Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, October 01, 2006
How You Can Help
Here's the situation: you are in a significant relationship with someone. That someone could be your husband or wife; your boyfriend or girlfriend; your fiancee, or your significant other in some other way. You are committed to this relationship and this person, and then you learn that this person was abused.
The abuse could take many forms. Abuse as a child. Abuse as an adult in a previous relationship. Sexual violence, either as a child or an adult. Rape. Battering. Emotional abuse. The list is depressingly long.
NOTE: This situation can happen in all relationships. A man finds that his wife/fiancee/ girlfriend/significant other was abused; a woman finds that her husband/fiance/boyfriend/ significant other was abused. It is equally likely in gay couples. I tried writing this article in a gender-neutral fashion, but it became murky and hard to follow.
I re-wrote it so that the abused partner is a woman, and the person receiving the news is a man. Although the statistics indicate that this is most common, this was mostly an arbitrary choice. Please remember that it could be re-written in any form, and if my choice makes it harder for you, I apologize. The English language does not provide adequate gender-neutral words for this situation.
Getting The News
First of all, you're probably taken by surprise, right? Or maybe this news actually answers a whole lot of questions you had about how your partner was acting. Either way, you are likely to be frozen in horror and surprise.
You're thinking, "What the heck! Why is she only telling me now??"
That is a legitimate reaction, but there is a good reason you're only hearing about it now. This is the most personal, most private, most painful thing your partner has inside. She has struggled with this for years. After all, it's not something you tell just anyone. You only reveal this to someone special, someone you trust, someone you are close to. Your partner knows that you deserve to know this stuff, but face it -- there is never a right time to say, "Oh by the way, my father raped me for ten years."
So work to accept the fact that there was never a good time to tell you this. And your partner has struggled with 'When To Tell You' and 'How To Tell You' for a long time now. This has not been deception. It has not been lying by omission. This has been fear. And pain. And more fear. And more pain. And uncertainty. Realize that no matter how bad you feel, your partner feels worse.
How To React
Okay, you've just been told. Your brain has frozen in shock. The enormity of the information has stunned you. Now, as you gather your wits back together, you will notice that there is a long silence in the room, and it's getting longer and longer, and she is waiting for your reaction to her leap of faith.
1. Reassure. The most important thing to do is, assure her that she is safe in telling you this. It is common that victims feel dirty, humiliated, ashamed, and revolting, because of something that happened to them, over which they had no control. Right now, she is terrified that you will be disgusted or revolted or enraged -- at her! Make it clear, through your shock and horror, that your love for her is not in question. Express sympathy and concern and acceptance. Hold out your arms. She may be dying for a hug. On the other hand, as she talks about her abuse, she may not want any human contact. So offer it, and let her take it or not, as she needs.
2. Tell the truth. You will wish you had a magical phrase that will fix everything and eliminate her pain. You will wish you were incredibly wise, and could say the perfect thing. But there is no perfect, magical phrase, and she's waiting in agony for you to say something. So say what you think: "Oh my God! You poor thing! I'm here for you! I'm speechless! I'm so sorry that happened to you! I wish I could stop your pain! I love you!" Pick one or two that feel best, and say them over and over. I strongly suggest that you choose "I love you" as one of them.
3. Listen. Let her tell you about it. As many details as she is comfortable with. Ask questions gently, and occasionally. She should be doing 90% of the talking now. Just listen, and let her pour out the story. Make it clear, by word and action, that she is safe in telling you this. Hold her unless she specifically doesn't want it.
Your responses should be short: "Uh huh, Yeah, Oh my, Oh geez, You poor thing, Go on," that kind of thing. Let her stop when she wants to. Your primary focus should be on making sure she knows that you still love her, that she is safe in having told you.
She will want to know if this has changed anything. Well, obviously it has, but you need to word it carefully. Make it clear: It hasn't changed your love for her. It hasn't changed your commitment to the relationship, or your commitment to sharing your life and future with her.
Then tell her what has changed. You know she is in pain, and you want to help her heal. You want to be there for her. Your priorities have changed, and no matter what your priorities were before, this has taken over as your top priority. The person you love is hurting, hurting bad, hurting as badly as a person can hurt. You want to make that stop. Nothing else matters.
What You Need To Know
The first thing you need to know is, how much you don't know. You're not a psychiatrist. You've received no training in this.
She is so desperate for help that she will be turning to you for help. Realize that you are not qualified, and realize that it isn't your fault. But also realize that now she is trusting you to help. Again, there's nothing wrong with telling the truth. Be honest and say, "I don't know, I wish I knew what to say, I wish I could make you stop hurting." It may not seem like it, but these phrases will supply some comfort.
Don't make the mistake of getting super-logical. It's an understandable reaction, considering how emotion-filled your life has become, but it doesn't help. It will make her feel rejected, like you're being cold. You may feel stupid, holding her and saying, "You poor thing," like you have ten million times before, but it's still what she needs.
Don't make the mistake of being totally sucked into her emotional state either. This is also an understandable reaction, as you try to show her that you support her and are there for her. You will walk a fine line -- reassuring her, showing her that you care, that you love her, while at the same time staying a small step removed.
She will say lots of things as she vents her anger and frustration. Many of those things will not be logical; many of those things won't make sense. Remember that that's OK. She doesn't have to be logical or make sense now. As she vents her anger and pain and grief, she will say many things she doesn't even mean, or if she means them, she won't mean them fifteen seconds from now. Don't correct her, don't argue, don't try to explain why she couldn't do/say/mean what she just said. Let her vent. Tell her you love her. Meanwhile, you have to stay a little bit clear-headed. You have to take intelligent action to help her.
What You Can Do
Surprisingly, you've already done the most important thing. You've listened, you're reassured. For her, that was the biggest hurdle, the biggest source of fear and anxiety. She has told you, and you have not rejected her. That is huge.
If you are reading this, and realizing that you made mistakes in how you reacted when she told you, don't panic. It's not too late. Print this out. Read it again. And go find her. Your message should be something along these lines: "I've come to apologize. I just read this article, and I realize that I've reacted all wrong."
There's no room here for pride. You need to tell her this. And trust me -- she's not going to gloat or feel like she's won. She will feel an unbelievable sense of relief, and decide that you are the most wonderful person in the whole world. In later years, she will tell you that this is the moment she most admired you.
People say that you can't take back things you've said, but actually you can. Go over it point by point: "When I said ABC, it was because I was shocked and scared and didn't know what to think. I'm sorry. What I should have said was, XYZ instead, because I love you and I want to help you with this."
You will have no idea how much she will appreciate hearing this.
Go Get Help!
Like I said, you're not trained in this. So go get some people who are! Call your local Child Abuse Prevention agency. Tell them that your wife is an Adult Survivor Of Child Abuse, and you desperately need some advice. They will immediately know what to do. They will know how to help you. They will know how to help her. They will know how you should react in other situations that I haven't covered here -- what to say, how to say it, etc.
If you don't know the name or phone number of your local child abuse prevention agency, call your county social services department and ask them. They will have that information. Or check out this article I wrote: How To Find Help. It gives you more tips on how to find the agency, and also talks about what they can do.
Calling that agency will be the best thing you ever did. You feel alone. Suddenly, you will feel like you have many powerful friends.
The experts at the agency can give you lots of advice and resources. They may even have a support group for you to join, so you don't feel all alone, and can get tips on how other spouses or partners have dealt with the abuse of their significant others. It will be free, too.
Your abused spouse may not want to talk about this with anyone else. That's OK. Don't force her. But call for yourself, and be honest about that too. "I'm not talking about you; I'm getting advice for myself so I can do a better job of being there for you." Pitch it in terms of your concern and love for her. She will probably accept it, and it's also completely true.
Now that you have contacted the child abuse agency, your options open and more variables come into play. Your wife may be willing to go to the agency with you.
If not, the agency will have lots of advice on how to act, and how to gently and slowly persuade her to talk to them. As you become more effective in helping her, she will notice. Eventually, she may decide that if the agency is helping you that much, maybe it's not so scary for her to talk to them too.
Now is when you can start to deal with your emotions, too. You feel surprised, maybe trapped, resentful, exhausted, filled with horror. You couldn't tell your wife about those things, but you can tell the agency experts. Everything you're feeling is normal and reasonable. They won't judge you. They'll understand, and help you heal, too.
The second important thing for you to do is to arrange for therapy for her, and for you. Don't pursue therapy instead of calling the child abuse agency, and don't try to make the agency do the work of a therapist. They work together in a partnership that will attack your problem from two sides, and both will make an invaluable contribution to your wife's healing.
The child abuse prevention agency will have recommendations on good, specialized therapists. If one doesn't work out, remember that Therapy hasn't failed; one therapist has failed. Find another one.
The experts at the child abuse prevention agency can give you lots of advice on how to find a good therapist. They can help you decide if you need to seek a different therapist or not. They can help you if money is a problem. Work closely with them on this matter, because it's important. The emotional wounds your wife has are very severe, and require a specialist. A marriage counselor or a member of the clergy is not qualified to deal with these issues. You need a heavy-duty, highly qualified, extensively trained expert. The agency can help you find one.
Many times, your abused partner will resist going to the agency, or going to a therapist. Don't force her! Don't announce that "I know best." Don't arrange for a therapy session in secret, and then drive her there by surprise. Work with the agency experts, work with the therapist, and get ideas on how to gently convince her that this is the right thing to do.
There Is Hope!
Millions of people have found emotional healing from abuse. You and your partner can, too. Working with an abuse prevention center, and pursuing a proper course of therapy, can help everyone heal. You can have peace in your soul. You can have joy in your lives. You both deserve it.
And for you, the unabused partner that is being told about the abuse -- clear the decks and focus on this. Nothing in your life will be as important as this. You will feel like this is more than you can handle, you will feel that you are inadequate to the challenge. But you're not. Right now, things look very bad. Hitler's bombers are overhead, the blitzkrieg sirens are screaming, and London is in flames. And you? You're Winston Churchill. You're the only one who can save the day. It will take everything you've got, but you can do it. This is Your Finest Hour!