When a survivor first breaks the silence about abuse, loved ones sometimes struggle to know how to respond. Initial reactions often include anger and confusion. The first step to understanding what has happened to your loved one is education. As you learn more about sexual abuse and its impact on survivors, you will be able to process your responses and find ways to support your loved one. Below is the learning process that you might go through as a supporter. This is a story that has been compiled from the experiences of many supporters.
When I first found out that my wife had been sexually abused, I had so many questions, so I tried to learn. I needed to understand what my wife had gone through and how it impacted her. The first thing I learned is that sexual abuse is more common than I thought. It’s not something I had heard about before my wife talked to me, so I just assumed it didn’t happen very often. The reality is that it happens frequently. I also assumed that most perpetrators are strangers. I thought it was crazy that my wife had been abused by her uncle, but then I found out that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone close, often a family member. I realized that a situation that I thought was unusual is, sadly, typical.
I also learned that most abuse survivors never tell anyone about what happened. And if they do tell, the abuse probably won’t be reported. When my wife first told me about her abuse, she told me that it had gone on for two years. I wondered why someone didn’t make it stop? I knew she told her parents, but they told her that saying anything about it publicly would “look bad.” They said her family’s reputation was too important. Again, this seemed crazy to me, but I found out that her situation was pretty standard. Child sexual abuse often goes on for a while, and it’s rarely reported.
The most important thing I learned was that my wife was still suffering from the trauma of what happened. Abuse isn’t something that people just forget about. Their bodies and minds hang on to the trauma and continue to respond years later. I found out about my wife’s abuse when a man who reminded her of her uncle sat in front of us in a movie theater. This man triggered my wife—he brought back memories of the past abuse, and my wife’s body reacted as if she were in danger—as if the abuse were still happening.
Initially, I was angry and confused, but now I am more educated. I understand that what happened to my wife isn’t all that uncommon, and I learned that she’s going to need help recovering. She can’t just get over it. It’s going to take time, but it’s possible. And I know that I’m a big part of her healing. Survivors need people who love them and support them, and I can be one of those people for her. I understand that my wife and I can have a relationship that will be fulfilling for both of us—a relationship with emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy. It will take some work, but it’s worth it.
Healing from the impact of sexual abuse is a journey for both supporters and survivors. For more information about how you can support the survivors in your life, look at the Supporting Hope e-book on our resources page. Also, read more about the journey of both survivors and supporters at: I Was Confused, Angry, and Hurt and I Will Listen, Acknowledge, and Support