Many survivors of sexual and relationship violence say what helped them most was the unconditional support of a friend. You don’t need to understand what they’re going through to be helpful. Even if you don’t know what else to do, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you, you didn’t do anything wrong,” can be extremely validating for a survivor to hear. Providing emotional support can go a long way. Unless you have an immediate concern about the health of your friend, understand that they have to make and live with the consequences of their own decisions. It’s not helpful to push someone toward making a choice they are not ready for or don’t want to take. Sexual assault and relationship abuse are about someone else taking control of one’s life and body. Recovery depends on getting that control back.
How to be Supportive
Survivors have a variety of reactions to trauma, including feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, or anxiety. There’s no one “right” way to respond. They may want to pretend that the event didn’t happen or want to talk about it at length. A survivor may not want to be alone, or they may isolate themselves; they may also disassociate and disconnect in social situations.
It’s common for survivors to not initially name what happened to them as rape or abuse, although they recognize that something is wrong. Once they start to feel safer, they may begin trying it understand the experience by talking about it. In speaking with survivors, use language that validates the survivor’s experience, and reflect back to them what they’ve told you. Reinforce that you believe the survivor and what they are feeling and however they want to deal with their experience is okay. If a survivor is speaking to you about an event that happened years ago, realize that healing can be a long, ongoing process.
Avoid using language or asking questions that could suggest that what happened was the survivor’s fault. Remember that the actions of another person harmed them. Don’t insist that they have to do anything, including getting help or reporting the event. Give them time and space to process what happened, and affirm to them that there’s no timetable for healing.
Listening to what a survivor has to say, but avoid asking invasive questions. Only ask what you need to know in that moment: Is the survivor safe right now? Is there anything they want to ask about or need? Asking intrusive or invasive questions can be re-traumatizing and will not make the survivor feel supported. It can take a huge amount of trust and effort for a survivor to speak about their experiences – don’t push someone to tell you more that they feel comfortable saying.
As important as it is to be present for survivors, remember to set boundaries and take care of yourself. Be as honest as you can about what support you can provide and how much time you have to spend with the survivor. Remind them of the other resources that are available to them.
Enforcing boundaries can be really hard, because as friends we want to do whatever we can to help. However, it’s important to understand that by setting boundaries we can avoid setting false expectations for a survivor. By creating an example of healthy boundary-setting you can help the survivor recover from a situation in which boundaries were not respected and avoid letting them down when you are not available to them to offer support. It’s important to understand your limits when providing support and to recognize that there are other resources if you don’t feel capable of meeting a survivor’s emotional needs. Being the “only person I can talk to” isn’t healthy for you or the survivor; they will be better off if they have a broad base of support.