This was originally posted by Lacrymosa on aftersilence.org
in response to a secondary survivor asking what his partner was going through and thought it might be helpful for some of the friends and partners of survivors who we have here. What she wrote really captures the experiences of many survivors and gives great insight to supporters. I have asked for her permission to post it here and she has agreed.
Hi (Secondary Survivor),
It sounds to me like you have a pretty good understanding of how your partner is struggling. All the things you mentioned, in regards to isolating, withdrawing, and closing off are very familiar to me, as they are things I have also done in the aftermath of being raped.
While I can't imagine what it is like for you, I can give you a bit of insight from the perspective of someone who has been hurt in this way too. I will try to explain the feelings behind the actions and seemingly inactions. I apologize in advance as this will be long, but hopefully it will give you some understanding?
When you are hurt in this way, it shatters a huge part of your being. Your confidence goes to zero immediately. It's gone completely, and you lose all faith in anything you were once able to do with ease. Talking to others, being around loved ones and friends, working, and even enjoying leisure activities become exhausting, scary, and often upsetting. Suddenly and immediately, you lose yourself. You second guess every thought. You struggle to think at all, as your mind is constantly pulled back to the terror felt during and after the trauma.
You stop feeling like yourself, and are locked into this body that doesn't seem to fit any longer. It feels like it no longer belongs to you, and was stolen from you. You begin to hate it, but can't escape it. You become hyper alert to all things that used to go unnoticed, but now often startle you and send you into fear and panic in an instant. You blame yourself, and go over and over everything you could or should have done to prevent being hurt. There is no logic in this process, it's desperation to find a reason, a cause, anything that can explain why something so horrible could possibly take place, and why it happened to you.
You feel uncomfortable all the time. Like you are dirty and unacceptable to others. That you must at any cost do whatever possible to prevent anyone from knowing you are feeling these horrible things. Because anyone who knows your thoughts couldn't possibly understand, and would surely blame you, feel disgust for you, and somehow hurt you (logic be damned). This feeling is incredibly strong and is horribly difficult to overcome. While intellectually you can reason beyond it, emotionally, it takes such a strong hold it feels unshakable.
You no longer feel like you are the person you once were, but will do just about anything to keep others from realizing this too. You want so badly to be how you were, but it's unattainable, because you are not that person any longer. You are forever changed in ways that take years to truly understand. And it's a very painful process to learn who you are all over again. This often leads to a lot of isolation, silence, and despair.
You begin to feel like those you are close with will not love you when they discover you've changed in ways you don't even fully understand yourself! And the thought of them leaving you over something you have no control over is unbearable. You can't take the risk of trusting them to love you anyway. You have to pull away, and eliminate the possibility of being hurt again, when you are already so hurt you can barely stand it. So you slowly stop communicating with people. You're less and less available. Excuse after excuse as to why you can't participate in social activities.
Eventually, you distance yourself from everyone. Some completely, others only emotionally. You do your best to appear as if you are fine, but when anyone notices otherwise, you feel complete panic, and start the process of distancing from them. This isn't fully voluntary. Each time it becomes easier to distance and isolate. And eventually, it becomes extremely difficult not to do so.
Certain things come up that make this process inevitable. Being questioned or cornered, having someone ask why you aren't yourself, etc. This sort is terrifying. And it results very often in running away in some form. Your trust has been so shattered that even those you were once very close with are now frightening. Sometimes they will say or do something that is triggering, without realizing it. While this of course is not their fault, it has the same exact effect on you as if they had done it on purpose. And the intellectual understanding that it is accidental and unintended to hurt, doesn't even challenge the emotional response. You end up feeling guilty for reacting, but at the same time, can't help reacting all the same. So you're terrified, feeling angry with yourself for being terrified, and suffering alone in silence.
This can, and often does, go on for years. And the longer you've been emotionally distant, the harder it is to believe that you can be close again, trust again. It's very lonely to be so isolated, and the desire to trust again comes back. But this is quite frustrating, because you may want to trust again, but the fear is so great that it's a serious struggle to even begin. It feels much like jumping off a cliff and believing the person you wish to trust will catch you.
If your partner is assaulted again, this means the process begins again from the very start. Only this time, it's all magnified. Each step taken is shakier. The isolation is deeper, and the belief in the ability to trust again lessened. But now I will tell you the good part. Because yes, there are good parts, and there are things you can do.
While you may feel it is hopeless and that your partner is permanently closed off to you, this is very unlikely to be the case. Your partner is distant only because it's so difficult to move back from this to trusting again. Difficult, not impossible. If your partner has seen a therapist, and is a member on this site or one like it, chances are good that the trust will be rebuilt. I say this because both of these things help tremendously in understanding yourself, why you've had such reactions, realizing you're not alone, and that your reactions are quite normal under such circumstances. I can't even begin to tell you what an incredible relief this is!
Having fellowship with other survivors who understand and have lived through similar traumas can help in many ways. You can read about what has worked for others. You start to feel validated. You begin to understand that healing is possible, and many others are there to support you. It's unique in that these fellow survivors are likely to understand without judgement, as they share the same fears. So it feels a bit safer and controlled.
Here is the most important thing I can think of. In order for your partner to take that step off the cliff and trust you again, there are things you can, and need to do. You need to be patient. Being questioned is scary, as you want to answer, but often can't find the words in the moment. You feel panicked and this feeling alone triggers isolation. It can feel like being cornered, even if to you the questions seem simple or non-threatening.
It's okay to have questions, and wonder, and desire information about what your partner is going through. This isn't wrong, it's just a very delicate process. I've found that sometimes it can help to do like this: Say, I'd like you to know that I'm here for you, am not going anywhere, and will listen to whatever you'd like to share with me when you are able. Here is a question I have. I'd like to know one thing I can do to help you feel safer with me. You can answer this when you're able. I will wait however long you need in order to do so. And I won't press, ask again, or add anymore questions until you're able to answer this one.
I think this will help your partner feel able to breathe and communicate with you. I think it's very important not to push, get angry, or demand answers. This will only increase the distance. Survivors need patience, calm, gentleness, and reassurance. They need to feel like they have control and won't be forced in any way to do anything. This can be anything from physical affection, to talking. We need to feel safe, or we go silent, run, shut down, or any of the above.
The more understanding, gentle, calm, and reassuring you are, the more safe your partner will feel. It will still take time and patience, but each instance in which you demonstrate that you will still be there, still love and care, still remain patient and open, your partner will trust you more and more. As the trust builds you will see that your partner will begin to lessen the distance.
Nobody is perfect, and mistakes will be made. There will be setbacks, triggers, etc. But these are temporary and can be overcome. The process can continue despite them, and eventually you will realize it was completely worth it to have your partner's trust again. I'm sure you are quite willing to do this, or you wouldn't have joined this site. It's very nice to see a secondary survivor who cares so much and wants to help in any way. I wish you and your partner the best.
There is support for you here, and I hope you feel free to ask questions about this process. It's not easy for anyone. I hope this helps a bit. Take good care.