Sexual trauma can have a profound and lasting impact on survivors, and it can be difficult for romantic partners to know how to best provide support, while honoring their needs. While everyone’s experience with sexual trauma is unique, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful in supporting a partner who has experienced sexual trauma. In this help article we’ll explore some of those guidelines and provide practical tips for partners of sexual trauma survivors.
1. Partners are encouraged to take steps to educate themselves on the effects and lasting symptoms after surviving sexual trauma
One of the most important steps that a romantic partner can take to begin to demonstrate support is to develop an understanding of what the survivor may be experiencing both physiologically and mentally. This can help one understand what the survivor is going through, what triggers may be unknowingly activated, and how to respond in a helpful manner without causing more harm.
2. Listen, acknowledge, and validate experiences
It’ is essential to learn how to appropriately acknowledge and validate a person’s experience, without giving feedback or advice. Survivors of sexual trauma often experience deep and intense feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. Having a foundational understanding of a person’s internalized process can create a sense of closeness when attempting to provide support. Partners can engage in active listening, ask clarifying questions, and ask the partner if they have any specific needs that they would like to share.
Validating a survivor’s experience is an integral factor in healing after sexual trauma. This comes down to knowing how to directly acknowledge that what the survivor experienced was in fact, truly traumatic and normalize the longer term impacts.
3. Respect their boundaries
It’s important to respect your partner’s physical and emotional boundaries. Survivors of sexual trauma may have triggers that cause them to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and it’s important to be aware of these triggers and avoid them as much as possible. This may mean avoiding certain topics of conversation or physical touch in certain areas of the body.
It’s also important to respect your partner’s emotional boundaries. This means not pressuring them to talk about their trauma if they’re not ready or trying to push them to move forward before they’re ready. It’s important to let your partner set the pace for their own healing journey.
4. Be patient and understanding – adjust expectations
Recovery from sexual trauma is a long and often difficult process, and it’s important to be patient and understanding with your partner. They may exhibit inconsistent moods that reflect experiencing more advanced symptoms. Recovery from sexual trauma is not a linear process, and it’s important to recognize that healing is not always a straightforward path.
It’s also important to recognize that your partner’s trauma may impact their behavior, such as being more withdrawn and/or less interested in sexual activity. It’s important to not take these changes in behavior personally and to be understanding of the impact that trauma can have on a person’s life. Sex after enduring sexual abuse and/or sexual assault can often be correlated with feelings of pressure, obligation, apathy, numbness, detachment, and fear. Couples are strongly encouraged to openly discuss their sense of ownership over their bodies. Intimate touch can often be unwanted from survivors of sexual trauma. Intimate touch can come in the form of sexual play and non-goal oriented touch, such as affection. Partners are often unaware of the internal dialogue in which a victim of sexual trauma, can experience throughout the day. Partners are advised to ask the individual what their preferences are and work towards establishing safety with touch.
5. Encourage them to seek professional help
While it’s important to be a supportive partner, it’s also important to recognize that you are not a professional therapist or counselor. Encouraging your partner to seek professional help can be a helpful way to support their healing journey. Therapy can provide your partner with tools and techniques to manage symptoms, as well as a safe and supportive space to process their experiences.
If your partner is hesitant to seek professional help, you can help them to understand the benefits of therapy and support them in finding a therapist that they feel comfortable with. There are also many different types of therapy available, so it’s important to find a therapist who specializes in treating trauma.
6. Take care of yourself
Supporting a partner who has experienced sexual trauma can be emotionally taxing, and it’s important to take care of yourself as well. This means setting boundaries and carving out personal time for your own professional Psychotherapy.
When you learn that a romantic partner and/or spouse is the survivor of past sexual trauma, the biggest gift you can extend, is patience, compassion, and non judgmental listening in which allows for the person to experience an opportunity to take back ownership of their voice and autonomy over their lives.