Today’s post comes from Kim Souder, who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school.
Relationship Violence is something that affects between 10 to over 30% of people at some point in their lives. The exact number is hard to pin down because it’s such a personal, unreported issue that many people are uncomfortable discussing. It can range from emotional violence, to physical violence, to sexual violence (and likely contains some aspect of all of the above). After the jump, I’ve provided 10 general tips for supporting a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.
1. Don’t victim-blame.
Since victim-blaming can be very subtle and survivors of abuse/assault are prone to self-blame, you have to be cautious about what words you choose. Say things like “It wasn’t your fault” and “You are a strong person for making it through this” and avoid saying things like “Why were you alone that late at night?,” “How much did you have to drink?,” or “Why didn’t you leave him sooner?” Be aware of saying something out of frustration or anger that comes off negatively, and think before you speak.
2. Aim to educate and empower.
There are many available resources out there, but many are location-specific (some national resources to check out are www.thehotline.org at 1-800-799-SAFE and . You should be able to Google your city/county along with domestic violence support or rape crisis center to find local resources. Keep an eye out for 24-hour hotlines, counseling services, confidential advocates, assistance dealing with the legal system, support groups, and monetary assistance. Your goal is to educate your loved one so that she can make the best decisions for herself at this point in time. Avoid saying things like she “needs” to do X, and instead present her with a list of options and help her come up with potential consequences for each of those options.
3. Respect and support her decisions.
Both domestic violence and rape are about having power and control over the victim. Your job as a support person is to provide her with information and then let her make her own decisions so she can regain power and control over her life. She may not be ready to see a counselor, tell her parents what happened, or tell her boyfriend what happened. Until she’s ready, respect her decisions. The two places I often see people struggle with this advice the most are when a rape survivor decides to not report the crime or when a domestic violence survivor who chooses to stay with her abuser. Reporting a crime is very difficult and often the survivor has to re-live her traumatic experience many times, and this decision can be even harder for her to make if she knows the assailant. In domestic violence situations, she probably loves her abuser deeply and may not be ready to leave him yet. Remember that it often takes a survivor a few tries to successfully leave an abusive partner and the most dangerous time for her is when she tries to leave. Be cautious calling the police without her permission, because she could be punished if she isn’t ready to leave him. Some exceptions to this tip are if you see her exhibiting self-destructive behavior (cutting, becoming suicidal), developing substance abuse problems, or where children are being abused. In these instances talk to a trained professional yourself because you need extra help to support her.
4. Help her develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Some good ideas for healthy coping mechanisms are journaling, participating in a sport, talking about their feelings with a counselor, pillow abuse (beating up a pillow), yelling, and crying. Some less-healthy coping mechanisms are ignoring the situation (bottling up their feelings), numbing their pain (drinking, drug abuse), or regaining control over their lives in unhealthy ways (developing eating disorders, cutting). Encourage her to seek counseling and find some way to express her feelings.
5. Validate her feelings.
Survivors of abuse/assault can feel 10 different things in 10 minutes, and that’s very confusing. Your job is to let her know it’s safe for her to share her feelings with you and that her feelings are normal.
6. Avoid over-sharing and comparisons with your experiences.
The key thing here is keep focused on her: validating what she’s feeling, helping her come up with coping tools, and allowing her to have her own timetable for feeling better. If she asks for you to share your experiences, do so in a way that helps her and not in a way where she ends up supporting you.
7. Avoid blanket statements.
A lot of survivors get frustrated hearing generic statements. You don’t know she will feel better, you don’t know tomorrow will be better, and you don’t know how well she will heal from this trauma. Instead of making predictions you can’t back up, acknowledge that what she is going through is tough, she has good days and bad days, that she is a strong person, and that over time she can get to a point where this will be less of an all-consuming experience.
8. Help her develop a safety plan.
Work with her to tailor a safety plan to her specific situation and needs.
9. Get help for yourself.
You need to make sure you are healthy enough to help a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. Find a support group for friends/family members or someone you can talk with about your feelings and needs during this time — someone entirely outside the situation and unknown to the survivor, and NOT be a mutual friend/family member. It’s okay to call a 24-hour hotline yourself; the resource is available to support people. You will likely be feeling anger, frustration, and sadness that you need to deal with to be there for your friend. If you’ve reached the point where you are unable to support her anymore or she’s relying on you too much, gently let her know of your boundaries and enforce them.
10. Ask her what she needs of you.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that everyone’s experience and healing process is different. If you aren’t sure of what she needs, ask her what you can do to help. Read her cues as to what to say or not say to make her feel better. No tip holds 100% true to all survivors, so customize your approach based on her specific needs and desires.
Readers, do you have anything you want to add? If you’ve been through a domestic violence or sexual assault, what did you find the most/least useful in a support person?
One final note: This article is written using female pronouns, because the majority of abuse/assault survivors, as well the majority of Dear Wendy readers are women. Despite that, all of these tips would apply to a male survivor as well. However, male survivors have additional needs and face additional challenges, which aren’t addressed above. You can call a 24-hour hotline to get information about support for male survivors of rape and relationship abuse.
*Kim Souder is a geologist who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for a few years in high school, and spent three years volunteering as a rape crisis counselor through the YWCA while in graduate school (and received an award for Volunteer of the Year). Her work involved extensive training to complete crisis-counselor certification, answering hotline phone calls, accompanying victims to hospital exams and police interviews, and training to assist in hospital exams involving children.