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Support for families of offenders: how to cope when someone you love has committed a crime

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Kayleigh Dray
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Harvey Weinstein found guilty of rape

If the person you love does something unforgivable to someone else, what should you do?

Updated on 26 Feb 2020: As reported by StylistHarvey Weinstein’s high-profile criminal trial came to an end on 24 February in New York. The disgraced movie producer was convicted of two of the five charges against him, including rape in the third-degree, and could now face up to 25 years in prison. He will have to register as a sex offender.

Shortly after the landmark ruling was announced, news outlets began questioning how Weinstein’s ex-wife, Georgina Chapman, was coping with the news. This is despite the fact that, in October 2017, the Marchesa co-founder announced her decision to leave the film producer in light of the allegations made against him. And despite the fact that the couple, who wed in 2007 and have two children together, finalised their divorce in early 2018.

“At first I couldn’t [attend therapy], because I was too shocked,” Chapman said, when previously asked how she felt when she learned of her husband’s crimes. “And I somehow felt that I didn’t deserve it. And then I realised: This has happened. I have to own it. I have to move forward…

“I have moments of rage, I have moments of confusion, I have moments of disbelief. And I have moments when I just cry for my children. What are their lives going to be? What are people going to say to them?

“[But] I don’t want to be viewed as a victim,” she added, “because I don’t think I am. I am a woman in a shit situation, but it’s not unique.”

And sadly, of course, Chapman isn’t wrong in that regard. 

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As reported in November 2017: We’ve seen the movies, read the books and listened to the songs: they teach us that love is comprehensive (there are no boundaries to such love) and uncompromising (nothing can dilute or impede such love). Above all else, we are told that love is unconditional: that reality is almost irrelevant to love and has scant impact on it.

Sadly, though, that isn’t always the case: after all, what of those people who have unwittingly found themselves in love with a predator? Who have been left stunned to learn that their partner is not who they believe them to be – and that, worst of all, they have done something truly unforgivable to somebody else?

We rarely hear these people’s side of the story, although many are quick to hurl criticism and judgement in their direction. “Surely you must have known,” they’re often told by complete strangers. “What happened? Why did you stay with him/her?”

The most damning question of all, though, is one that they most likely ask themselves over and over again: “Couldn’t you have done something to stop them?”

It’s unsurprising, then, that the unwitting partners of sexual predators are likely to experience extreme psychological upheaval when they learn the person they love has done something morally reprehensible. 

Clinical psychologist Naomi Murphy, who works within the dangerous and severe personality disorder service at HMP Whitemoor, explains to Stylist: “Hearing that one’s partner has behaved in a sexually predatory manner doesn’t only mean coping with them causing harm to another, it also means coping with the partner’s betrayal of the tacit agreement to be sexually exclusive that most couples form. That in itself is a huge blow to come to terms with.

“It is normal for those who have been cheated upon to feel a sense of shame and humiliation, to wonder who knew what and to feel as if everyone else has known this and been laughing at them. When the sexual betrayal is associated with abusiveness and discovered so publicly and so visibly it inevitably amplifies the shame and humiliation that the person betrayed will experience.”

But the person who has been betrayed doesn’t only have to contend with the reality that their partner has cheated on them, in the most inexcusable of manners. 

Murphy continues: “Learning that these sexual encounters were unsolicited, coercive and abusive adds a further level of shame. Within our society, sexual offending is considered to be the most contemptible form of offending, and association with someone who has behaved in such a way can leave a partner or loved one experiencing feelings of ‘guilt by association’ or stigma.  

“It is nonsense to hold the loved one to account and yet some members of our society do choose to focus their hate for a perpetrator and his actions on his loved ones. So it is not unusual for his loved ones to be on the receiving end of death threats, dog excrement through the letterbox and so on, to some degree reinforcing and amplifying their feelings of guilt and sense of shame.”

After the shock of learning that their partner has committed a sexual crime, many enter a cycle of shame, loss, disappointment, confusion and stigma. Above all else, though, they are likely to be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, which can manifest itself in symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as sleep or appetite disturbance, loss of interest in activities or life itself, and low mood and social withdrawal.

However, Murphy advises those who have been betrayed to try and fight back against these feelings. 

“Shame causes us to want to withdraw and hide,” says Murphy. “You may really want to avoid social contacts, friends and even work. In reality, this is unhelpful as a way of coping as others cannot be avoided forever. The anxiety associated with anticipation/apprehension grows greater the longer it is avoided. The anticipation may also grow in the minds of those who are being avoided, so actually it’s better to face it sooner rather than later, and not put off the inevitable.

“The most challenging social encounters have to be those initial encounters that follow the exposure, and actually it’s probably better to get them over and done with, rather than exhausting oneself with the worry of what they will be like.”

And Murphy insists that there are benefits to be had from reaching out to friends and family in the immediate aftermath of learning something unforgiveable about your partner.

“Friends and social contacts are an important source of support,” she tells us. “Good friends would know full well that the blame lies with the partner and will remind you of this. Good friends may have even heard rumours, or seen things that caused them to be suspicious, and be feeling guilty themselves at not having mentioned it for fear of not wanting to upset you.

“Be honest about the emotional impact on you; the benefits of support you receive will be limited if you aren’t really able to say how you feel.”

She adds: “Maintaining routine and familiarity is important; work (even if it has to be in a curtailed form) and introduce structured social activities to add some normality to life, distract from distress and maintain a sense of purpose beyond the relationship.”

Above all else, though, Murphy implores people not to blame themselves for the actions of their partners.

“In any situation where there is a perpetrator, it is the perpetrator that is to blame and accountable for his or her actions,” she says firmly.

If you find yourself in a situation such as this, remember that there is help available. Murphy suggests seeking professional support, either via a referral from your GP or a private therapist (registered with either HCPC or BACP), to enable you to figure out the best course of action for you.  

Images: iStock

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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