Family members, partners and friends can provide vital support for survivors of child abuse and trauma. But survivors often struggle with communication and trust, especially in close relationships. This can make supporting a survivor challenging. Especially in romantic relationships.
When a survivor decides to work through the impacts of their trauma it can add stress to the relationship. Survivors can quickly feel overwhelmed. Even when they are not working on their trauma, painful memories can be triggered out of the blue. They can flood back and catch a survivor unawares. The survivor can feel out of control. With the memories come strong emotions. Survivors can react as though their trauma is happening in the present. Right there. Right now. This can trigger a stress response. This is a ‘normal’ reaction to trauma.
Survivors can sometimes swing out of control. They can go from being hyper-aroused (agitated) to hypo-aroused (shut down), over and over. This leaves them at the mercy of their own reactions. It’s frightening for them. It can also be frightening for their supporters.
Their supporters are confused. They don’t understand what’s happening. Survivors can become very self-focussed. Able only to survive. Partners, in particular, can feel unloved and unappreciated. It's hard to watch someone you care about in pain. Especially as the healing journey can take a long time. Supporters often feel helpless.
Simply "being there" can make an enormous different. As children, many survivors had no-one. No-one who could help them make sense of what was happening. Many survivors learnt that people were dangerous. That they hurt you. Walking alongside a survivor and bearing witness can help change a survivor’s beliefs that the world is dangerous.
Partners and friends don't need to be heroes. It's a fine line between offering support, and "rescuing" someone, but it's an important one. Survivors need people who are constant, consistent and trustworthy.
Times of crisis can be especially stressful. Looking after someone day-to-day is hard. It can challenge not only their relationship but their understanding of themselves and their world. Just as survivors can feel alone, so too can their supporters. They can feel as though there is no one to talk to – no-one who understands.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed. That’s why it’s important for boundaries to be clear – what you can and can’t do. If you’re a supporter, it’s important that you look yourself. And take time out to nurture and care for yourself.
As in all relationships, difficulties and ruptures can occur. We are all human. We can sometimes misread interactions and react in a way that isn’t ideal. That’s a given. What’s important, especially with survivors, is how we repair those ruptures. Being defensive and leaving our egos behind is important. When there’s a rupture, it is helpful to think about how the survivor experienced the interaction. Reflect on your own triggers and issues. Speak openly, with kindness for the survivor and yourself about what happened and what you learnt about the interaction. The repair is much more important than the rupture. Rupture will occur. Repair is the glue that heals and connects us back.
No-one pretends that supporting a survivor is always easy. It can be and often is inspiring. To survive is to be celebrated. So too is to heal and find a new way of being. Supporting a survivor can bring warmth, intimacy and joy. Friends and partners can develop new levels of empathy and understanding. It means that in the future, your survivor friend, family member or partner will be happier and stronger. And perhaps even return the support they received.
Many people who have supported a survivor, talk about the personal awareness and growth experienced in walking alongside their survivor friend, family member or partner. Witnessing a survivor’s experience will create opportunities for you too. It can help you be more aware of your own patterns and events that have shaped your life.
"I am the partner of a survivor who was sexually abused as a young boy. I have written a poem about how this has affected me as his best friend, wife of 30 years and our family. I have found that partners are often 'invisible'.
my best mate
my sounding board
my son's support
his cheeky smile
the connection I had with my sons
while he tries hard to get better
while I still see a glimpse of him every now and then
trying to cope behind the facade
while he reaches out when I need him
while there is hope.
Thanks for all the support from your organisation. My husband and I recently attended a workshop. It was overwhelming to meet others and the facilitators who actually 'get it'. We have already been able to implement some changes in our life which has helped us.
Please keep up the good work, we need you."