It is very important when you first discover a loved one has been abused that you believe them. (Even if it turns out later that it is made up— the vast majority of them aren't— the fact that they made it up is indicative of a deep need for help and counseling.) The survivor has placed their trust in you and has turned to you for help in their healing. Do not voice any doubts you might have to the survivor. It took a lot for them to open up to you and it won't take much for them to shut down again. To close the door they have opened, delaying or stopping their attempts to heal.
It's also important that you remain calm and do not go into a screaming rage. Many survivors are very afraid of raw emotions because they have had to suppress many of their own emotions for so long. If the abuse they suffered was in a violent context (a drunken father who molested them, for example, or a rape or violent beatings), screaming will only make them feel as threatened as they did when the abuse was happening. If a survivor reveals their abusive past to you, it is usually because the turmoil of emotions within them has gotten to the point where they must face them or perish (emotionally or even physically). They need to know they have a safe place to discuss issues. A place where they won't have to deal with your emotional turmoil as well.
If you're reading this page, you may have just found our your loved one is a survivor of abuse. Hopefully, you've gotten past the initial shock and want to know "Now what?" What can you do to help your loved one? What can you expect? How long will the healing take? When will things get back to normal? How can you stop their pain? The list of questions is probably endless. There have been many books written about all these questions, but books take time to read and sometimes we just want simple answers right now. Just to give us an idea of what to do next. The more detailed answers can wait. This page is an attempt to give some of those simple immediate answers.
What can you do to help your loved one?
Probably the two most important things you can do are to believe them and to listen to them. And I do mean listen. They may not want a discussion. They may not want to hear your point of view or feedback. They simply want to say what they have to say.
Believing: It took a lot of courage and strength to break the silence and to tell you. Most survivors struggle with the belief that the abuse was in some way their fault. Usually because their abuser has blamed them— "if you'd only behave, I wouldn't have to do this" or "if you didn't wear that dress, I wouldn't do this". They may believe that they are bad or dirty or disgusting to others because they were abused. That you will not want to be around them anymore because they're a survivor. If you do not believe them, because, for example, their abuser has such a wonderful, upstanding reputation, you are only adding to their feeling that it is their fault.
Listening: The rate at which they reveal the details of their abuse, especially if it was sexual abuse, MUST be their choice. Relating the painful and often humiliating details of their abuse is difficult and painful. Some survivors will never reveal those details and you must accept that. On the other hand, hearing those details may be shocking and painful to you. It may make you very angry. But it is important that you do not react to that anger in front of the survivor or take any action against the abuser(s) without the permission of the survivor. If you get hysterical or start yelling, your loved one will be less willing to relate those details to you.
While your anger is not aimed at your loved one, at this initial stage, your loved one can't make that distinction and will take your anger on themselves. You cannot act on your anger at your loved one's abuser through confronting the abuser. Such a confrontation must also be the choice of the survivor. Other family members might not know about the abuse and when or even if they find out must be in the control of the survivor.
Find some other healthy way, away from the survivor, to vent your anger. Control of their lives and feelings is one thing that all survivors lacked during their abuse. It is the one thing that they need to start rebuilding their life. Listening and not asking for details before they are ready to give them is giving them that control. Be sure they know that you are willing to listen when they are ready to talk, but that you will wait for them to tell you when they feel able to do so.
What can you expect?
Anything. And I do mean anything.
The loved one that you knew as a very gentle, loving individual who wouldn't harm a fly might suddenly turn into a raging individual who physically strikes out at anyone in arm's reach. If they were always the strong one that everyone turned to, they may now simply collapse themselves into their own pain, unable to make simple decisions on things like what clothes to wear to clean the house. If the memories of the abuse have come on through sudden recall, their world has just turned upside down and that turmoil is bound to manifest in their daily lives.
The return of memories or the acknowledgement of memories is the starting point of the healing journey. Many times, once these memories are in the conscious mind, they can be subconsciously triggered. When a survivor is triggered, often times it feels to them as if they are actually back in the abusive situation. They may literally see things right before them that are in reality from their past. Your face may suddenly transform into that of their abuser.
This can cause a wide range or reactions, from a screaming, hysterical fight for their life to falling onto the floor in a crying heap to a month long period of depression to denying that the abuse ever took place. Triggers can be anything. A song on the radio might trigger a memory of abuse. A smell, a sound, the way you say "Hello", the way you comb your hair, a certain time of year, the anniversary of a death, birth or the abuse (particularly if it is something like rape), a holiday, the end of school, a sporting event....
Finding out what triggers memories can be very difficult. It's not something that a survivor has conscious knowledge of for the most part. Suggest to your loved one that they keep a log of what triggers each memory. If they don't want to, keep one for yourself. If it's not possible to pinpoint the exact trigger, write down all the details of the time just before your loved one was triggered. What mood you were in. What mood s/he was in. What you were discussing. What time it was. What the weather was like. What cologne/perfume you had on. What clothes you were wearing. Whether you had your glasses on or not. What sounds were in the room. Where you were (ie, in the car, in the living room, at the movies, etc.) In time, a common denominator can usually be found.
Each survivor will deal with the healing process differently. And even then, how they deal with it will depend on where in that process they are. For some, the initial memories might cause a withdrawal into themselves because they do not know how to deal with the overwhelming emotions that are flooding them now. As time goes on and they become more comfortable with feeling those emotions, they may voice them more frequently, although not always at the appropriate person. They may suddenly become a ball of emotions that changes on what appears to be a whim. What brought a smile to their face one day might cause them to burst into tears the next. You have to learn to roll with the punches. To not take their mood swings as a personal attack on you. They are dealing with a lot of confusing emotions and half the time don't know what they are feeling or why they react any more than you do.
You have to be very careful here that you do not become a doormat or an enabler. Simply because your loved one acts out in a certain way in their pain and confusion, you must not become their punching bag. While it is not appropriate to retaliate in kind if, for example, they start hitting you or screaming at you, there is nothing wrong with doing what you can to protect yourself (without, if possible, harming him/her.) Gently point out to them that you are not their abuser and that you do not deserve to be the brunt of that anger.
You also cannot excuse inappropriate behavior simply because your loved one is a survivor. They must know what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences will be if that behavior is chosen. Then those consequences must be applied. It is acceptable to use the past abuse as an explanation, but when one starts using it as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, then a line has been crossed. For you to allow it to continue would be to enable them. There is the danger that such a relationship would become a co-dependent one, which isn't healthy for either of you.
In my humble opinion and my experience, probably the hardest of the effects of abuse to deal with is when the survivor expects the worst or sees things in the worst possible light. This is a survival tactic for almost everyone who has suffered a trauma— especially a repetitive trauma like abuse. Often times, it puts the loved one in between a rock and a hard place.
Let's take an example. A survivor might say, "I love you but I'm not good for you. You deserve better. We need to break up." Now, because they expect the worst, almost anything you say will be the wrong thing. If you say, "I don't care what you think I deserve, I know what I want and I want you! I don't want to break up!" they may see that as your attempt to control them or as you telling them they don't know what they're talking about or that you don't really love them because you don't care about their feelings.
On the other hand, if you say, "Well, if that's what you feel you need to do, I will respect your decision," they may see that as proof that you don't really care because if you did, you'd fight harder to keep them in your life. Or they're take it as proof that you agree with them: you DO deserve better and they're not good enough for you.
Or you could say, "Well, if that's what you feel you need to do, but you have to know that's not what I want," they may see it as an attempt to make them feel guilty or bad about themselves.
The level of frustration when dealing with a survivor can reach proportions you've never even imagined. You have to learn not to take any of it personally, which is a lot easier said than done.
But none of this really answers the question. Some of the more common stages of healing (all of which your survivor may not experience and not in any chronological order) are as follows:
How long will the healing take?
I don't know that there's ever an end to the healing, but for most, there is at least an end to the intensity of the emotions and a point at which the effects of the abuse no longer have control over their lives. A big factor in how fast the healing takes place is how deeply and how quickly your loved one is willing and able to delve into the process and the emotions that are surfacing, perhaps for the first time. No matter how willing they are, there will be times where they will simply be overwhelmed and need to step back, slow down and take it one day at a time.
Another important factor is how soon after the abuse did they receive help or support in their recovery. Research shows that children who get therapy and help with the abuse shortly after it happens are far less likely to suffer long-term effects from the abuse. Unfortunately, far too often the survivor doesn't get help until long afterwards, when the effects have had time to worm their way into the very thought patterns of survivors.
Just know that it is going to take time. It's not something that will likely be healed in a couple sessions with a counselor or a few long heart to heart talks with you. Memories are tricky things and oftentimes we can't control when they return. A lot will depend too on how long one has known about the abuse, how long it went on, how severe it was and what kind of support system the survivor had in place over the years. For those survivors who are also dealing with DID (dissociative identity disorder— what was formerly called multiple personalities), the healing process might be something that goes on for the rest of their lives.
In general, "healing" will take longer:
But again, these are just rules of thumb. Healing is an individual journey and some people heal faster from the effects of abuse just like some people heal faster from surgery than others.
When will things get back to normal?
Define normal. Things will never be the same, but that does not mean that they will be worse or that your relationship with the survivor will be any less fulfilling or rewarding. There will probably be major changes in your relationship with the survivor. Anything from how s/he dresses to how the two of you interact or even if you continue to interact. To expect the relationship to return to what it was before is to expect the survivor to stay the same as they were before the healing. This isn't healthy for either of you. With a lot of patience, love and understanding, your relationship with your survivor can not only survive but become stronger and more "equal".
How can you stop their pain?
Quite simply, you can't. This is something they ultimately have to face alone. You can be there with support and love and a shoulder to cry on, but you cannot take away their pain. It's like having a splinter that is deeply embedded. As long as it stays there, it's going to fester and cause them a lot of pain. And in order to get it out, they are going to experience a lot of pain as they have to dig deep to remove the last shreds of this splinter. Yet once the removal starts, there will come a time when the wound will heal. It may leave a scar and it may continue to hurt a little at times, but the pain will not be as overwhelming and as unbearable.
This is probably the most difficult thing that a loved one of a survivor must do. Our first instinct is to do whatever is necessary to help the survivor to heal. The more we love them, the more eager we are to see the healing completed. We sacrifice our own well being in order to help the survivor. No matter what behavior they exhibit, we are prone to let it slide because they are under so much strain from dealing with such emotionally charged issues. No matter how unfair it is that the survivor takes out his/her anger and pain on us, we endure it, saying it was just as unfair that they were abused in the first place. No matter how inconvenient a call for help might be, we feel guilty for saying "No, I can't do that now". No matter how tired we are of hearing about our loved ones abuse, we feel guilty for asking them to find someone else to talk to this time. After all, why should we be able to walk away from dealing with this when our loved one cannot?
What is sometimes very difficult to see is that in NOT setting limits, we are doing our loved one a disservice.
But most importantly, when we are at the beck and call of a survivor twenty-four hours a day seven days a week fifty-two weeks a year, we are not teaching them how stand on their own two feet. We become a crutch for them to use, preventing them from developing the strength they need to stand on their own. They have been told so many times that they will never amount to anything. That they're not capable of making it on their own. That they are worthless and useless. That all the bad things that happen are their fault. Then, despite our best intentions, we reinforce those ideas in our loved one.
It's like teaching a baby to walk. If we are always holding their hand to prevent them from falling, they will never develop the sense of balance they need in order to walk on their own. In many ways, adult survivors of childhood abuse are very much like children learning to walk. We need to let them try it on their own— and fall if they have to— in order to develop the inner strength to walk through life on their own two feet, not dependent on anyone for anything.
Because some part of an adult survivor stopped "maturing" when the abuse started, during the healing, as that "inner child" matures, they may revert to childish behavior. As with all children, limits must be set. Limits provide a sense of security— if one knows where the edge is, one can avoid inadvertently stepping over it. At the same time, the consequences for passing those limits must be clear and appropriate for the "violation". And finally, they must be flexible enough to meet changing circumstances as the healing progresses.
It is important that these limits be set up early in the healing process. The longer one waits to set them up, the harder it is to hold to them and the more difficult it will be to get the survivor to recognize and respect the boundaries since they are used to having none at all. The boundaries don't have to be complicated or difficult. Something like:
It doesn't have to be long, it just has to meet your needs, both practical and emotional. If limits are not set, the survivor may continue to do things that are more and more destructive not only to his/herself but to the relationship. They need someone to say, "That is enough. I love you too much to let you do this. If you insist on doing it, you will do it without me around." The survivor needs limits and you need limits for the relationship to work and for you to be of any real help to the survivor in their healing process.
It is also very important to realize that limits are NOT set up to control a survivor's behavior— because that lack of control might in itself be seen as abuse. You must make it very clear that the reason for your limits is your own health and protection.
In the example of limits above, the reasons could be:
Make sure you explain how YOU are protected by the limits set in your relationship with your survivor. If they still balk at the suggestion of limitations, then perhaps you need to reconsider whether or not it is healthy for you to continue to be in the relationship.