The anniversary of my sexual assault is just a few days away. It’s been years since it happened so most of the scars, physical and mental, have faded away. But every once in a while, when something triggers a memory, I press on it to see if it still hurts. It does.
Yet the part that has caused the most lasting pain wasn’t the sexual assault itself but rather the reactions of people around me to it. In those early days as a survivor, when everything was so raw, I filtered my own feelings through those of my loved ones, magnifying their confusion and horror and adopting them as my own. I felt a deep sense of shame and at the time I had no one to tell me it wasn’t my fault. So I buried it all, very deep, and determined to live my life as if it had simply never happened. As if I could just magic away the memories.
That worked until I met the man who would become my husband. I loved him and wanted him to love all of me — even the broken pieces — so one night I tried to tell him what had happened to me. I was only two sentences into it when he stopped me, saying, “It’s OK, it’s in the past now, and we don’t need to talk about it.” In hindsight I think he thought he was telling me that my past didn’t bother him. But the problem was that it still bothered me. A lot.
I tried to ignore it and play the role of happy, unblemished wife but the sore festered until five years later it almost blew up my marriage. Through a haze of tears and yelling, we finally both realized that this was something we desperately needed to talk about and to deal with together. If he wanted me, he had to accept all of me, my sexual assault included. Thankfully we started therapy and real healing finally began. I realized that talking about my assault out loud was a huge part of admitting and accepting what really happened to me. I just needed to know someone heard me — especially because no one heard my screams that night. And he realized that he needed to know that I wasn’t asking him to fix it for me. The thing is, we could have avoided so much pain if my husband had known some basic things about sexual abuse survivors (and if I’d known how to tell him) at the beginning of our relationship.
I’m not the only abuse survivor who has found themselves in a relationship, unsure of how to move toward the person we love while still running away from the person we hate (and sometimes the person we hate the most is ourselves). So I reached out to other survivors and asked them what they wished their significant others understood about their experience.
Here is what rape survivors want the people they date to understand:
1. Let us talk if we want to but don’t force it. “Sometimes we want to talk about it, sometimes we don’t. Let it be our choice.” – Rosalind*
2. It’s not just about sex. “The insidious aspect of sexual assault is that no part of a survivor’s life goes untouched. It’s not just romance that suffers but also work, friendships and family.” – Bobbie
3. Body memories are real, sometimes more real than ‘real’ memories. “Because I was drugged, I only have blips of memory from my rape but my body remembers everything. My husband couldn’t touch the back of my neck, for instance, and I didn’t know why but my body just reacted. Just be aware of how their body is reacting, even if they’re not saying anything.” – Darcy
4. It’s not about you. “Patience is key. And don’t take anything personal, it’s not about you.” – Daisy*
5. Know our triggers. “Memories may come flooding back at the most inopportune time. Sometimes a trigger will always be associated with a bad memory. It’s not your fault when it happens.” – May* [Note: Trigger is a term used for something that forces the victim to involuntarily remember, and sometimes relive, the traumatic event. They can include situations, certain phrases, smells, places, a song, a touch or other things that are unique to the victim.]
6. Stay calm even if we’re not. “Sometimes my reactions aren’t my own, especially in stressful situations. Wait for me to calm down before trying to discuss anything with me, otherwise I’ll shut down and start sabotaging our relationship.” – Bobbie*
7. You may be a secondary victim. “Don’t discount the pain of being a secondary victim. It’s not just the victim who gets hurt but also those that are close to them like their husband or children. I had the prime years of my sexuality taken away from me but my husband lost those years of intimacy too. Don’t be afraid to get counseling for yourself too.” – Darcy
8. Give us time. “It takes time to heal, sometimes way more time than the victim may realize, to verbalize and put the experience into perspective.” – Jenna*
9. Help us feel safe. “Because I was molested by my dad, when I see a weird situation between a father and daughter my boyfriend gets me out of there because he knows it has an effect on me. When I have anxiety about it, he calms me down. He’s my rock.” – Skye*
10. Don’t blame us. “Don’t ask what I was wearing or if I was partying or if I was drinking. Ultimately it doesn’t matter and I’m already dealing with so much shame. Tell me it’s not my fault.” – Darcy
11. You can sympathize with us, even if you’ve never been assaulted (and men can be victims of sexual abuse too). “The truth is almost everyone has demons from their past that are haunting them, and what matters is that you’re willing to try to do something about them.” – Melinda*
12. Go slow. “I’m slow to trust and I’m slow to place myself in a position where I can be vulnerable. Be patient and if I talk about it be kind and try not to judge. I’m telling you about it and that’s a key step in the trust department.” – Raina*
13. Believe in me. “There are days when just knowing you believe in me is enough to help me through rough patches.” – Bobbie
14. Trust me. “Tell me that I can trust myself, that I’m not bad or broken, that my instincts are good. Show me how to do that by trusting me to know what I need and how to take care of myself.” – Charlotte (me)
*These names have been changed. And yes, they’re all from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Partly because I’m a huge geek who loves that show but mostly because all these names belong to seriously strong, smart, beautiful women — just like the ones I interviewed!