You may have just been told by your partner that he or she was sexually abused in childhood. You may have been suspecting this for a while. The world, as you know it, is reeling, and worse, you may know, and even like, the perpetrator, if it was a family member.
Remember that you must see your partner's disclosure in a positive light: she (for ease of reading, the feminine pronoun will be used from now on although this article applies as much to men as to women) is entrusting you with a very private part of her life. It may make her feel vulnerable, insecure and/or frightened. What should you do to honour that trust and help in the healing journey?
1. Believe in your partner
Let her know that you believe and love her, and that nothing has changed between the two of you. Validate the damage that the abuse has left on your partner. Do not minimise the abuse, and/or take the side of the abuser. Your partner has grown up in an environment of mistrust, particularly if the abuser was a beloved relative or family friend. If you minimise the experience, your partner's fears will be strengthened. Do not push for details, especially the sexual ones. Even if your partner had responded sexually and/or did not protest, be clear that it is still never the child's fault. It is the responsibility of the adult not to abuse a child.
2. Listen well
This sounds simple but in your rush to demonstrate sympathy, you may unwittingly drown out your partner's voice. Validate her anger, fear and pain. Do not interrupt with your own feelings. If the abuser was a member of her family, she may have mixed feelings about the abuse and may blame herself. Let your partner know that you are there for her, and that you are open to listening to anything that she has to say, no matter how difficult or painful.
3. Learn more about child sexual abuse and the healing process
Understand that the healing journey takes time. If you understand what a survivor is going through, you will be in a better position to give support. You may also have to accept that there may be major changes in your relationship with your partner as she heals. However, it is very important that your partner regain a sense of control in her life and have confidence in her own judgements. As such, try to avoid protecting your partner by discouraging her involvement in old or new friendships, activities or interests that may not support her healing. Those decisions are hers to make, alone. It may lead to your partner making changes that affect her relationships, including the one with you.
"Avoid viewing your partner as another "victim". She is a survivor who is strong and courageous for facing her inner demons."
Your partner may also choose to confront the abuser and/or her family members. It is up to your partner to determine what kind of relationship she wants with the abuser and with her family etc. If you find it difficult to support the choices your partner is making, you should seek support for yourself from family and friends, or perhaps a counsellor. But consult your partner first so that she knows whom you would like to confide in, to respect her right to privacy.
4. Be patient
To heal, your partner may need to stop engaging in sexual activity until she feels that it is not resurrecting memories of her abuse. To recover, your partner must also simply stop doing anything that she does not genuinely feel. Her abuse may have led to her "splitting" during sex -- what they felt inside may not have matched how they acted outside. Explore ways of sharing intimacy that feels safe for your partner, for example, back rubs or cuddling.
5. Celebrate your partner's bravery
Avoid viewing your partner as another "victim". She is a survivor who is strong and courageous for facing her inner demons. Celebrate your partner's decision to reclaim her childhood.
Healing may be a long journey. It depends on each survivor but the recovery process may give you both the chance of growing together through hurdles and setbacks. Keep an open process of communication. Try to be honest with your partner about your feelings, without overburdening her. Take an interest in how she is doing at therapy even she seems preoccupied and in perpetual crisis mode.
Understand that you may not be able to "fix it", that perhaps the best thing you can do is to continue being loving and understanding while your partner slowly heals.