When a woman is raped, she suffers a terrible trauma. However, it doesn’t only change her life, but also that of her partner, or husband. The man is the silent victim, also experiencing the trauma, but often not receiving any help.
(Obviously it is not only women who are raped. The advice would nevertheless be the same either way).
One particular evening, in “Karel” and “Sanet’s” life, began badly when they quarrelled, but neither of them could have guessed just how badly it would end.
They had words, and Sanet stormed out of the house in anger, walking aimlessly around in the dark to cool off. Karel was just as furious and went off to sleep. Sanet was taken by surprise in the dark and raped. (The perpetrators have not, to this day, been caught).
When Sanet returned to the house in a traumatised state, her partner was seriously shocked. He immediately experienced feelings of guilt. Why hadn’t he held her back? Why hadn’t he gone after her and brought her safely home? Sanet felt resentment towards Karel for the same reasons.
They did the right thing and decided together to go for counselling. After numerous sessions, they realised that they both felt guilty about the happenings of that night, and it was then that the healing process could begin.
Sanet had the additional worry of a possible HIV infection, but Karel stood by her through everything. Thankfully, all the tests were negative, and together, they worked through this traumatic experience.
They went for counselling and therapy for a year, and in the process, grew closer together. They were married a short while later.
Kathleen Dey, the Director of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, says a rape can sometimes be violent, and the woman can, in the process, suffer physical injuries. But even if this is not the case, she is always left emotionally scarred.
Claire Newton is a counselling psychologist from Glenwood. She says psychologists classify rape as trauma, and that trauma, in psychological terms, has a very specific definition. This is as follows: Trauma is a shocking, unexpected experience, far above the scale of normal human experiences. It comprises a threat to the life or body of a person, or even the perception of a life-threatening situation which is staring someone else in the face.
“Such an incident would traumatise most people, but each person reacts differently,” says Claire.
She also said that what, for some people, would look like an insignificant incident, would be traumatic for someone else. The critical factor is how the person reacts emotionally and cognitively. To be classified as traumatic, the experience must be characterised by feelings of extreme fear and horror.
Under this definition, a man who has witnessed the rape of his partner, also experiences trauma.
Other examples include natural or man-made disasters, violence, explosions, a shooting, car accidents and hijackings, explains Claire.
“After a traumatic incident, most people experience strong, and even frightening, feelings. This is a natural reaction to a horrific, abnormal occurrence. These feelings normally occur shortly after the incident concerned. The victim or her partner may think that they are handling things well, but they can later be suddenly overcome by an intense (although sometimes subtle) physical or emotional reaction. The trigger can be something which has absolutely nothing to do with the trauma.”
Practical advice for the partner
Kathleen gives the following advice for the partner of a rape victim: Whether you were there when it happened, and whether it happened at home or elsewhere, there are a few practical things to be taken into account, which your partner, in her traumatised state, may not think of. It is nevertheless important that she be supported and allowed to make her own decisions, and not those that you think must be made.
- Ensure that you get to a safe place as soon as possible
- Tell the first person you see, and that you feel you can trust, what happened. Such person can support your story in court if necessary.
- No matter how much she wants to, it is important that she doesn’t wash herself, or throw her clothes away, as there may be evidence which can be used later in court against the rapist.
- Even if you and/or your partner were under the influence of alcohol when the rape happened, it must still be reported. It is not illegal to be under the influence of alcohol, but rape is. It can strengthen her case in court because she wasn’t able, in her condition, to give consent.
- Go immediately to a doctor, hospital or community health centre if your partner was hurt.
- Go to the police station closest to where the rape took place as she should report it immediately. The sooner she does this, the better the chances are to obtain evidence and to track down the rapist. Get the name and number of the police officer assigned to the case, as well as the case number.
- A doctor will go over every part of her body to obtain evidence. It is part of the investigation which has to be done.
- Make very sure that your partner receives the following treatment, even if she doesn’t report the case:
- The morning-after pill (within 72 hours) to prevent possible pregnancy.
- An HIV test, as well as anti-retroviral medication, which must be taken every day for 28 days to prevent infection by the virus.
- Antibiotics, to prevent possible infection from other sexually-transmitted diseases.
Advice for supporters
Kathleen makes it clear that anyone trying to help a rape victim needs as much support as the woman herself.
The partner (or anyone else) wanting to stand by the woman, is often desperate to do something concrete to ease the pain. The danger is that the partner may be so desperate to make the situation better, that the victim starts hiding, or glossing over, her feelings, in consideration of her partner, warns Kathleen.
The partner may feel that it is so important for the woman to go for counselling that he almost forces her to go. This, says Kathleen, must be avoided at all costs.
“With rape, all the power is taken out of her hands and she may see the forced counselling as another form of disempowerment. This may even lead to secondary trauma. It will only work when the woman wants to go for counselling.”
The partner must therefore be as prepared as possible, so that he knows what to expect, and how to deal with it.
Kathleen gives the following tips for a partner/supporter:
- Let her talk as much as she wants to, and really listen.
- Don’t judge her – it will violate her trust in you.
- Let her make her own decisions – it will make her feel that she has regained control of her life.
- Although it is difficult to let someone recover at their own pace, it is very important.
- Don’t hide your own feelings. You are only human, and your partner shouldn’t have to guess how you are feeling, and how you are coping.
- Look after yourself, and get help too – it takes a lot to support a rape victim.
The Partner’s Emotions
Dr John Demartini is considered an expert on human behaviour and self-empowerment, and is also an author.
He says that depending on who the rapist is, the stability of the relationship between the partner and victim, and the history of sexual activity between them, the partner’s reaction can vary from extreme support to total withdrawal.
Beverley Milun, a motivational speaker and author, agrees with Dr John. “Her partner will most likely feel that he couldn’t protect her, and may become over-protective to compensate for this. He may also struggle to handle the new energy in their relationship.”
Claire says that the man’s emotions depend on many variables, but that they generally experience a lot of feeling of guilt (because they couldn’t prevent it). “Men are raised to protect women, and because he couldn’t do this, feelings of guilt, self-blame and helplessness are common,” she says.
The man’s reaction is usually extreme rage. He is very aggressive, wants revenge, and speaks of what he will do to the guy if he “gets his hands on him.”
Claire explains that it’s very important that the man works through these feelings of aggression away from the woman. “She has gone through enough violence at the hands of a man, and doesn’t need her own husband/partner to be aggressive around her.”
He can also feel helpless because he doesn’t know what to do. Most men want to “fix” things, and because he can’t do this, and make it “go away”, he feels powerless. He doesn’t understand that his wife or partner just wants him to listen and have empathy.
Beverley says that the best advice for the relationship is to talk, and to talk some more. Discuss it in the finest detail so that it feels as if you are distanced from it. This must take place without fear or any judgement.
The partner can be unsure of how to approach her, and may be scared to touch her. The victim may need the man to wait until she is ready to be close to him again. “Be gentle with each other and yourself,” she advises.
Dr John says a crisis like this can bring a couple closer together, and improve communication, but it can also have the opposite effect.
“It depends on the emotional maturity and the depth of the relationship. Couples can survive such a crisis if the victim’s partner doesn’t allow his emotions to interfere with the victim’s processing of the trauma.
Dr John recommends large doses of “listening” and “embracing.” “Reassure her that she is worth loving.”
Beverley says if the couple uses the opportunity to grow, the chances of recovery for both of them are much better. “Even if the relationship changes, the right supportive trauma counselling can improve the inherent self-worth of the victim. The relationship, as a result, will strengthen.
Kathleen says, in her experience, most couples come out of this experience on top if they both go for counselling. If it is handled correctly, the relationship will survive, and even flourish.
For more information contact:
- Kathleen Dey, from Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, at the Heideveld office (021 633 9229 – Afrikaans) or the Observatory office (021 447 9762 – English)
- Claire Newton at 082 491 1136 or 031 261 7466 or www.clairenewton.co.za