[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.]

 

BUILD A ‘SECURE ATTACHMENT’

You are the most important person in your partner’s life. Don’t cop-out and take second place to her therapist or her friends (if she’s lucky enough to have any) or anyone else. Take your place as the central person in her life, and do everything you can to let her experience you as a secure, safe base. It’s really not helpful to make her feel insecure with you; be with her whenever she needs you to be with her. It’s easy to underestimate just how powerful and just how reassuring your being with can be, but it’s the basis of ‘secure attachment’. It can be helpful to let her know – maybe by texts, maybe by phone calls throughout the day or whatever works for you – that you are there for her. Be present, both physically and emotionally – put the lights on, but make sure that someone’s at home as well! This might mean communicating more than you’re used to, more than you want to, but in the long-term the stability and safety that it will bring will be well worth it. This is the environment she needs in which to heal.

GIVE YOUR PARTNER AUTONOMY

Her abusers didn’t give her choices and free-will, and this is a big deal which can make a huge difference both to her and to your relationship if you can work with it. Instead of in any way manipulating or coercing her, show her you respect her as an adult with a right to exercise her free will. Giving her real, meaningful choices and then respecting them may cause you to realise how much you don’t actually do this. It’s a killer for any relationship, but for someone who has been abused, the need to be given space and the right to choose is even more important. Bullying her is obviously a big no-no but so is doing everything for her and treating her as if she is helpless, or a child, or ‘sick’. You’ve got to find a balance, and you’ve got to be flexible to move with this fine line as she recovers and heals.

SEX – WORK AT IT

For a few folk, sex is fine, but for the majority of abuse survivors, it’s complex and difficult and fraught. It’s easy to despair and give up on it forever, but there is hope! If you work at it, there is hope. Perpetrators of abuse didn’t invent sex and they don’t own the monopoly on it. What they did was ABUSE, not a loving and consensual sexual relationship. It’s important that both of you are able to make that distinction. Lovemaking can be contaminated by the abuse because there are so many triggers and crossovers, but it is different. Part of making things work is about figuring out what those triggers are, and learning together how to manage those triggers, how to allow your partner a sense of control and the ability to build things up very slowly, at her pace. But you have to talk about it if you want it to work – I don’t believe that it will magically get better if you just try to mind-read one other. Slower is quicker because the more she can trust you to be patient and kind and loving and not to insist on your own way, the more she will feel safe and the more chance you will have of developing a mutually fulfilling sex life. It takes time, but don’t plump for either end of the spectrum – either no sex ever again, or everything you want right here and right now. It takes the hard work of communicating and trusting, but you have the opportunity to build for her a new paradigm that counters what she experienced in the abuse – that sex is good, and loving, and safe, and enjoyable.

DON’T GET STUCK ON DETAIL

All memory is fallible, and it might not have been the bald guy with the green shirt that actually did that particular thing she thinks he maybe did in that particular location. Getting the detail wrong doesn’t mean to say it didn’t happen at all. This isn’t a court case, it’s someone’s life – their history, their trauma, their sense of who they are. If all you can say is “Something really bad happened to you lots of times” then that’s better than throwing the whole thing out because she can’t remember whether it was a Wednesday or a Thursday. She needs you to be a witness with her of her experience, holding and empathising and helping her to heal. The last thing she needs is for you to be a barrister looking for the loopholes in her account.

LOVE HER AS SHE IS, HOWEVER SHE IS

We might not mean to, but it’s easy to communicate “I’ll love you when you’re better … I’ll love you when you’re integrated.” How about loving her as she is right now? Even in all her messed-up, dissociated, trauma-splurging bad times? Don’t confuse trauma symptoms for character or the essence of who your partner is: many times her behaviours will be responses to the people who did bad stuff to her. She’s not intrinsically ‘mad’ and she certainly isn’t ‘bad’. She probably needs you to see through the surface stuff, to believe in her, to stand by her, to love her unconditionally. That’s the kind of love she needs so that she can grow and heal. Think about it: how would you want to be treated if it had happened to you?

FIGURE OUT THE PRACTICAL STUFF TOGETHER

It’s enough to be coping with trauma, let alone coping with small children or the housework or a job. You both will probably have to accept that she’s not superwoman, however much you both want her to be. I believe that the more space she has to WORK on therapy (and it is hard work), the better things will be sooner. So try and work things out to help her practically. Some days, when you’re working through trauma, just getting up and getting dressed is a big achievement. Chances are, she won’t need you to make her feel bad that the washing-up hasn’t been done – she’ll feel guilty about that it is, so try to be positive and affirming, not negative and critical.

BE PATIENT

Some things just can’t be rushed. You might want things to get better sooner – that’s understandable, and normal – but there are laws of nature that we’re just not powerful enough to change. A broken leg takes a certain amount of time to heal whether we like it or not. The only thing we can do is to get a plaster cast fitted and rest it so that the healing doesn’t take longer than it has to. You’re both going to have to accept that healing takes as long as healing takes. After all, the abuse probably went on for years, and the likelihood is that the whole of her childhood was screwed up in some way, so it’s unreasonable to expect that she’ll recover from it in a few months. Be realistic about this and plan ahead for the future in this regard – set aside the next few years, if necessary, for her to heal. Don’t be pessimistic and believe that it has to take decades, but understand that you are a major factor in how long it will take. The sooner you get alongside her, fully supportive and understanding, the quicker she’s going to heal. And that’s bound to be good news for you too, isn’t it?

DON’T THINK THAT HEALING TAKES PLACE JUST IN THE THERAPY SESSION

My wife estimates that she does 90% of her ‘healing work’ outside of therapy. There are a lot of hours in the week, and therapy takes up just a very few of those. It’s what she does the rest of the time that seems to make more of a difference: therapy is just the pit-stop while she’s driving around the track. I’ve found that it helps to give her space before her session, and for me to be available in case she wants to ‘dump’ when she comes back. I’ve found that my partner needs time to think, to feel, to read, to journal, to process. It’s not as obviously productive as doing the ironing or a day at work, but I know it’s essential. For a long time, therapy was a full-time occupation even though the sessions only took up four hours a week. If you can help your partner to think things through between therapy sessions, it will often multiply the effectiveness of those sessions. This isn’t about you taking the place of her therapist, but being another support alongside.

ACCEPT THAT AS THERAPY PROGRESSES, YOUR RELATIONSHIP MAY CHANGE

Maybe your partner used to let people walk all over her – a common attribute of abuse survivors. But as therapy progresses, she is beginning to realise that she has the right to say no, and she doesn’t have to be a doormat. This is just one area of potential significant change, but it’s a big one, because you might find – somewhat uncomfortably – that your partner is not so amenable to your unreasonable habits as she used to be! Or on the flip side, you may find that she becomes more accepting of you, and less controlling, less obsessive or compulsive, for example. Notice these things for what they are – progress – and don’t get all defensive about it. Expect to change too. If necessary, or if possible, get therapy yourself too. Your relationship will not stay the same, so make sure you’re not the one who is getting in the way of it getting better.

ACCEPT YOUR POWERLESSNESS

There will be many situations over the course of recovery that render you completely powerless: when your partner makes a suicide attempt, or breaks down completely, or resists therapy. It’s very easy and very natural to react to this with frustration or anger. The problem is that your anger or frustration may only make things worse. If you can, it helps to try and see that most situations will work themselves through, and that if you can be patient and not react, things will improve. If feeling powerless brings up strong emotions in you of inadequacy and insecurity, try and do something about that yourself rather than dumping it back on your partner and making her make you feel better.

BE STRAIGHT

Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Trust will be hard for her; you have to say what you mean and mean what you say. You have to find a way of communicating that is open and honest, that can be trusted and relied upon. Don’t say you’ll be home at 6 if you’re not going to be home until 6.10 pm. Those ten minutes might not seem much to you, but for her they could mean betrayal or destabilising panic, thinking you’re dead. That may not seem rational to you, but you’re you and your partner thinks and feels in a way unique to her and consistent with her previous life experiences. So don’t try to impose your rationality and worldview on her. Learn to be completely honest in everything you say, so that she can learn to take you at your word. Trust is crucial.

GET YOUR FACE TO SAY WHAT YOUR HEAD IS THINKING

Reading other people’s moods and feelings accurately can be really hard for a survivor, so don’t assume that just because you know what you’re feeling or thinking that it’s obvious to your partner! If you feel happy, try and get your face to show it. You’ll be amazed at the number of people who forget to smile when they’re happy or pleased! How is a hypervigilant abuse survivor supposed to interpret a frown or a blank stare? Much misattunement and miscommunication can be overcome through actually remembering to … just … communicate! Silence, or worse still ‘the silent treatment’, may be one of the biggest triggers for your partner, so try and let her know what you’re thinking and feeling – good or bad.

DO NICE THINGS TOGETHER

It’s easy for your life to get sucked into a despairing cycle of dealing with the aftermath of abuse, of suicidal struggle and dissociative confusion. You’ve got to keep doing nice things together even when things are tough! You’ve got to give her hope, something to look forward to, a reprieve from the awfulness. And you’ve got to build together a ‘life worth living’. If it’s all just toil and trouble the whole time, she will forget that the purpose of trudging through this yuk is so that she (and you) can eventually live life to the full. You’ve got to have some signposts, or down-payments, of that along the way, and not wait for everything to be ok before you have some good stuff. Work out with her what a ‘life worth living’ looks like in practice, and do everything you can to bring that into being with and for her – now.

DEAL WITH CONFLICT WITH EACH OTHER IN A WAY THAT YOU CAN BOTH COPE WITH

Don’t just ‘put up’ with everything because she’s fragile. Being DID or an abuse survivor doesn’t give your partner the right to be unloving and obnoxious, and you don’t have to tolerate bad behaviour. But deal with things in a way and at a time that you can both cope with, a way that is focused on working through the issue rather than just ranting or ‘getting even’ or winning your point. She needs to hear how her behaviour is negatively impacting upon you if it is, because inappropriate behaviour is not going to help her develop relationships with other people either. You need to develop a relationship that is mutually respectful and loving and where conflicts can be voiced and resolved, not one where you are treading on eggshells and avoiding issues that are damaging you both. And it takes two … are you willing to be challenged on some of your bad behaviours as well? Avoidance and lack of intimacy and shutting down emotionally – and let’s not even go there with selfishness and fits of rage and laziness! – these things might not seem like ‘bad behaviour’ to you, but how does it impact on your partner and her recovery?

BE COMMITTED

She has to have the security to know that you’re going to stick with her. If she thinks that you’ll bail out if the going gets too tough, she won’t be able to risk facing the really difficult stuff. That is then a vicious cycle because it will prolong her recovery … making it harder for you to stick with her … meaning that her lack of security will mean she can’t face the difficult stuff … meaning that it will prolong her recovery … Commitment that you communicate and reaffirm regularly can make all the difference.

(c) PODS 2010