3 Things to do Right Now if you Partner or Spouse just Admitted that she has been a Victim of Sexual Abuse or Sexual Harassment.
If you are on social media these days then you have seen the “me too” campaign where women are bravely stepping forward to admit that they have experienced incidents of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. This simple and powerful campaign has uncovered an overwhelming amount of abuse that was seemingly invisible. I believe it was invisible to many of the victims as well. If you are not someone who has experienced harassment you might not realize the breadth of this behavior. And it might confusing why has no one spoke up before.
It can also be confusing as to what exactly a “me too” post means. Does this mean that your wife was raped?; was your girlfriend abused or harassed?; or has your friend simply felt the long entrenched objectification by some men that made her feel isolated, powerless and fearful? And how do you as a partner, spouse or friend ask them what their post means without doing further damage?
I have put together a list of 3 things that you can do to support your wife, girlfriend or friend if she posted “me too.”
1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Most women want to talk about what happened to them but they want it to be taken seriously. It is cathartic to be able to talk about these long hidden and shameful experiences. I think that many women rationalized what happened to them as a way to move forward. If it was no big deal then I don’t have to make a big scene or have everyone question, blame or shame me. It can be very cathartic to be able to talk about it as something that was very wrong instead of just something we all have to endure (like humidity).
So ask. And then ask some more questions. A wonderful follow up question to “what happened?” is “how did you feel afterward?” or “has that happened before?”
A good way to judge if a question is not OK is if you want to follow the question with a statement like “I would never do that.” These questions that you should never ask include:
“Why did you let that happen to you? I would never let it happen to me.”
“Why would you ever return to work/social event/family afterward? I would have quit or left.”
“How can you face yourself after that happened? I could never live with myself.”
2. Repeat back what you hear.
When we are talking about an emotional or traumatic event we just want to feel heard and understood. A great way to give your wife the experience of being heard is to simply repeat back what she says. This can feel silly or “too simple” but the goal is that she leaves the conversation feeling heard. This is different than you comprehending what she says. We usually say things like “I hear you,” “I see” or “you said this before” and none of these responses give the speaker the experience of feeling heard. A simple repetition will do more to help them feel safe, to open up and to begin to move through their feelings than anything else you say or do.
A conversation like this might look like:
“I felt humiliated and ashamed when he talked about my body that way in front
of the whole company.”
“You felt humiliated and ashamed when he did that.”
You might find that as your partner feels safe/feels heard, she opens up and tells you even more about her feelings. By repeating back you are allowing her experiences and feelings to stand alone without judgements, rationalizations or excuses.
3. Don’t judge, rationalize, dismiss or excuse what happened.
You were not there. You were not inside her head or her body to fully comprehend that experience. If she says she felt unsafe, threatened, silenced, harassed, objectified, humiliated, abused or shamed then this is how she felt. These feelings are facts in her history. It happened that way. Your job is to allow these feelings to stand unchallenged but heard.
You might not feel this way in the exact same situation and I understand that this is confusing. You might even feel like she should feel flattered or that what happened should be a turn on. Your job is to work at understanding her feelings and then give her the experience of feeling heard. I think that for so long we have all rationalized away both the subtle and not so subtle abuses in our lives. Many of us have felt them at our work, seen it in our TV shows and movies and sometimes even experienced them in our families. We all seem to be very good at excusing and rationalizing bad behavior but when we step back and really look at what has happened it seems so obvious that it is abuse.
This is an interesting time in history. Many have given themselves permission to speak truths long hidden from the majority or power-holders in this country. Racial and sexual abuses are being talked about in ways that I have never seen.We seem to be questioning the status quo about what is acceptable behavior and what is no longer tolerable. As a partner, spouse or friend it is your job to listen and allow these feelings and experiences to surface. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.
If you and your partner are in need of a safe place to talk about “me too” posts or anything in your marriage, please contact me for a free consultation. Learn more about couples counseling with Ashley.