Person curled into a ball against a stone wall

The power of bystander intervention in domestic violence

Content warning: This post is about domestic violence and contains personal stories that could be triggering or upsetting to some people.

Someone died, and I knew it was time to write this. She wasn’t a friend of mine, but she was a friend of a friend. Too close for comfort. She was killed by her ex-partner. Two women a week are killed this way, and when I was a teenager it could have been me. I was a middle class, outspoken and bright kid and I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally and sexually abusive. After it ended he tried to buy a gun, he threatened suicide and he stalked me.

There are many sides to this problem, and for me, the most important one relates to educating and supporting abusers to change. I have friends that do this work, and I admire them for it. But there are other parts too. Being present with people, usually women, who are experiencing abuse or recovering from abuse. Working out how to talk to friends about domestic violence and abuse. Intervening as a bystander, as many people have suggested we should when we see violence in public spaces. It is that last one that I’m going to talk about here. In part from my experience of what helped me, and in part in relation to what might help others.

I vividly remember the first time someone mentioned that they saw that I wasn’t OK in my relationship. Actually, she didn’t really say that. She expressed concern for me. Concern about how isolated I’d been getting. Concern that I was withdrawing from everything in my life. She was extremely gentle, very non-judgemental and she said absolutely nothing negative about my partner. I was away from home and sharing a hotel room with her and another woman who was also a friend. The next day the other woman said she agreed with what my friend had been saying, and that it would be great to see more of me. Of course, I denied that there was anything wrong. Nevertheless, that conversation was a turning point in my life. The first of a few that led to the end of that relationship and the beginning of a life changed by it. Her ability to be present with me, and to meet me where I was, has stuck with me. I think back to it when I have conversations with other people about their relationships, especially when something seems amiss.

I often wonder, how is it that my 16 yr old friend managed to see me and talk to me when no one else did? I think the answer is that it is scary. We always think that there is someone else, someone more appropriate, someone more skilled, someone closer. I think it is also hard because we really don’t know what to say. Afterall, what can you possibly say to someone who you think is being hurt and damaged by a person that it meant to love them? I think that means a lot of the time we say nothing, and people get more isolated, feel more invisible and they disappear. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know what helped me.  I know what I have done that has helped others. So my next post will be about what you can say when you see someone getting hurt by an intimate partner or family member.  Someone like the woman that died, someone like my younger self.

I hope these thoughts might help you to start conversations with people that you are concerned might be experiencing abuse in their relationships.

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