I’ve recently had a couple of articles sent to me about how to help a survivor if you are in a close relationship.
The articles, written by clinicians, were clear, thoughtful and with a good understanding of the dynamics faced by those in close relationships with survivors. They offered sound advice if the supporter was in a good place to give support.
But what if the supporter isn’t in that place? What if the supporter–usually the partner-is exhausted and worn down? What if the survivor, unable to access trauma-informed care has had no improvement in symptoms for years resulting in constant family crisis? What if the partner has symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and is hanging on by a thread?
What if the advice how to help a survivor is not helpful?
It’s often years before an adult survivor receives a diagnosis (often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but not limited to it) that opens a door to correct, trauma-informed treatment (if available). Years of adulthood have passed with the survivor potentially having had one or more partner relationships. There may be children involved. Past trauma takes its toll on everyone.
Even when appropriate trauma-informed therapy begins, recovery is arduous. Therapy is not just about facing memories. It is about undoing the damage of the trauma, which involves changes to the brain and nervous system. It is like rehab for a serious physical injury.
Meanwhile, the partner and the family feel the turmoil too. Sometimes things get worse before they get better. With resources already low, it becomes increasingly challenging for partners to remain optimistic.
And there can be financial pressure. Often and understandably, the survivor may not be able to work during this time. The partner takes on the financial burden too.
During these times, partners don’t need advice on how to help a survivor.
Partners need to know how to help and care for themselves.
As I have stumbled along this journey as a partner to a survivor, I am convinced that in order for partner and family relationships to survive one person’s childhood trauma, greater partner and family support must be offered. It’s done with those diagnosed with cancer and Alzheimer’s. It’s done with other mental health conditions. Why not complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
It’s not just me. I have had many interactions with partners who are so exhausted and worn down that they don’t know if they or the relationship will survive. It is ongoing.
Given the exhaustion, isn’t there another way?
Some suggestions to consider:
1. Greater recognition by clinicians and organizations who help survivors of the toll on families.
Chapter 7, Treatment of Complex Trauma: A Sequenced, Relationship-Based Approach by Christine A. Courtois and Julian Ford provides an excellent overview of the needs of partners and survivors.
2. Sensitivity to the needs of the family when offering advice.
It may be the time for ‘how-to-help,’ but it may not.
3. Resources beyond education.
As someone who educates about trauma, I understand the high value of information. However, it is important that education is coupled with practical resources.
4. Trauma-informed support groups for partners and potentially for adult children of survivors.
In addition to education, there needs to be a focus on support, encouragement, and empowerment for partners and families.
5. Conversations with partners about their needs.
If you are supporting the partner in a relationship, please listen.
I also provide individual support sessions for partners.
6. Resource lists.
Provision of lists of existing support groups, therapists, coaches, mental health professionals who work with partners, websites for partners and families and more.
7. Education for clinicians about the impact of complex trauma on families.
If you are a clinician, please advocate for this within the therapeutic system.
How to Help Survivors, Partners, and Families
Survivors, partners, and families need help. Everyone is impacted by the survivor’s trauma and everyone deserves support. It is my hope that this list will begin an important and necessary conversation about how to do this.