When sexual abuse occurs, family members may side with those who abuse instead of the survivor. There may be a reason for this.
Maybe you’ve waited a long time to open up to someone you feel close to. You prepare what you’re going to say, then the big day comes, and they don’t support you.
You may be shocked or feel disappointed.
Not only have you gone through a traumatic experience, but now you’re navigating another layer of trauma: When your loved ones side with the one who hurt you.
No one should have to go through this, but it happens far more often than many would believe. If this is the case in your family, here’s how to find the support you need.
Perhaps the most common reason boils down to this: People don’t want it to be true.
“We all may know someone who’s been sexually assaulted or abused, but very few of us will admit that we know a person who sexually abuses,” says Amber Robinson, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles.
“People who sexually abuse are not just shadowy figures in dark alleys,” she says. “They are hidden in our family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends. It’s unfathomable to many of us that our loved one could commit such an egregious act. However, many do.”
In fact, of all child sexual abuse cases, 34% are committed by family members.
Sometimes, the person who abuses may come across as a model citizen, successful executive, or doting parent, which adds to the confusion.
Other reasons for disbelief may include:
- the reputation of the family is at stake
- talking about abuse is considered taboo
- the person who hurt you is the head of the household
- the truth could threaten resources or finances
- fear of stirring the pot or breaking up the family unit
- other survivors in the family are not ready to speak up
- religious expectations around abstinence
Narcissism in a family system
If the sexual abuse was caused by someone with narcissistic traits or behaviors, the entire family could play a role:
- the person with narcissistic traits: needs the family’s validation
- the supporter: insists that you fill the person’s needs
- the defender: defends or allows the person’s behavior
- the golden child: can do no wrong in the family’s eyes
- the scapegoat: takes the blame for the entire family
If a survivor has the potential to disrupt the flow, the family may do whatever it takes to preserve the family dynamic, like dismissing your story or making you the “scapegoat.”
Your family members may not be able to give you the support you deserve. The family may:
- Deny the abuse happened. They may say that the abuse never happened or you’re remembering details incorrectly.
- Minimize the abuse. They may downplay the abuse as a mistake, drunken moment, or misunderstanding.
- Place the blame on you. They may say that you’re trying to get attention or lying. They may imply that you somehow consented or deserved what happened to you.
- Get defensive. They may get angry or threaten to ostracize you if you dare to tell anyone else.
What it can sound like
- Boys will be boys.
- It wasn’t that big of a deal.
- Don’t ever talk about this again.
- How dare you say that about them?
- Just forget about the past and move on.
- They probably didn’t realize what they were doing.
- That was a long time ago, I’m sure they’ve changed.
Toxic triangulation occurs when someone attempts to get other people to side with them instead of you.
It can feel as though you’re caught in a triangle (hence the term triangulation), where now there are two or more people ganging up on you instead of just one.
The person who hurt you may target your:
- family members
They may lie about you, discredit your story, or tarnish your name — aka a smear campaign. They may even say that you’re “crazy” or that you initiated the sexual abuse.
How to address it
“Get help from a professional and learn how to use direct, assertive communication,” says Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
“Preferably, therapy would include the person who abused, the survivor, and the family members who are in denial or minimizing the abuse,” she says.
You may find it helpful to use our search tools to find a therapist.
Sexual abuse can be devastating, and it can impact the mental health of the person who was abused.
Roughly 81% of women and 35% of men who experience sexual abuse have long-term mental health impacts, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition, when loved ones don’t validate your experience, it can lead to revictimization.
It’s not uncommon to feel:
“Denial of sexual abuse can wreak havoc on a survivor’s mental health,” Robinson says. “First, they endured such a traumatic experience, then work up the courage to talk about what happened and ask for help, then they’re not believed.
“It instills feelings of low self-worth and can often lead to continued feelings of inadequacy throughout life,” she adds.
The best gift a family member can provide is active listening with a nonjudgmental attitude, says Shagoon Maurya, a psychotherapist in Adelaide, Australia.
“They must believe the survivor and reassure them it’s not their fault,” she says. “Respect their narrative and let them share details in their own comfort and pace.”
Maurya says some other ways to be supportive include:
- learning about sexual abuse
- seeking permission for physical touch, like a hug
- encouraging them to stand up to the abuser
- supporting them in getting medical exams
- offering to help them find a therapist
No matter what, don’t give up on sharing your story. Even if you’re feeling hurt, confused, or angry about how your family treats you, know that you’re not alone.
Others share your story and experiences. You may find support outside of your family — in your inner circle of friends or through support groups.
These resources may also be helpful:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Dating Abuse Hotline
- Pathways to Safety International
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- Casa de Esperanza (Spanish-speaking hotline)
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
- National LGBTQ Task Force