Trigger Warning: If the topic of sexual assault or sexualized violence is one that is deeply troubling to you, please do what you need to take care of yourself in this moment. Some of the material in this article could be triggering to you.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Sexual violence and the trauma it creates isn’t something we talk about a lot in the context of marriages, and yet these experiences can have a devastating impact on the health of our closest relationships.
It’s not something that is openly discussed. What I’ve learned over the course of my time as an Advocate for survivors, and as a therapist, is that the aftermath of sexual assault — be it that of a spouse or even of another family member can have a devastating impact on the family as a whole.
There are many resources available to survivors (I’ve listed several here), however, I wanted to take a special opportunity to dispel some myths and also offer several simple considerations that readers can do to help their families and loved ones get through these extremely challenging times.
By the Numbers
First and foremost, we need to lay out some facts regarding the prevalence of sexual assault in the US.
Currently, 1 in 6 women, 1 in 10 men, and 1 in 4 college-age women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. Of these survivors, approximately 15% were under age 12 at the time of their assault.
Statistically speaking, most of us know a survivor. And assuming for the moment this rate is accurate, that means of the 2,118,000 marriages reported by the CDC (2013), over 350,000 marriages involve a female partner who has experienced sexualized violence.
However, that number is not accurate due to the fact that nearly 60% of sexual assault goes unreported each year (RAINN, 2013). Suffice it to say the numbers alone make it worth discussing.
So How Can You Help?
This topic is admittedly broad.
Factors like how recent the assault was, age at time of assault, if the person was married, whether or not the perpetrator was known to the survivor or not (roughly 85% are, by the way) will largely determine the way your loved one (the survivor) responds.
Every situation is unique. That being said, my intention here is simply to give you some basic tools to support your spouse as you go through this challenging time.
And please let me reiterate that while I’m writing this with the example of the spouse being the survivor, these are generally good guidelines to apply for whenever someone (a friend, colleague, child, or any one else) discloses this to you.
1. Believe Them.
Yes, it really is that simple.
Evidence suggests that if a person is willing to disclose a sexual assault, the odds are (roughly 92-96%) that it was real. Hopefully believing your spouse isn’t a challenge to begin with, but even it is—I would strongly recommend erring on this side of caution.
The #1 fear that keeps survivors silent is not being believed.
2. Accept that there are no easy solutions.
This just isn’t one of those issues where someone can simply identify, address and clean up the problem in 1-2-3.
There are no easy solutions. And while therapy is often a fantastic avenue for healing from trauma, everyone involved needs to understand that sometimes the work that we do makes things seem worse before they get better.
I find this is especially true with people who have kept their stories hidden from their families. Old coping strategies that kept the “secret” contained crumble.
Ultimately, this is a good thing. In the mean time, it’s often quite painful and can really shake things up in the relationship and at home.
3. Get “Ok” with not knowing the full story.
One of the first things I try to do when working with survivors is to aid them in restoring their dignity and autonomy through healthy boundary setting.
This always includes an open invitation to share their story, if they feel comfortable, but not pressing the matter.
There are plenty of people out there whose job it is to ask the really uncomfortable and invasive questions, like the Police for example, or a nurse getting the medical history before a forensic exam. Leave the “investigating” up to them. You knowing every gritty detail won’t make the story any better– believe me.
Allowing a survivor to tell his or her story on their own time, and respecting those boundaries is much more important in your loved one’s healing journey than any Q&A.
4. Recognize that Trauma may result in a temporary loss of intimacy.
I’ll never forget the woman who came in devastated that she had “ruined her relationship” because every time she tried to be intimate with her spouse, she would have a flashback to her assault.
The lack of sexual intimacy was taking a toll on their relationship. When her husband asked what had changed and she explained the flashbacks, he (understandably) became hurt over the idea that he would be in any way, shape or form connected to that horrible event in her mind. Of course it wasn’t him. She knew that.
The body and the mind needed time to heal, however. Healing from this kind of trauma–like any trauma– cannot be forced.
If you can, commit to being a patient, supportive and understanding partner. Illustrate this commitment by allowing your spouse to set the boundaries, and try to keep an open flow of communication. (Yes, I know– again with the boundaries).
Think of it this way, sexual assualt is (for many) the ultimate violation of one’s personal space and autonomy. Restoration of that autonomy is of critical importance.
As frustrating, hurtful, and even as lonely as the interim might feel, in the long run, these messages of acceptance and patience will help intimacy to return.
4. Re-educate Yourself and Others
This one is, in my opinion, by far the most important piece.
Something I always include in my presentations is a segment on myths and facts surrounding sexual violence. There is a ton of misinformation out there.
You can also look up your local rape crisis center, and ask to speak with a staff person or advocate who can speak with you regarding your particular situation and give you the warmth and support you need to not only survive this nightmare yourself, but also to help you support your loved one—wherever they are in their healing journey.
Please be forewarned: We can read a pamphlets and flyers all day long about how its not what the person was wearing that made them more of a target, but it takes on a whole new context when your loved one is hurting.
These high stress situations expose our personal biases, and deep-seated beliefs. If you learn nothing else, please remember that the only person who is capable to stopping a sexual assault from occurring is the perpetrator.
To help keep the blame game in check, ask yourself: “If the perpetrator hadn’t been there, would this have happened?”
Why is it Relevant?
Let’s say that you are reading this article and thinking, “Yes, I (or my spouse) has experienced sexual violence… but that has nothing to do with what’s wrong in our marriage.”
What can I say? Maybe that’s true. You and your spouse are the experts on your relationship. Nevertheless, I would invite you to consider the fact that as people, we are constantly living, learning and (hopefully) growing by way of our experiences.
If someone you or someone you love has endured the living nightmare that is sexual assault— I’m willing to believe it had an impact. Every survivor story is different, so there isn’t a one-sized conclusion to be found. Many times, however, I do find that we carry our pain forward with us (consciously or otherwise). Either way, I think it’s worth examining.
Who knows, it could save your marriage.
Note: If you need assistance locating your nearest rape crisis center or have questions about sexual assault, please do not hesitate to connect with me via email or in the comments. You can also try looking up your area on the Sexual Assault Legal Services & Assistance (SALSA) website.