Talking About Sexual Assault with Significant Others
Turn on the news and it’s very likely that you will run into a story of sexual assault. With the #metoo movement reaching mainstream consciousness many are just now waking up to the reality and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. There are countless stories, followed by protest, outrage, injustice and confusion. We witness it all from our living rooms with our own stories and histories playing out in the background. This can cause many of us to have lots of overwhelming confusing feelings. Hearing these stories can also make us feel alone, afraid, triggered, anxious, despondent, or numb. As we attempt to sort out our own thoughts and feelings we may also be with partners who are working through their own ideas. Partners who are not on the same page can have a particularly difficult time staying connected.
We often turn to our partners for support in times of stress. But it can be difficult when our feelings are open and exposed like many are right now. When we are bombarded by the news and constant replaying of stories of abuse, assault, exploitation and manipulation we can be triggered by our own experiences and begin to experience anxiety, fear or shutting down. We see how often there is little or no justice for the survivors of such experiences and may make some feel voiceless or helpless all over again. When these trauma reminders set in it can be incredibly hard to talk to others and if our significant others are not aware of what is happening or don’t understand how these stories might be impacting us, conversations can go down hill quick. So how can we stay connected and talk about sexual assault when we are coming from different places?
We look at where we are…
In relation to our partners
You can only be where you are. It doesn’t help to pretend to be totally at ease with your experiences if that’s not where you are. Being aware of this means you can let you partners know where you are. When talking about sexual assault often our own feelings get stirred up; to effectively continue a conversation we and our partners need to be aware of this. As Mario Luis Small shares in his article our partners work in multiple roles, sometimes working as a support while other times as an educator or gentle critic. To be able to remain present, your partners need to know where you are to help them understand what kind of support or role you need to engage in for the conversation. If you can cue your partners in on what is happening in your brain and body they might be better able to access their empathy and supportive sides.
In many situations we need to know what our partner is looking for form us to know how to best move through a conversation. When it comes to conversations about sexual assault, it is also important to look at where we are in relation to the world of sexual assault. For some of us we have known this world for a long long time. As a therapist, it is something I work with regularly and as a human person it is something I have been aware of for most of my life. The first time I was aware of sexual assault I was a child whose friends were involved in sexual assault by a neighbor. They were interviewed and the case ended up going to trial, which is not always the case. This was unfortunately not the last time I witnessed assault and its impact on those around me. For many I know and work with, this story is sadly not all that unique. So I can fall into the trap of assuming everyone is where I am. I forget at times that not everyone is aware that every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted or that every 8 minutes the victim is a child. I forget that not everyone is in this world and to be suddenly shoved in can be very disconcerting.
In relation to the world of sexual assault
If you are just entering into this world thanks to the news and the many, many survivors finally feeling free to share their stories, you probably have lots of questions, worries, concerns, and all sorts of
feelings. Part of you might want to push back against these numbers, you might want to rationalize it all, you might want to walk right back out that door and never look back. You are welcome to do that, but if your partner is in this world, you might be leaving them behind, and how might that change the fabric of your relationship?
A colleague posted this a while back and I come back to it again and again when talking with couples about having conversations around abuse and trauma. How hard is it for us to put aside our need to defend ourselves in order to really hear and see our partners? It’s ingrained in us to protect ourselves physically and emotionally, to risk that, in order to really see what our partners are offering is real love.
Where does the brain fit in here?
Our brains our designed to keep us safe. When we feel threatened we react by fighting, freezing or fleeing. This is great when we are in real physical danger, however, it is not so helpful when trying to talk with a partner over breakfast while watching the news. When we go through life believing the world is one way, and that everyone is on the same page, it can be very confusing to realize that this isn’t true at all. Our brains can begin to feel threatened when we are pushed on these beliefs. When we are being confronted on our lifelong beliefs our brains try to dig in and hold on to what it knows. This can make conversations about sexual assault so much more difficult when you and your partner are in different places.
How do you connect when you are coming from different backgrounds?
Curiosity not debate
When we try to stay curious and really focus on wondering about where our significant other is coming from, we set up the conversation for understanding rather than debate. Sometimes as partners we like to debate and play different sides when it comes to politics, points of view or preferences. When it comes to sexual assault, and especially if at least one partner has experienced this, it might be time to shift gears. It’s important to know when to move into listening and exploring mode instead of debate and defend. This can be hard when there are so many news stories and commentators, on our tv’s, podcasts and social media. It’s easy to treat it like any other topic. But it might be a very personal and difficult topic for the one you love, so approach with care. Trying to set our intentions before entering into a conversation can shift the conversation into one of curiosity and love rather than debate and challenge. Leaving all sides feeling heard and just a little bit more understood.
Know when to walk away…
Sometimes we feel as if we need to fight and fight until there is a conclusion or resolution. But often when we are in the middle of a high emotion conflict or conversation we are unable to look at the big picture. We can lose our sense of what we are trying to accomplish and only want to be heard. If we can remain focused on our intention and really ask: “Is this getting us any closer to a place of understanding?” we can avoid falling further and further into the the spin of the fight. At times it can be far more productive to hit the pause button or take a walk before we continue. This is especially true when it comes to an emotionally charged topic like sexual assault. There are lots of feelings that get stirred up and brought to the surface, you may feel exposed and raw and all you want to do is protect those vulnerable parts of yourself. This may lead you further away from your partner, you may want support from them but are unable to ask for it while closing off these exposed parts. Trying to remain present and know when to ask for some space can allow partners to connect more fully in the long run.
…or turn off the TV
If you, like my family, try to stay up to date with politics and current events, you may often have the news or podcasts going throughout the day. It’s so important to stay engage with the world around us, but sometimes, we need to turn it off. Sometimes the constant stories can cause old feelings of fear and anxiety to resurface, they can set off trauma reminders and impact our thinking and emotional capacity. During these times, taking a break can make a big difference. Just being mindful about when you look at news or social media can have an impact too. Instead of reading headlines before bed maybe you choose to read a good book, or – if you must engage in news – think about what time to do it as well as the medium and for example, try watching John Oliver or some other comedic rendition of news earlier in the evening instead of right after date night. If you and your significant others like engaging in conversations about politics and current events, know that certain topics will be more emotionally charged then others, choose your timing accordingly. If you agree on a topic go at it, but if you don’t, or are unsure, maybe choose to move that conversation into a morning coffee talk rather than a chat over drinks. Being mindful of our intentions and where we are can shift the tone of the conversation and bring us closer to understanding.
Remember why we are talking in the first place
We love our family and partners. Talking about things like sexual assault can bring up a lot, and it can be incredibly difficult, painful and vulnerable to go there, especially with someone you love. Remember, you are talking to them because you love them and want them to better see and hear you. They talk to you because they love and care for you, and want you to better hear and see them. Trying to put your own defensive walls down to better understand your partners can allow everyone the chance to show true love and compassion. When you are unable to do so, it’s okay to take a breath and try again later, your loved one isn’t going anywhere. Trauma is complex and nuanced, it is unlikely that one conversation will drastically change anything, but overtime you can find ways to come to solid common ground with your loved ones, no matter where you are coming from.
If you or someone you know have experienced sexual assault and are looking for additional support here are some great resources. If you and your partners are still struggling to find that common ground therapy might be a place to help you get there. Check out our services at Freshpathny.com for more information about individual and couples work.
© Copyright 2018 FreshPathNY.com. All rights reserved. Contributed by Lynda Martin, LMFT