It can be overwhelming when people close to us experience interpersonal violence (sexual assault, abusive relationships, stalking, or harassment). In our efforts to support them, we may not take the time to consider how we are responding to their experience of violence. Being close to someone who has experienced IPV, sometimes referred to as being a secondary survivor, brings its own emotions and requires its own particular healing process. Through my own friendships and volunteer work at OCRCC, I know many people who have experienced violence. Being able to talk about how we react to our loved ones being hurt is important! Honoring and giving space to these emotions can help to ensure that our relationships with our loved ones who have experienced IPV remain healthy and that we are both supported as we heal together. Folks close to individuals who have experienced IPV may feel:
Anger: Being deeply angered by the fact that someone has hurt someone that we care about is a normal and understandable response. However, we want to make sure that we direct our anger at the person who perpetrated the violence and not at our loved one. Interpersonal violence is never the fault of the person who experiences it. IPV is an intentional choice and action made by one person against another and is never something that a victim/survivor desires or solicits.
Desire for Revenge: We may want to harm the person who hurt our loved one. While understandable, interacting with the perpetrator of violence puts the person that we are close to and ourselves at extreme risk. Seeking revenge takes power and control away from the person that we care about. Responding to a situation violently is an unhealthy way to process our own emotions, as it prevents us from taking steps toward healing and places us at risk for physical harm and legal repercussions.
Impotence, Guilt, Powerlessness: We may feel that we should have prevented our loved one from being hurt. Again, IPV is an intentional action made by one person against another. We cannot control how other people will behave or what people that we care about will experience. However, we can control how we process, heal, and build relationship with the people who matter to us. It is not our fault any more than it is theirs that an act of violence occurred.
Fear that “they will never be the same:” We may be concerned that the person that we care about may never be the same again. It is alright to be sad and upset that our loved ones are going through a difficult time and that our relationships with them may feel differently. There can be real and powerful grief around this change. However, we can honor the presence of these feelings while reminding ourselves to stay present with the person that we care about. Rather than projecting and anticipating what may come later, we can focus on what is happening right in front of us and think about how to support healthy relationship with the person that we care about.
Concerns about Changes in Sexual Relations: If our intimate partner has experienced violence, we may find it challenging to come together with them sexually again. Folks who have experienced IPV respond in a variety of ways and these changes in our partner may be frightening or anxiety producing for us. Though it may seem difficult or uncomfortable, it is important to communicate our feelings to our partners to ensure that we have safe, satisfying sex with them. The more that we can honestly communicate with our partners about our feelings, the more comfortably we can come together with them.
Guilt, Anger, or Fear about Causing Triggers: Individuals who have experienced IPV may have strong and surprising emotional and physical reactions to particular stimuli that remind them of their experience of IPV (e.g. a smell, the look of someone’s face, the tone of a person’s voice, a particular touch, etc.). These reactions are sometimes referred to as trigger responses. We may very well be the person who causes someone that we care about to have a trigger response, sometimes in very intimate moments. While we may feel guilt, anger, or fear about having caused a trigger response for someone that we care about, it is important to remember that it is not our fault, and often it is beyond our control. We can speak with the people that we care about to recognize and avoid some of their more common triggers, but neither we nor they can always know what will be triggering for them. The important thing to do is not to blame the people that we care about or ourselves for the fact that a trigger response has occurred.
Of course, these are only a few of many possible responses that we can have to someone that we care about experiencing IPV. It is important to give space to whatever emotions emerge for us as we process what has happened to our loved ones. It can be challenging to support a friend, family member, or partner who has experienced violence, so if you want help processing your feelings or learning how to be helpful, consider talking to CAPS or with companions at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center. You can also find more resources on the SAFE@UNC website.