[Throughout this article, I have referred to partners using the feminine pronoun ‘she’, but this is merely for simplicity of style and because it comes most naturally for me with having a female partner. Please bear with me if your partner is male, and be assured that I do not want in any way to suggest that men cannot or do not have DID.]

As partners, we can be the single most important factor in a survivor’s recovery – for good or for ill. Of course good, effective, expert therapy is essential to help our partners work through the trauma and resolve the dissociative splits.  But I firmly believe that I have been able to help my wife face what otherwise would have been un-faceable. I have been actively involved in the process, not a passive, disengaged bystander, and this has cemented my belief in my power to help rather than hinder. A therapist is ‘just’ a therapist – hugely important and influential, but a temporary help. I am here for life, and that is both a powerful position to be in, a scary position to be in (especially when things aren’t going well), and a massive privilege. I believe that if we abdicate our place as the central person in our partner’s life, and allow a therapist or a friend or anyone else to take that place, we are not providing the stability and the security that is so essential for change and for healing. And we will miss out too!

Here are some of the principles or lessons that I have learned along the way:

LOVE YOUR PARTNER!

That sounds obvious, but perhaps it is not. When something dramatic happens, like a breakdown or the manifestation of DID, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that it’s all about DID – that it’s all about the symptoms, as if there is a whole new category of living and that you have to act in a completely different way than you would do with a ‘normal’ partner. DID and the effects of trauma and sexual abuse can mean that you have to do things to more of an extreme – to be extra-patient, to be extra-reliable, to be extra-empathic – but it’s still the same paradigm. You don’t need different skills as much as you need to do everything you would do in a normal functional relationship, only to an enhanced degree. There are some things that you need to do differently, but the basis for it is a respect for your partner that she is a unique, precious, lovely human being and that you have chosen to love her. You can’t wriggle out of this by dismissing her as being ‘mad’ or ‘traumatised’ so therefore not worthy of being loved. Yes, she is probably going to need more love than the average person, but then the chances are that she will end up being more loving than the average person too. That’s certainly been my experience.

UNDERSTAND DID

DID is not a ‘mental illness’, something that has gone wrong in her brain – it’s an adaptation to overwhelming trauma, a survival mechanism without which your partner would possibly be dead. Learn to respect it as a wonderful gift rather than as some kind of ‘madness’. Don’t be ashamed of it, and don’t be ashamed of your partner for being dissociative. What she’s going through now – the flashbacks, the panic, the triggers, the switching – is actually part ofhealing. It’s the mind’s way of readjusting to a new reality, a life where she isn’t going to be abused any more. So all the signs that she has gone ‘mad’ are in fact signs that she’s at last, at least in a small way, safe enough to begin to deal with stuff. If you understand dissociation and DID, you will find it much easier to cope and to see things in a positive light.

BE FLEXIBLE

It’s not ‘normal’ at first to relate to your partner as if she is at times a terrified 5-year-old child. But shouting at her to ‘stop it’ or ‘pull herself together’ will only make things worse. Believe me – I know! All of the ‘parts’, the ‘alter personalities’ are all part of your partner. So if you’ve chosen to love and to know your partner, it would be a good idea to choose to love and know her parts too! If you feel silly doing this at first, think how silly she feels! And you have to persuade your brain that it is a positive – here is more of my partner than I previously knew! She’s letting you right into the depths of her personality, who she really is, and that’s an awesome privilege. You can get to know all of her – the person that she is whether you like it or not, deny it or not. If it’s a teenage part, relate to her as if she’s a teenager. If it’s a child part, relate to her as you would a child. How would you want someone to treat you if you had DID? Would you want to be ignored, made to feel that you’re not real or don’t exist, made to feel that you’re just ‘mad’? This child, teenager, adult – they are allyour partner, so love and accept them all.

STAY CALM

If your partner is hysterical or hyper-emotional or suicidal or panicked – whatever she’s feeling – then don’t react to it by becoming the same yourself. You have to learn to ‘contain’ her feelings, and not reflect them back to her, which will only have the effect of making her worse! You may need to learn how to do this, and you may need help in order to be able to do it consistently, but it’s hugely important. Being a safe, soothing presence when she’s upset is one of the single most helpful things you can learn to do. It will enable her to calm down much in the same way as a mother calms a baby. Getting angry with her and shouting at her, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work too well! – except to make her think that you can’t cope and that she can’t come to you when she’s in crisis. That will be a breach in your attachment. She’ll have to go somewhere else (and no-one else is as important to her as you are), or she’ll have to calm herself – often using negative means, such as self-harm or by shutting down. It’s not good in the short-term and it certainly doesn’t help in the long-term. You have to learn to stay calm, and you can start to do so by believing that it works – that by being strong and capable and soothing yourself, her ‘panic’ or whatever will eventually blow itself out. Feelings are temporary. They are signals, and in the case of a traumatic history, they are not always accurate signals. Learn to sit with them, notice them, respect them – but don’t always act on them.

RECOGNISE SECONDARY TRAUMATIC STRESS IN YOURSELF

You may have to think of trauma symptoms as if they are contagious like bacteria to understand the concept of ‘vicarious traumatisation’. At first it seems bizarre, but it’s real: you can be infected just by being around it. Trauma can affect you overtly or covertly. The overt symptoms may be anxiety, insomnia, even paranoia. Covertly, you may have an unconscious ‘defensive response’ of avoidance or denial. This could lead to you unknowingly backing off from your partner, finding that you’re staying late at work or hiding away in other activities. And it’s not because you mean to; it’s because your head is basically struggling with the symptoms of trauma yourself. It’s really important to spot that this is what is going on – either the overt or the covert form of it – because it can lead to real problems in your relationship if you don’t. Don’t take it as failure – that you’re ‘weak’ or there’s something intrinsically wrong with you – but do get help and if necessary treatment for it. You can’t be around trauma without being affected by it, so be real about that. Therapists have supervision for it, but what do partners have?

TRY TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THERAPY IS ABOUT

Your partner is probably going to feel pretty daft doing some of the stuff that goes on in DID-relevant therapy, and will need help to accept that it’s legitimate. This may include the use of soft toys, talking to an empty chair, writing with the ‘wrong’ hand, drawing pictures, imagining she’s a snowflake, waving her arms around, bashing plasticine models with a rolling pin … It won’t help if you pour scorn on what she’s doing when she comes home. If you’re a logical, analytical type and you need to understand it to accept it, then work at understanding it! If not, then just trust it – and let her know that you trust it, and that you’re not quietly mocking her behind her back. There was nothing quite like me having to talk to an empty chair myself in therapy to help me appreciate how stupid she feels at the stuff she does!

TAKE HER FEELINGS SERIOUSLY AND DON’T TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY

By this I mean that what she is feeling is important, and valid, and a true reflection of processes that are going on in her right now. You should never tell her that that’s ‘stupid’ or ‘ridiculous’ or ‘mad’ for her to be feeling what she is feeling. They are her feelings, and if you’d had her experiences, you’d probably feel like that too. But don’t be fooled by them into believing that they represent the truth. If she says she feels dirty, accept that that is a very real phenomenon for her – but don’t for one minute think that she actually is dirty! There’s a difference between feelings and truth, and you have to learn to validate the feelings whilst holding the ground of truth. Don’t bash her with ‘truth’ – “Don’t be so ridiculous, of course you’re not bad or dirty” – but do everything you can to understand the feeling, to enter into it too (empathy) and ‘hold’ it for her. Then gently reassure – “I know you feel that you’re bad; and I can understand why you do; but I don’t think you’re bad at all.”

DON’T PUSH IT ON THE DENIAL THING

Denial is a defence against overwhelming feelings and overwhelming reality. Reality is good, and it’s the only way forwards, but we can only cope with a little at a time. Don’t be fooled by her denial (“I’ve made it all up”) into thinking that she really has made it all up; understand the denial as hiding terrified feelings that it’s all really true, and understand that right now she probably can’t cope with accepting that. So don’t go shouting at her, “Of course it happened!” because she will then feel ashamed of her denial, just to add to her problems! Empathise with the denial and gently point out that you realise that it’s hard for her to admit to what happened because it’s so awful, but that you believe that something bad probably did happen. Be gentle with truth, and be gentle with denial.

DON’T LOSE HOPE

She may lose hope frequently. One of the most supportive things you can do is to keep hoping when she can’t. This ‘hope’ isn’t just some airy-fairy pie-in-the-sky hope that goes against reason. This hope is based on the reality that DID has a very positive prognosis, that if certain principles are followed, healing will take place. The human mind is designed to heal – it’s only a case of finding out how, and co-operating with it. If things seem to have got stuck for a long time, it might just need a fresh pair of eyes to look at what’s causing the stuckness – it’s doesn’t mean that hope is lost. The fact that she is still alive after all she has gone through is the greatest sign of hope. Things will get better.

BE REAL

The whole thing about dissociation and DID is that it’s a ruse: it’s a trick of the mind to pretend that bad stuff isn’t happening. This is really clever as it’s the only way at the time that a child can cope. But there is a cost to this ‘unreality’, because ‘truth will out’. If it doesn’t come out in the way it is meant to, it will come out through the body, making her sick, or it will come out in a hundred different ways emotionally – bizarre-looking behaviours and emotional hypersensitivities that just aren’t good to be around. But it’s the truth that sets you free, so it’s a gentle, steady uncovering of truth that will bring healing and recovery. You can’t do truth all in one go – the shock will kill her – but if you remember that that is where you are headed, it will help keep you pointing in the right direction. That’s why I believe that therapies that don’t tackle the underlying issues of what happened have only limited benefits. She has got to tell her story, and she’s got to figure out all the thousands of lies – the distortions of reality – that she believed because of what happened: “it was my fault”, “I deserved it”, “I’m bad”, “nobody is safe”, “I’m just an object”, “I don’t deserve good things”. There’s what happened – the trauma that the body stores up until it can ‘shake it out’ – and then there’s the effect on the victim’s belief system, and it takes a long time to work through both. But facing reality – reality as it really is – is the key to recovery. It won’t help if you won’t face reality, if you push it all away and don’t think about it, and pretend it didn’t happen and pretend that everything will be fine in a few days’ time. Accept that you’re just as prone to denial as she is! And work on facing reality yourself too. The lie is that if you face reality, you won’t be able to cope. The truth is that it’s by avoiding reality that you don’t cope, that things go wrong – sooner or later.

PROTECT HER

You may have to protect her from herself – by keeping a close eye on medication, or sharp objects, for example – and you may have to protect her from other people. Boundary issues are a complex minefield for a DID survivor because in her childhood the boundaries that should have been there in her closest relationships were invaded and disregarded. That has a profound effect, and is a large part of the reason that someone who has an abuse history often goes on to suffer repeated victimisation. The fences were never erected in the first place, or were torn down, so as an adult she can often find it difficult to keep people from trespassing into her back garden. She needs your help with this. First of all, you need to respect her boundaries, her choices, her wishes, her feelings. And you need to protect her from the obvious people who will not respect them, like perpetrators. Be strong but don’t be domineering, because the latter may terrorise her further. Explain to her what you want to do, why it’s of benefit to her, and try to bring her on board to agree to it, or negotiate with it, rather than imposing your will. Help her to see your protection in a positive light rather than a restriction of her freedom, which will panic her. Try and understand how she sees your actions through her eyes, from her experience of life, rather than just your own.

FIGHT THE DRAGON TOGETHER – DON’T FIGHT EACH OTHER

You have to understand who the enemy is. It’s very easy to blame her for being irrational, or hyper-emotional, or ‘mad’, or anything. But ultimately it’s not her fault. Recognise who the real perpetrators are, and point your anger towards them, not your partner. You can expend and waste a lot of emotion – and cause huge damage to your relationship – by taking things out on each other. Don’t. You need to face the dragon together, not make your partner feel like she’s fighting the dragon on her own and she’s having to fight you too. Put the blame where it really belongs – on the people who abused her – not on her. She really wasn’t to blame for what happened to her – that will be an ongoing message in therapy – so you really have to ally yourself with that message by not taking your frustrations out on her for the way in which the abuse has affected her now into adulthood.

DEAL WITH YOUR ANGER

It’s impossible not to have this stuff going on in your life, and to hear of abuses against your partner, without getting angry. Anger rightly expressed is good: it’s a “Stop!” sign to people who would do you wrong. Don’t try and stuff it down and pretend it’s not there. Acknowledge its presence, but make sure your partner realises that you’re not angry with her. Then figure out ways to discharge that anger positively – not negatively. You’re not going to be much use if you discharge your anger by assaulting someone and then you end up going to prison … So use your anger to help her. Maybe fight for her for proper treatment, or recognition within the NHS, or take up ‘the cause’ by getting involved in helping others or raising awareness publicly. But do something constructive and positive with your anger, and never ever take it out on her.

GET SUPPORT

This isn’t something that you can handle on your own. You can only successfully support your partner if you’ve got some support behind you. I have had the backing of some good friends as well as pastoral support from church. This isn’t easy – who can you trust to understand trauma and dissociation and who won’t then freak out at what you’re going through? This is what PODS (Partners of Dissociative Survivors) is for, but you also have to work out where you can get support from locally. For myself, a course of my own personal psychotherapy / counselling helped enormously and made me realise just what a pressure and a burden all of this stuff can be. I found that retaining my own personal boundaries – my needs for rest and time-out and friends and hobbies – was essential if I was going to be able to keep on supporting my partner long-term and not burn out. It’s tempting at the beginning of this process to think that everything will be ok in a week or two, or a month or two, but you really do have to think long-term and figure out how you can sustain yourself for a marathon, not a sprint.

GET USED TO A ‘NEW REALITY’

A bit like films such as The Matrix or The Truman Show, where for years the world is not as it seems, I had to come to terms with a new kind of reality. I had to come to terms with the reality of the extreme abuse of children, and an exceptionally evil world that I really hadn’t wanted to see. Having an attitude of, “I can’t believe that” simply doesn’t help, as it’s evading reality and is very undermining of your partner’s experience. She may struggle enormously at times with believing it herself, with what feels like a tenuous grip on reality, and not knowing whether black is black and white is white. But it’s a new reality for you too. Life is different, and life will never be the same again, and somehow we have to come to terms with that. And it’s okay to feel angry and sad that things have changed and that there are losses: it’s normal to feel like that. Acceptance takes time, and the grief can be profound for you too.

(c) PODS 2010