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Intervening to end abuse

When it’s between strangers

Before we can be ready to intervene in violence, we first need to learn what kinds of situations might require our involvement.  Unfortunately, if you’re a bystander to abuse between people you don’t know, you’ll probably have a limited amount of time to assess the situation and decide how to best intervene

First, some warning signs that a situation might be abusive:

             If the person you think is an abuser is:

  • Acting excessively jealous of their partner
  • Insulting or embarrassing their partner in public
  • Yelling at or trying to intimidate their partner

Or, if the person you suspect is a victim is:

  • Acting afraid of their partner
  • Acting submissive
  • Showing physical injuries, or wearing unusual clothing as if to hide an injury (ie, sunglasses indoors or long sleeves in summer).

Then the behavior you’re witnessing is probably abusive.  From here, you can decide the best way to intervene. 

Of course, before you get involved, ask yourself if it’s safe.  If the situation is already violent or looks like it’s escalating quickly, don’t directly intervene. Call 911.  We want to emphasize here that the only effective bystander intervention is a nonviolent one. If you try to “rescue” a victim or fight off an abuser, you’ll not only be endangering yourself, but the abuser might take out their anger on the victim later. The victim could end up more isolated and less likely to seek help later on.

If you’ve decided that a situation requires an intervention and that you feel responsible for getting involved, try following these three D’s to evaluate the best way to intervene.

 1.)  Distract ------------------------------------

Creating a distraction is an indirect and non-confrontational way to intervene, and it can help keep a dangerous situation from escalating. You can try distracting either the person about to commit violence, or the potential victim.  Either way, your goal is to prevent a situation from getting worse, or better yet, buy enough time to check in with the potential victim.

             Examples: Ask for directions, the time, help looking for a lost item, or anything else that you think might keep them from leaving quickly.  Better yet, if you can use a distraction that will get you a moment alone with the victim, you may have a moment to check with them and see if they want any help. We’ve heard of one case where a bystander did this by telling the possible abuser that their car was being towed.  When the person hurried out, the bystander was able to ask the person left behind if they were okay or needed any help.

2.)  Delegate  -----------------------------------

Even if you don’t know the victim and the abuser, someone else in the room might. Friends of the people involved might be in a better position to get involved, and they might have a better opportunity for a sustained intervention than you. You could say to them, “Look, I’m concerned about that person. Their partner seems really angry. Would you be able to check in on the situation?”

            Or, if you don’t feel comfortable intervening but it doesn’t seem like the situation calls for police involvement, look for someone else who might be in a better position to get involved. If you’re at a bar, look for the bouncer or someone in a similar role and point out what’s happening.

  3.)  Direct ---------------------------------------

            In a direct approach you either approach the potential victim or potential abuser and intervene. The problem with directly approaching an abuser is that they might end up taking it out on their partner later. If you’re going to have any direct contact with a possible abuser it’s probably best to be more subtle, like using body language to communicate disapproval and make your presence and concern known. You could do this just by watching the situation and making it obvious that you’re keeping an eye on the situation.

            If you’re going to try a direct approach, your best bet will probably be to approach the victim. You can simply say, “I’m concerned about what just happened. Is anything wrong?” Or, if you only have an instant and there’s no opportunity for even a brief conversation, you could say, “No one deserve to be treated like that,” or, “That wasn’t your fault.”  Don’t try to give advice or judge or blame the victim for what’s just happened.  Use the opportunity to say that you’re concerned, that you want to help, and that it’s not their fault.

When it’s someone you know

As with all kinds of bystander intervention, the only way to know how to intervene is to know when to intervene. These are some warning signs that someone you know may be experiencing abuse.

            A person experiencing abuse may seem:

  • Anxious to please their partner.
  • Afraid of their partner, talking about their temper, possessiveness, or jealousy.
  • Restricted from seeing family and friends.
  • Limited in access to money or a car.
  • Depressed, anxious, or suicidal.

Follow your instincts. If you’ve noticed these warning signs and expect that someone you know is being abused, don’t wait for them to approach you. Look for a private moment where you can express concern and let them know you’re there to support them.

 Here are some ideas for what this conversation might look like:

 1) Express concern ----------------------------

            Tell your friend that you’ve been concerned for them or that you’re worried about them.  This is a non-judgmental approach that might make them feel comfortable in opening up.  If they deny that anything is wrong, don’t push, but communicate that you’ll be there for them if they ever do want to talk.

 2) Assure them that the violence is not their fault --------------------------------

            This can be such an important thing for a victim of violence to hear.  Some useful things to say might be, “No one deserve to be treated this way,” “You are not to blame,” or simply, “What’s happening is not your fault.”

 3) Support, but don’t give advice -------------------------------------------

            This can be so hard to do, especially if the victim is someone close to you.  But remember that you cannot make someone leave a relationship who isn’t ready.  Give them options and offer to help them and support them along the way, but pressuring a victim to leave a relationship who does not want to may only isolate them further by making them feel like they can’t confide in you. Remember that abusive behavior is a pattern of getting power and control over someone else. Validating a victim’s choices and encouraging them to make their own decisions about their life can help to break this cycle of power and control.

 4) Give resources --------------------------------------

            NEWS operates a 24-hour hotline for victims of domestic violence at (707) 255-NEWS (6397). The advocates who operate this line can provide your friend with a well-informed listening ear, can assist with safety planning and can provide shelter and service referrals.

 5) Keep it confidential ----------------------------------------

            Assure the victim that anything that’s said will stay between the two of you. Breaking a victim’s trust after they have opened up to you may only isolate them further, and could even put them in danger.