said to me – numbness is not actually a lack of feeling, it’s a state of feeling too much.
4. Keep a focus on the perpetrator’s behavior, not theirs
Even the best-intentioned people might inadvertently point out things the survivor could have done differently. Even a mistake like, “oh, if only at that moment you would have opened the door” can feel devastating to a survivor – it will sound like a judgment and I guarantee you they have a greatest hits album in their head on a repeat of all the things they “could have/should have” done. To avoid even the slightest hint of blame I recommend focusing on the perpetrator’s behavior – how inappropriate, cruel, or psychopathic. Don’t mention what you might have done differently.
5. Don’t ask for details
I am a trained trauma therapist and I will still tell my clients when we initially meet that it’s important they don’t go into detail with me about what happened. That’s not because I don’t care or don’t want to know – it’s because going into detail can be incredibly triggering for a survivor and can actually make them feel worse than before they told you. Check-in with them as they talk to you to see how they are feeling about telling you. It might even be appropriate to express with kindness concern that if they go into a lot of detail you worry they will start to relive it.
6. Let them know you will continue to be here for them
Survivors chronically worry about exhausting people or being too much of a “burden”. Express your intention to continue to be a safe person for them to talk to about this. Let them know your support doesn’t end with this one conversation.
7. Express gratitude for them choosing to tell you
Many survivors tell no one. Please take it as an honor this person chose to tell YOU. They see you as someone who is safe and they can trust (and feeling safe is not easy after an assault!). If you want to go above and beyond for a survivor express how grateful you are they shared this with you. Let them know how good it feels they trust you. Reaffirm any feelings you have for them and your relationship with them. You might even want to add how safe you now feel to share something vulnerable with them in the future.
There is no such thing as a “perfect response” but there are definitely BAD ones. When in doubt aim for being warm, supportive, and letting your guard down. You’ve got this!