Disclosure: Information for partners

When he told me, lots of things made sense. I now understand him better.

Provided below is an outline of some feelings, thoughts and questions that partners and close family members can confront when a loved one discloses an experience of childhood sexual abuse, along with a discussion of helpful initial responses.  

The information on this page is designed to be read in partnership with our companion pages Men’s Disclosure: Deciding to tell, written specifically to support male survivors and Disclosure: How you can help which identifies barriers and events that can encourage men’s disclosure and outlines ways of responding.   

Initial responses 

Hearing that someone close to you has been sexually abused is never easy. It can come as quite a shock.  It can produce a rush of strong and conflicting feelings and thoughts.  Listed below, in no particular order, are some common feelings, thoughts and questions that loved ones can experience upon hearing that a man has been sexually abused as a child.   

In reading through the list and possible ways of responding, do keep in mind that everyone’s experiences and circumstances are different and that often it can take some time to wrap your head around what you are hearing.  Do take care not to compare, judge or punish yourself for an initial reaction, feeling or thought or upon receiving information not available to earlier.  In working out where to from here, do prioritise kindness and compassion for yourself and for those close to you.  

Some possible reactions 

It can be helpful to recognise and accept that, upon hearing a disclosure of child sexual abuse, you are likely to experience a variety of reactions.  Partners and close family members report experiencing: 


News that a partner or loved one has been sexually abused can shock us, sometimes to our core.  Especially if this was not something that was even on our radar as a possibility.   It can feel like our world is being turned upside down, where what we know or what we thought we knew has suddenly been snatched away from us.  It is useful, to take a moment to acknowledge that this news can be a significant shock to us and to recognise that we may need some time to process what we are hearing and formulate our response.  


This news can leave us confused, experiencing conflicting emotions and thoughts. We may have many questions pop into our head.  While these questions may be about us seeking more information to try and make sense of what we have heard and work out what it means, it can be useful to pause and just hold off on asking questions at present (Below are some common questions and thought experienced by Partners and Family members).  In the present, focus on checking in with him and taking a moment to breathe yourself.  After hearing a disclosure, some people find it useful to write down their initial feelings, thoughts and questions, to get them out of their head and come back to and consider at a later time. 


This disbelief is different from not believing someone, it is about our brains being shocked, confused and overwhelmed and initially not being able to make sense of what we are hearing. Hearing that someone close to you was sexually abused can be too much for us, we don’t want to believe that this has happened to our partners, children, family, friends loved ones – and it shouldn’t.  Again, do allow yourself a little time to take in what has been said.  


Following on from the above, we can become struck numb.  We can’t feel and don’t know what to feel or think.  We can’t comprehend what is being said, it is too much for us and we just freeze.  This is an example of freeze, of the fight, flight, freeze response to trauma.  In this moment we can literally be ‘struck dumb’, just not knowing what to say.   It can be useful to acknowledge this experience and those above as forms of trauma responses and to physically ground ourselves (see our Grounding Exercises page).  

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or do. The whole thing was so foreign to me and all I could think of was that I didn’t sign up for this stuff when I married him, how dare he bring this into our lives. I felt angry and guilty all at the same time.” 


Anger is a common response to disclosure of abuse.  We might be able to clearly pinpoint what or whom we are angry with or we might experience unfocussed generalised anger.  The closer our relationship and more we care about the person who has been harmed, the more intense the feeling of anger is likely to be.  Sometimes, these feelings can be difficult to contain and manage.  Do not let feelings of anger sweep your or your loved one away. 

It can be helpful to acknowledge these feelings and to identify, if you can, what the anger is about.  It might be anger at the someone, hurt, harm, injustice, secrecy, betrayal, individual and system failure, or all of these things.  Recognise that anger is different from aggression (which can scare us and hurt those around us).  Anger can spur us to action to ensure people are safe, protected and have access to services.  While acknowledging anger might energise us to address an injustice, the reality is that carrying around intense anger can exhaust us and be detrimental to our health/relationships in the long term.  If you can, do take time to breathe through anger and maintain a focus on supporting your wellbeing and that of the man who has been harmed.   

Sadness, grief, and loss 

Hearing that someone you care about has experienced abuse can bring forth intense feelings of sadness and result in a sense of grief and loss. There is a sadness at the pain and harm caused to a child, a sadness that his childhood was stolen and a sadness at the impacts this has had on him and his life and maybe your relationship.    

While sadness and tears, might be an initial response, grief and loss can begin to take hold as we reflect on what this means. Both the man and you may experience grief and loss for a life and relationship that might have been.   

Talking about this with others can be difficult due to the understandable wish to keep this matter private.  A concept some people find useful in understanding a grief that is not publicly validated is the idea of a disenfranchised loss and grief.  A challenge is to find a way to personally acknowledge this sense of grief and loss, while also continuing to focus energy on building a positive life and relationship in the present.  

Loneliness and isolation 

Upon hearing that a man has been sexually abused, partners and loved ones can be struck by a sense of aloneness, loneliness or even isolation.   You may not know or have spoken with anyone whose partner or loved one has experienced abuse and feel pressure to deal with this alone.    

For many men, not telling anyone and isolating himself, was a way to protect and look after himself (because if no-one knew, then he didn’t have to worry about or consider what they thought of him).  Apprehension about what people might think of him if they knew, is one of the reasons why many men will ask or insist that partners and family members do not tell anyone else.  Unfortunately, this can quickly result people being cut off from their usual supportive relationships.  

SAMSN recognise that for the wellbeing of partners, family members, male survivors and their relationships, it is important to ensure loved ones are acknowledged and supported and to find ways to do this while respecting confidentiality and privacy.   

Hopelessness and helplessness  

Hearing that someone you care about was abused, can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless, not knowing what we can do or where to turn.  This is especially the case if you see the man struggling, yet feel he is shutting you out or shutting down.   

When a man is working on addressing the effects of sexual assault, he is often on a solo journey, even though he may appreciate your support and presence, he can remain distant.  At times like these, rather than sitting and waiting for an opportunity to assist, it can be helpful to become active.  You can do some research, collect information, identify useful resources, services and ways of responding.  By remaining engaged and becoming informed we can distance ourselves from feeling alone, helpless and hopeless.    

Frustration and resentment 

You might feel frustrated that he didn’t tell you earlier, and possibly resentful that he, you and your relationship have been impacted.  While it may not be his intention, he can appear to be pre-occupied with the events of the past and you can feel “locked out”.  Some partners and family members can find themselves frustrated that he is not “getting over it” or moving forward as quickly as they would like.  At times like these it is useful to recognise that many men are also frustrated and resentful that the abuse continues to impact their lives and relationships and one of the reason he may be telling you about what was done to him is because he want to get on.  

Partners and family members can feel embarrassed and bad for feeling frustrated and resentful.  Be aware that these feelings and thoughts do not mean that you are not a caring or compassionate person.  In fact, identification of these and other unwanted feelings can help us to deal with them and limit their influence.  When we acknowledge unhelpful feelings and thoughts, it can allow us to focus our conversation and energy on  building the safe, respectful, caring, equal, relationships we are seeking (the opposite of the abuse experience).   

Empathy and compassion 

You may feel a rush of empathy and compassion for him and what he has experienced, had to deal with and is currently struggling with.   Expressions of empathy and compassion can help a man feel that he and the pain he has experienced is acknowledged – that he has been seen and heard.   Empathy and compassion can help reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness, and guilt and shame that too many people live with.    

All of the above 

“It was a real rollercoaster of emotions after he told me about it – I was angry, sad, hopeful that at last it was out in the open and funnily enough even happy that he trusted me enough to tell me about it. What was hardest was that I just wanted to fix it all up and make it go away and I knew that I just couldn’t wave a wand and make it all better.” 

A ripple effect of child sexual abuse is that people close to the person who has been abused can experience similar trauma responses of shock, disbelief, confusion, numbness, anger sadness, grief and loss, loneliness, isolation, frustration and resentment, hopelessness and helplessness.  The above list of responses is by no means complete, people can feel, despair, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, shame and much more…   

A partner or family member can become quickly overwhelmed as they experience many different and conflicting feelings and thoughts all at once.  It is common for these to feelings and thoughts, to come at us both piece meal and in waves, with varying degrees of intensity.  This is what can make it difficult for us to make sense of what we have been told and provide a response.   

Take time to breathe and take care 

It is important that we give ourselves time to breathe and process what we have heard at this moment.   

While we may have a whole of host of questions, it can be useful to put these on hold for now and focus our energy on checking in with ourselves and with him.    

Do take care that you don’t become caught in a trap of rushing to respond and try and make things better, to judging yourself harshly for what you may or not said or done in the past.  Do not lose sight of the fact that telling you about what happened to him as a child, shows a significant belief and trust in you.   

How you can help 

You do not have to be an expert or know all the right things to say to be able to help a man who has experienced sexual violence. A supportive friend, partner or family member can play a significant role in assisting someone struggling with the impacts of trauma and abuse.  There is no set way to support someone. Each person is unique and will react differently to what happened.  The fact that the man has raised the issue with you indicates that he wishes to let you know about what happened.  


Listen carefully to what he is saying. Let him speak at his pace and to reveal as much information as he is comfortable with.  Listen to understand his experience and what is important to him. 

Acknowledge that you are hearing what he is saying.  Give him your full attention (put your phone down). Recognise that disclosure is a challenge and be aware that at times he may struggle to find the words (especially if this is the first time he has told anyone).   

Try not to interrupt him or ask lots of questions. Don’t worry if he stops talking for a while – silences are okay. Focus on being personally present, you don’t have to rush in to fill the gaps. You do not need to know all the details, try not to ask for more information about the actual events than is volunteered.  Encourage him to take his time and let him know that you are here to listen.  


Let him know that you believe him.  Too many people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse have tried to tell someone and been disbelieved or told they were lying, mistaken or making it up.  This has resulted in boys and men shutting down, becoming reluctant to speak and too often experiencing further abuse and harm.  He may be expecting you to question him or not believe him.   

Listen, acknowledge, let him know you believe him and check in with him as to how you may assist now and into the future?   

Be fully present 

Be physically and emotionally present and focus on being a solid, calm supportive friend.   Sometimes people’s disclosure can come as a shock and result in a rush of strong emotions – horror, anger, outrage – that this happened.  Breathe and let him know that while you may need time to process what he has said, you appreciate his trust in you in telling you.   

By keeping a check on expressing strong emotions and asking lots of question now, you will be in a better place to listen and hear what it is he is saying and wants you to know.   

There is a danger if you become swept away or overwhelmed by emotions that he may feel that he needs to stop talking and take care of you or sees himself as responsible for upsetting you.  In acknowledging that you may be feeling a swirl of emotions and thoughts, it can be useful to let him know that you are ok and can look after yourself and at this moment your concern is for his wellbeing. 

Offer reassurance 

Let the man know that you are pleased that he has spoken with you.  He has probably been taking in your facial expressions, your body language, and trying to work out what you are thinking or feeling.   

Be aware that he may not see his speaking up as courageous at this time.  If he tells you of feeling responsible for part of what happened, even though you recognise a child is never responsible for what is done to them, take time to listen and recognise this is his point of view.  Recognise that a reassuring, supportive conversation with you can be a step towards accessing assistance and placing responsibility where it should be – with the person who perpetrated the crime. 

Respect confidentiality and prioritise safety 

It is important that information which is disclosed to you is treated with respect and held in appropriate confidence. Make sure that you consult with him about what his expectations are, before sharing what he has told you with anyone else.   

He probably will not want you to say anything to anyone else without his express permission.  Be transparent and talk with him if you have concerns about his safety or the safety of anyone else.     

It is always important to prioritise safety and to act if you are concerned if anyone is in present danger of harming themselves or someone else.  If you can, talk with him about your concerns and work out jointly what the preferred course of action is.  If you have a concern that a child or adolescent is currently in an abusive situation, their safety is a primary concern. You might need to call emergency services or consider talking anonymously or in person with someone who knows about child protection. Be transparent and clear that your priority is long-term safety and wellbeing.   

Be there, check in, and become informed 

Be aware that while talking with a professional who has knowledge in addressing childhood trauma and abuse can be helpful, this does not replace encouragement and support of friends and companions.  We all benefit from care and support at difficult times in our lives.  

Check in with him that he has the support he needs.  Focus on walking alongside and being there to support, without taking over.  If you have a good relationship with a man, stay connected and spend positive time together, you are in a better position to support him and let him know if you have concerns.   

Take time to become informed about service and support options, so that if he does ask for assistance you are prepared.  Linking someone in with a supportive local GP can be a first in finding their feet.   

In brief: 

  • Stay engaged, offer encouragement and continue to increase his options and choices.  
  • While you cannot change what happened, you can have a positive impact in the present.   
  • Do not underestimate the value of a supportive friend.   

Prioritise your wellbeing and support 

Being there and offering support to someone who has experienced trauma and abuse can have ripple effects in our own lives, some of which unexpected.  Do continue to prioritise your wellbeing, to put aside time to stay connected, to engage in everyday routines, activities and relaxation exercises which help you to recharge your batteries and navigate life.  

Perhaps you are reminded of your own experience of sexual abuse. 

“Suddenly thoughts and feelings about my own abuse came flooding back. I didn’t want to remember it and I was angry with him for dragging it all up… but I couldn’t tell him about it… not now.  He needed my support and I felt like I was drowning.” 

If you have been subjected to trauma and abuse as a child yourself, then, as the above quote highlights, hearing about his experience can be triggering and distressing.  As someone who has also experienced trauma, you may be uniquely placed to assist this man, however, it is equally important you are appropriately supported and access assistance that you deserve.   

Remember the stronger, better connected and supported each of you are, the more able you are to navigate this difficult terrain and offer support and encouragement to each other.    

Remain hopeful 

The effects of trauma and abuse do not have to be a life sentence for you or your loved one. There are many life stories of resilience, hope and recovery. Many men and women who have experienced sexual abuse lead healthy, successful, emotionally connected, rewarding and fulfilling lives.   

We recognise that there is material in print, on the web and in popular media which is sensationalized and focus only on the pain, distress and damage of abuse.  Sometimes this can overshadow stories of resistance, recovery and information that affirms peoples’ capacity to grow beyond an experience of abuse.  Noting that a life beyond childhood trauma is possible, does not deny the profound impacts that abuse can have.  It is to acknowledge these impacts and at the same time to acknowledge the positive contribution that survivors, 1in 3 women and 1in 6 men, make in our lives, families and communities.  

Those who have lived and worked with people have experienced profound trauma speak about the how this work has contributed to their lives in providing a:  

  • Deeper understanding of suffering and our capacity to overcome adversity  
  • Greater sense of meaning 
  • Renewed, enriched and/or changed spirituality  
  • Greater value and appreciation of relationships  
  • Greater degree of compassion   
  • Greater sense of fulfilment, purpose or pleasure  

Be aware

At the time of initial disclosure, it is recommended to take care and be aware that certain topics of conversation, style of questions and responses can be tricky.  These topics may be important conversations to follow up on and discuss with appropriate support after the initial disclosure. 

Limit detailed initial conversations about what happened. 

Talking about trauma and abuse, the circumstances and the people involved can be triggering and distressing for men, partners and loved ones.  It is important that people are appropriately supported in addressing the subject and impacts of abuse in a way that prioritises long term safety and wellbeing.  

Limit conversations about the person who committed the offences

Maintain the focus on the wellbeing of the person who has experienced the harm and loved ones who are dealing with traumatic ripple effects.  This can be tricky when people know or have known the person who abused the child. Amplifying talk of revenge and payback can be particularly unhelpful and detracts from the focus on supporting the man or loved one. 

Take care with ‘Why’ questions. 

Why questions can be particularly tricky, as they can lead people to questions themselves and their actions and to seek answers that may not have been available to them in the past or now.  Typically, why questions involve seeking an understanding of people’s motivations, and in relation to sexual abuse the only person who knows ‘why’ is the person who offended. Why questions can make survivors feel very uncomfortable, as they feel that they are being questioned and judged.  

Be aware that in the past empathy and kindness may have been utilised to manipulated and abuse someone.    

As indicated above empathy and kindness can offer valuable support and encouragement for men who have experienced abuse or harm. For some men, however, empathy can be difficult to hear and can trigger distressing thoughts and memories, as some people who perpetrate abuse use kindness and empathy to manipulate children and adults.  Some men can also struggle, if they perceive a person is offering support out of pity, rather than empathy, kindness and compassion. 

Feelings of vulnerability can be tricky

A challenge many men experience in telling someone that he has experienced abuse, is that it can bring forth feelings of vulnerability.  These feelings of vulnerability can appear due to a concern that he may not receive a supportive, caring response. This process can at the same time trigger memories of the vulnerability that he experienced when being abused.  Additional discomfort can be produced, due to restrictive masculine stereotypes that suggest men should always be strong and in control and never feel or appear vulnerable.  This can lead men struggling to accept expressions of empathy and support, if he feels this is because he is being seen as vulnerable or needy.    

We all benefit from encouragement and support

There is no simple answer or ‘right words’ to address many of the above challenges.  We recognise that ‘breaking the silence’, naming and letting someone know about a traumatic experience can in itself be a significant step towards change.  A disclosure can for some partners and family members come as a shock and for others it can be a missing piece in a puzzle or even both at the same time.   

We recognise that trauma and its ripple effects can be isolating and overwhelming at times.  In seeking to navigate this tricky terrain, to ‘walk with and alongside’ men who have experienced abuse and harm, we encourage you to stay connected, to access support and prioritise your own wellbeing.  As discussed at the outset, in seeking to make sense of what you are hearing and work out where to from here, you are encouraged to continue to prioritise kindness and compassion for yourself and for those close to you.   

Please consider reading our other supporter and partner resources on the SAMSN website, or get in touch with us to discuss our range of free services for supporters.