Supporting a partner who experiences trauma can be extremely hard, and we’re here to support you. You may feel confused about how to react or what to say. You may want to retaliate against their offender(s) or seek to change the situation.
The most important thing you can do is listen to your partner’s needs and respect them. And because there is no one clear way to support your partner after trauma, we asked survivors we work with to help us brainstorm a few ways.
10 ways to support your partner after trauma
- Listen actively
Supporting your partner can be as simple as listening to them. Some survivors find it helpful to talk about the details of their assault, and others may not want to share much.
If your partner chooses to tell you about their experience, it’s important to listen closely without interrupting them. It takes courage and trust to disclose an assault to someone. Try your best to avoid asking questions and to demonstrate supportive body language.
- Accept all responses
Every response to trauma is a normal response. Common responses include fear, distress, anger, confusion, disbelief, numbness, denial, and guilt. Give your partner space to express and process these feelings and try not to dismiss, ignore, invalidate, or question them.
Remind your partner that their reaction - whatever it is - is normal. Try to create a supportive space for your partner to open up in any way that feels good to them. Remind yourself that this is not about what you want or need to know, hear, or understand - this is about what your partner needs to say. Whatever that is, accept it without question.
- Believe them without question
Believing your partner is as simple as listening to them, accepting what they say, and providing them with the support they need. Asking questions may not be helpful. Don’t press them for more details, and accept them where they’re at.
For some, it can feel re-traumatizing to recount or talk about their experience. Believe them, but don’t demand anything from them.
Healing is a lifelong journey, and there is no right or wrong timeline. For some, it takes years to identify with the term “survivor,” and for others, that term never feels appropriate. Again, there is no right or wrong response. Your responsibility is to accept and embrace any response your partner has to trauma.
- Educate yourself first
Learning about sexual assault and the impact on your partner is another way to support them. It can help you understand what they may be going through and how you can respond better. Your partner may not be ready to explore their options for care or healing, and you may be able to support them.
It’s important to never pressure your partner and to provide them full autonomy throughout their healing process. All decisions are up to them. Respect their choices without judgment. You don’t have to be an expert on the subject, but taking the initiative to learn about trauma, care, and healing can show how much you care for them. There are many ways to do this: Contact local resources, read articles online, listen to related podcasts, or explore more articles on our blog.
- Support their decisions
Respect your partner’s decisions, even if you don’t understand them. Avoid telling them how to respond or feel. You can encourage them to get help or report their assault, but it’s important not to pressure or shame them. Every survivor responds differently to trauma, and every response is okay.
Again, there is no timeline for healing after trauma, and it’s important to give your partner autonomy in their decisions. They may feel powerless or experience a sense of loss of control after sexual assault. Respecting their decisions can help them regain their sense of control.
- Take it slow
It may take some time for your partner to feel comfortable with intimacy after trauma, emotional or physical. This is normal, and you should never guilt or shame a survivor for their trauma responses.
If you are struggling with respecting your partner’s new boundaries, we urge you to seek care from a trained therapist. Explore therapy options here. Give them the time and space they need. Help your partner by setting new boundaries that respect them where they’re at and provide a sense of trust and security. Always respect their boundaries, and don’t pressure your partner into anything.
When in doubt, check in. Physical intimacy may be re-traumatizing after trauma. It’s important to remember that consent is never predetermined, and affirmative, enthusiastic consent is always required. Affirm your partner’s power to say no at any time to help them feel safe and give them a sense of control and empowerment.
- Talk about triggers
Triggers are normal after assault, and they often feel unpredictable. Your partner may experience anxiety or panic attacks when they encounter certain things that may seem harmless to you. Triggers might include certain smells, sounds, places, or physical touch. Initiate open conversations with your partner about how they’re feeling, and remind them that triggers after trauma are normal.
Talk about how you might be able to help support them in those moments. Your partner may not know what these triggers might be in advance, and that’s okay. It’s helpful to be prepared to respond when those moments come. Coping strategies may include: deep breathing, engaging in a hobby, putting in headphones, taking a walk, guided meditation, holding hands, or just talking.
- Be a safe space
Create a safe environment for your partner where consent is respected and boundaries are celebrated. Have open conversations about intimacy and sexual desires without expectations or pressure. Allow your partner to navigate their healing journey, and take a back seat while you listen to their needs.
Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to heal, and your partner’s experiences post-trauma will change with time. It may feel like there are “good days” and “bad days,” and your job is to be supportive during all of the days.
- Practice self-care
Look after yourself while supporting your partner! Being there for someone who has experienced sexual violence can be extremely difficult and can cause vicarious trauma. This new aspect of your relationship can be overwhelming. It’s okay to need space to process your feelings and seek help.
Consider planning a solo date to practice regular self-care. However you release and cope, remember that your experiences are valid, and there are resources available to support you as well.
Try not to project the challenges you’re facing on your partner, as that may inhibit their own healing journey. When in doubt, seek the support of a trained therapeutic professional.
- Respect their privacy
If your partner discloses trauma to you, it’s up to them to share that information with anyone else. Be mindful of their boundaries, and be careful not to disclose their experiences to other people.
It's not up to you to take action on behalf of any survivor. Instead, it's important that you provide them the autonomy to make their own decisions, even if you don’t understand them. Support them in any way they request, but never by pressuring them. Respect their privacy.
It’s difficult to know how to respond when your partner has been sexually assaulted. Whether this assault happened recently or in the past, you can do a lot to help them heal. Remember that you can’t “save” your partner or take their pain away. Instead, your job is to support them exactly where they’re at.
Where can I find resources?
If you need additional support navigating your partner’s trauma, we urge you to seek the support of a trained counselor. If you want to explore different kinds of therapy, click here.
If your partner wants to find the closest sexual assault exam, visit our Exam Locator Map. Our quick tool makes it easy to find post-assault care. It also lists local care centers which may have advocacy and additional resources.
If you or your partner are experiencing a mental health crisis, please text Leda to 741741 for free, confidential crisis counseling available 24/7 in partnership with the Crisis Text Line. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline for 24/7 support at 1-800-656-4673.