When a loved one is a survivor of domestic and/or sexual violence, it is natural to want to protect and help them through the traumatic experience. It is important to recognize that in addition to the primary survivor of abuse, the loved ones who are helping them can also be affected by the violence. These loved ones are called “secondary survivors”. A secondary survivor can be any family member or friend.
Secondary survivors will often recognize emotions and behaviors from the primary survivor, such as:
Depression or anxiety
Drug and/or alcohol abuse
Self-injury or self neglect
Withdrawal from family
Inability to respond to the needs of their children.
These behaviors and emotions are not exclusive to the primary survivor. In fact, secondary survivors can also experience the same mental pain and anguish as the primary survivor. Guilt, self-blame, and anger can also be experienced by both the primary and secondary survivors as well. A secondary survivor may feel responsible for not recognizing the signs of abuse or taking previous actions during a domestic or sexual assault on a loved one. Experiencing the trauma on an emotional and mental level with a survivor of domestic and/or sexual assault may leave a secondary survivor at a loss as to how they can help, where the resources are, and what to say to their loved one.
Safe Space can help secondary survivors to be a positive support for their loved ones while receiving support and resources to ensure they can heal emotionally and mentally as well. It is important to all survivors that each person recognizes their needs and receives individual support as well as being in support of each other. Here are some tips to help secondary survivors navigate their way to healing and to be able to continue to provide support to their loved one:
1. Be supportive. This is a broad statement, but means to allow the primary survivor the ability to make choices and take action. Supportive actions may include weighing pros and cons of each option available, providing resource information, legal matters (civil and criminal), and attending support groups or individual counseling sessions. The ability for the primary survivor to make the choice is important to his/her healing process and empowers him/her to break free from the cycle of power and control they experienced with their abuser. Many times, just being their to listen is the best support any person can provide.
2. Consider counseling for yourself. You have also experienced a trauma that can have effects on your wellbeing. Speaking with an outside party with professional background can help you to identify your boundaries in the situation, effectively help your loved one, and learn appropriate coping skills to heal.
3. Be patient. Patience for your loved and for yourself will help both of you to keep moving forward. Small victories are important: i.e., completing the temporary order of protection one day may be all that a survivor can face—but it is important that he/she was able to complete another positive step towards safety.
4. Don’t take itpersonally. As a survivor goes through the many emotions, withdrawal, anger and blame may begin to show. Remember that you did not cause the violence. You are not the abuser. During those times, it is okay to let your loved one know that you hear how they feel and that you love and care about them.
5. Make time foryourself. Engage in activities that are healthy for you and leave you feeling recharged. This may be a favorite hobby, exercise, lunch with a friend, or even just a nice bubble bath.
6. Educate yourself. Understanding the effects and aftermath of domestic and sexual violence will help you to understand your own emotions as well as your loved ones. This will lead to your ability to better support your loved one as well. Be aware of not becoming obsessed with the violence, but rather try to understand the violence and it’s effect, and how you and your loved one can become empowered to live a life free from violence.
Safe Space advocates are here to help all survivors of domestic and sexual violence. This includes secondary survivors as well. If you are a secondary survivor in need of support or information, or just someone to speak with, call our 24 hour crisis and information hotline at 406-782-8511.