Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Navigating Your Relationships
The circle of people in your life can be one of the most important aspects to your healing journey. As you work to manage the trauma of child sexual abuse, the influences and examples of those closest to you play a major role in shaping your experiences, habits, priorities, perceptions, and self-beliefs.
As you take an honest look at the health of your relationships, you can better identify the strengths of your relationships as well as areas that may need some improvement. This assessment can also help you determine who in your life is a part of your support network—someone you feel you can rely on in moments of need, whether those needs are to disclose your story, reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation, or have someone to contact in a moment of crisis. Similarly, you can identify those in your life who value you, trust you, and see you as someone they can rely on for their emotional needs.
Below are some examples from survivors describing how certain relationships in their lives helped them on their healing journey:
“In my freshman year of college, I had a social work professor, Mrs. Riddick, whom I adored! Fifteen years later, I reached out to her and thought, ‘Lord, if it’s meant for me to get help, please let her answer the phone.’ She answered the phone and I cried. I cried because I knew I could no longer bear the pain. I cried because the thought of talking to a third party about my struggles as a victim of child abuse and childhood trauma was embarrassing. But a little over a year later, I can breathe. I don’t feel ashamed anymore. Mrs. Riddick would say, ‘if you’re trying to lift a thousand-pound bar, eventually you will get tired.’ She let me know that it is not my fault and that I am okay.”
“I revealed to my mother that my father had sexually abused me for 10 years. I truly believe this is when my life changed for the better. My mother saved my life. She was unaware of the abuse, so when I told her I could see her whole world falling apart. But she remained strong for me. It was the first time I have ever felt proper relief. I felt free. I felt in control . . . If it wasn’t for my mother, I don’t think I’d be here to tell my story. She saved and changed my life and it’s something I’ll forever be grateful for.”
“My husband has been an absolute rock star, supporter, love of my life, and just has held my hand through the whole journey and the whole process—the whole healing process. He holds my hand when I need to talk. He looks me in the eyes and tells me I’m beautiful. He gives me a tissue if my snot is running all down my face. He never judges. He just simply loves me for who I am. And if there’s ever a challenging moment where I’m ‘in it,’ then he will drop everything just to be who I need him to be at that moment. He’s become a great defender. He’s willing to stand beside me.”
While these are examples of survivors who maintained or discovered healthy relationships that helped promote their healing, there are many survivors who feel they do not have such relationships. We encourage these survivors to keep persisting through the isolation they may be experiencing, to place boundaries on or discontinue those relationships that may be harmful to their healing, and to reach out to a counselor, therapist, or survivors’ group for support.
How Do I Know if a Relationship is Healthy?
While every relationship is accompanied by its own unique set of benefits and challenges, this exercise can help you take a closer look at the most essential attributes of a relationship in your life. All it takes is a few steps.
- Respect: a deep understanding and admiration towards someone; being considerate of someone’s feelings.
- Safety: having a high degree of trust with the other person; feeling protected and comfortable with that person.
- Authenticity: trusting that you can be your most honest, genuine self around the other person without judgment, punishment, or pressure to behave differently.
- Support: believing that love and caring, sympathy and understanding, and/or esteem and value are available from the other person.
- Communication: being able to honestly and assertively convey or share thoughts, ideas, and feelings with the other person; being able to express and respect boundaries.
- Other: What other attribute is really important to you in a healthy relationship? Include that category as well and note where it falls on the same scale of 1–10.
- What do I notice about this relationship?
- What areas in the relationship seem the strongest?
- What areas in the relationship seem in need of improvement?
- How would I like this relationship to be different?
Note: It can also be helpful to use these attributes to assess the same relationship again in the future and to observe how the rankings have changed or shifted over time.
What if a Relationship isn’t Where I’d Like it to Be?
Strengthening the health of a relationship often demands a lot of honesty, empathy, and patience—both with yourself and with the other person. You may feel overwhelmed about where to begin; however, acknowledging what areas in a relationship need improvement is a great first step. Only then can you identify what emotional needs aren’t being met (for one or both persons) and consider how to best address those needs.
We also want to emphasize that the attributes of a healthy relationship are mutual. This means that the quality of a relationship is dependent on both people. And while you can control your own steps toward making improvements, you cannot control the other person’s actions and investment.
As you review the relationships in your life, you might determine one to be problematic—where the challenges outweigh the benefits and may be causing more distress than is conducive to your healing journey. You may decide that the relationship is still worth the additional effort, support, and compromise required for improvement. Or you may decide that the relationship would be best managed at a distance, with the help of a mental health professional, or perhaps discontinued entirely. Remember that there is no shame in choosing to break off a relationship, particularly if that relationship is having a negative impact on your well-being.
If you are having serious concerns about a relationship in your life, we strongly encourage you to consult with a therapist about the next steps to take. We also recommend you visit this resource to review more information about dysfunctional relationships.
Ultimately, whether you assess a relationship to be healthy, in need of improvement, or potentially dysfunctional, you can take steps immediately to help move it forward in the direction you deem best. To get you started, we’ve provided two strategies below that are essential to managing and/or improving relationships.
This resource helps you learn more about what boundaries are, why they matter, and how you can apply them within your own life.
Practicing Assertive Communication
This resource helps you understand what it means to assertively communicate, how it can help give you a voice while honoring the voices of others, and ways to begin practicing it.
As you use these tools and more to navigate your relationships, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by taking an honest look at the relationships in your life and assessing what areas of those relationships are healthy and what areas need improvement.
- Mindfulness by compassionately observing the emotions, memories, and thought patterns you have as you assess each area of your relationships.
- Aspiration by evaluating your relationships in the present with the belief that you can make positive changes to improve or step away from those relationships.