How to Help my Partner

My partner has been sexually assaulted

The following information is for all partners of sexual assault survivors. Whatever the status and make-up of the relationship, there are feelings and reactions commonly experienced by the significant other of someone who has survived sexual assault. You are not alone.

As a partner, you may find yourself confused about sexual assault and wonder if and how it could have been prevented. You might find it difficult to listen when the survivor wishes to talk about certain aspects of the assault. You may find yourself wishing it could just go away. You might be hesitant to let others know about the assault for fear of how they may react to you or to the survivor. You may experience feelings of guilt or responsibility, believing that somehow you could have prevented the assault. It is not uncommon to feel anger at the survivor and at others around you, or harbor a need for revenges against the assailant. You might also be unsure as to how best to approach the issue of physical intimacy with the survivor.

All of these feelings are understandable when someone you care about has been sexually assaulted. The important thing to remember is that these feelings need to be recognized and addressed, both by you and by your partner, so as not to create further distress in an already traumatic situation.

Rape and sexual assault are not acts of sexual motivation or sexual gratification, but instead, are acts of violence, using sex to dominate and humiliate. Rape and sexual assault are about control. Many people confuse this violence with sex because the same body parts are involved. Therefore, some people respond to a survivor of a sexual assault as if s/he had provoked, wanted, or enjoyed it. To the contrary, the assault often leaves the survivor with a deep sense of violation and emotional upset. Not understanding the reality of sexual assault can make the crisis more difficult for both you and the survivor.

General guidelines

Many significant others believe they have to do something to help the survivor get over the pain. Often there is not a lot you can do. The pain is inevitable and can take months or even years for the survivor to completely work through. However, the following guidelines can help both you and the survivor get through some of the difficulties you may experience following the assault:

  • Educate yourself about sexual assault and the healing process
  • Listen to and validate any feelings the survivor may be experiencing
  • Listen to and express your own feelings regarding the assault
  • Don't ignore what happened or try to smooth it over and "make it better."
  • Respect the time and space it takes to heal - patience and acceptance are essential
  • Ask the survivor what s/he wants and needs
  • Encourage the survivor to seek support
  • Seek support yourself - sexual assault helpline counselors and other professionals are available to you as well as to the survivor

The emotional impact of sexual assault does not just "disappear" for either you or the survivor. Feelings of fear, anger, confusion, guilt , or powerlessness are normal. Talking about these feelings will help. And remember to give both you and your significant other the time and space you each need to heal.

Information on How to Help: My Partner adapted from the College of William & Mary Sexual Assault Resources and Education Web site, 2007.