My friend Steve introduced me to the term, Secondary Survivor. Those two words say it well for those of us who have significant people in our lives.
We’re survivors, and the people who truly love us have also endured. I used to refer to them as the “other victims” of abuse. While that’s true, survivor is a stronger, more positive term. All too often, however, we’re so caught up in our own turmoil we fail to realize that they also hurt—not in the same way, but the pain isn’t less real.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for secondary survivors to understand is that the effects of abuse are long lasting. Our perpetrators were probably individuals we trusted and believed they loved us.
We were young when they betrayed us. And because those once-trusted people victimized us, many of us find it difficult to believe we’re worth being loved or that anyone could truly care for us. We question others’ motives or lash out at them when they deserve to be embraced.
It’s sad, but the secondary survivors have the demanding role of proving to us that they love us. Too often it appears as if healing must flow in one direction—our loved ones reach out to us, and in some marvelous way, they heal the anguish and the torture of our past.
Their responsibility isn’t to heal us. They can’t remove our agony or rub out our pasts. They can encourage and support us as we struggle through our own issues. They love us and are aware of our past and that makes them the other survivors of abuse.
What is our responsibility to them? Their anguish is often as perplexing as ours, especially when they can’t understand our attitude or behavior. As we become of aware of what they suffer, it also acts as another level of healing for ourselves.
Here’s a lesson I’ve learned: I tried to appreciate the secondary survivor (my wife) for sticking with me, and I slowly learned to accept her love as genuine. She doesn’t need to prove her commitment to me; I need to show my love for her.
Cecil Murphey has written two books on sexual abuse. The first was When a Man You Love Was Abused and his new book is Not Quite Healed. He is the author or co-author of 130 books including 90 Minutes in Heaven, which was on the New York Times’ best-seller list for five years.