How to Date A Survivor: Part II How to Be A Supportive Partner
By Tessa Gurley, CCASA Blogger
So you’re in a relationship with a survivor of sexual trauma. If you’re reading this blog, then your partner is one lucky person. You’re interested in being a supportive partner and believe me, we survivors really need someone like you. So, congratulations for being part of the healing of not only your partner, but of the world at large! Sexual trauma is an epidemic that claims a new victim every 45 seconds and it takes people like YOU to help change this heartbreaking statistic.
How is your relationship, might I ask? Depending on your partner’s level of healing, how long you two have been together, whether or not you two have had the proverbial “first disagreement” (gasp!) and other variables, I’m guessing some issues have surfaced in your relationship. After all, no relationship is straight out of The Notebook.
However, my guess is that the issues in your particular relationship have a bit of a unique shading to them, and that shading is the color of the shadow cast by sexual trauma. Some possible indicators that this shadow is getting the best of you is by asking yourself the following questions:
– Do you look at your partner and immediately see their trauma?
– Do you feel like it is your responsibility to help fix him / her?
– Do you wonder if you should ask questions about what we (the survivor) are going through?
Because, while the shadow of sexual trauma lasts a lifetime, as with any shadow, lightness is close behind. There is just something preventing the light from shining through.
Oftentimes, that “something” is the very large elephant in the room; the sexual trauma. That very large elephant can prevent you from being the best partner you can be, but, if seen in the right light, can become one of your best teachers. Relationships help us grow in to more realized human beings if we let them. The tips I am offering you here will help you come to better know both your partner and yourself.
1. Know that we are more than our trauma
Yes, whatever trauma happened to your partner, happened. It is there. It will always be there. While it is part of who we are, it is not who we are. We are a human being. We may also be a runner, or an artist, or an accountant. We might like cats, or dogs (or both), or even armadillos. Maybe our favorite color is pink. It could be blue. My point is, there is SO MUCH MORE to us than what happened to us.
One of my greatest fears when I get in to a new relationship is, “What if my story scares them (the new attraction) away?” Once I realized I had this fear I had to stop and think about that previous statement for awhile. Sexual trauma is deeply steeped in shame. My fear about my story scaring someone away only made that shame more potent.
What I was really afraid of was that the other person would no longer see me as me but would see me underneath the veil of my trauma. But, I will say it again, I am so much more than my trauma. I am an avid weight lifter and yoga practitioner. I like to cook and adore balsamic vinegar. I am a big nerd and watch documentaries on the regular. I am also a survivor of molestation and date rape. I want my partner to see all of what makes me me and love me for those things.
I am not telling you to discount your partner’s past. That is cold and uncaring. But as I stated in the first part of this blog series, if you have established clear lines of communication, then you have already laid the groundwork for being able to discuss their trauma in a compassionate and helpful way.
Undoubtedly you have past issues and traumas but you also know that you are more than those things. Keep that in mind when thinking of your partner. See them first for the beauty that they are. Balance that with the knowledge of what happened. Love them for both.
2. You Don’t Need to “Fix” Us
Notice the wording. “Fix” implies broken. We might feel broken, and society may label us as broken, but we are NOT broken. If you approach the relationship with the mindset that you need to fix us, then you are helping perpetuate the shame we already feel and are trying to overcome.
There is a difference between trying to fix us, and being helpful in our healing. Trying to “fix” us is centered around you (the partner) and you only. It is ego-driven. You see, if you are trying to “fix” your partner, you are implying that you somehow know better than they do the trauma they suffered, and that you know better how to help them. Few things feel worse to a survivor than trying to be “fixed”.
It is tempting to go in to “fix-it” mode as a partner because then you don’t have to sit and work on your own stuff. Being with a survivor partner will inevitably bring up stuff within you, past traumas, patterns of behaviors etc. will all bubble to the surface. If you are in “fix-it” mode, then you don’t have to look at yourself so you are not truly helping your partner, but are avoiding the real issues showing up within your own heart.
Being helpful in our healing, however, has both your partner and you as the focus. It is heart-centered. You are saying, “I am here to help you grow. I may never understand what you have gone through, and that is OK (even if you yourself are a survivor, let your partner’s experience be unique…more on that in a minute), but I am here to help you and I both become more realized human beings through the shared experience of healing this trauma.” “Fixing” is pointing the finger. Helping is taking your partner’s hand
and saying, “We’re in this together”.
3. Be Interested in Our Process…
Yes, you heard me right. BE INTERESTED. Ask us questions. Inquire how we are doing. It feels less “weird” when you’re interested. It makes it less taboo, less shameful. You have both (hopefully) set the stage for open communication by now, and these discussions take those practices and assimilate them in to your everyday life.
Just please don’t approach us, again, as if we are broken. There is an art to asking questions about our process, and here it is: Ask with genuine interest. Ask questions as you would to a teacher during a lecture you really wanted to understand. This makes it less awkward and more normalized. It makes it easier for us to respond as well. When you ask questions, it shows that you care. Keep in mind that your partner has the right to not answer. Your partner needs to be in control of how much they share. But asking questions allows us the space in which to share, which can be one of the most healing experiences a survivor can have.
4. …But Let Our Trauma Be Our Own.
We all have trauma. Whether it be physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual, every human has had traumatic experiences. Even if you, yourself, are a survivor of sexual violence, it is imperative that you let your partner’s trauma be their own experience. This makes us feel that you acknowledge our own, unique pain instead of making it about you and your pain.
Find the balance between relating and over-relating to our trauma. Here is the difference:
-Trying to relate is beautiful and helpful in the healing process. It makes us feel not so alone. It is helpful to say, “I can relate to your pain in my own way, but I can’t fully understand what you are going through.”
-Trying to over-relate, to say you totally understand what we are going through, makes us feel that a certain boundary has been broken. Why? Because we are the one that experienced the trauma, not you. Trying to fully “come in to” our pain can feel like a violation of our privacy, and that is definitely not helpful. And you are reading this blog to be helpful, yes? I hope so!
Being in a supportive relationship can be one of the greatest gifts for a survivor. Having a supportive partner helps us learn to trust again. When you let our trauma be our own, you show that you respect our boundaries, you respect our story. Asking questions about our process shows that you care about our story. It helps us process and heal our past experiences. It also helps you heal your own wounds. Survivors are not broken bones to be set in a cast. We are people who have suffered that need good support in order to heal, but heal we will. We survivors have been through hell, but from the flames
we will emerge stronger and more able than ever before.
Be sure to check back in February for the third part of this series, “How to Date a Survivor: The Intimacy Files”, just in time for Valentine’s Day!
Blogger Bio: Tessa Gurley is a survivor and secondary survivor who is passionate about helping to heal the wounds left as a result of sexual violence. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email her at Tgurley7@gmail.com.