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5 Ways to Intervene When You Suspect Domestic Violence

There are safe ways to be an active bystander and speak up for those who can’t

5 Ways to Intervene When You Suspect Domestic Violence

Imagine this scenario: You’re out shopping on a Saturday afternoon. You’re perusing the home goods section, trying to decide if you should spring for a fancy new coffee maker.

Further down the aisle, a couple seems to be making some important kitchen towel decisions together, except your ears can’t help but detect fear in the woman’s voice as she apologizes repeatedly.

“You’re right, we don’t need new towels. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. I’m so sorry. Our towels are fine.”

You steal a quick glance. She’s staring at the floor, arms wrapped protectively around herself. The man in front of her doesn’t say a word, but you can almost feel the anger radiating off of him. Your heart speeds up as you see him reach out and grab her roughly by her arm.

“We’re leaving,” he growls. You see the woman wince in pain.

You have a moment to decide if you should intervene, but you’re hesitating. Is he dangerous? Should you get involved? Is it any of your business? Does she even want your help?

Before you can answer those questions, the couple is gone. You spend the rest of the day with your stomach in knots, questioning whether or not you should have done something.

This type of situation has happened to many of us. We see signs that could indicate domestic violence, but we talk ourselves out of getting involved for fear that we may be wrong, that we could embarrass ourselves, or that we might be put in danger if we step up.

These are valid fears. But the truth is, if domestic violence is going to stop, we have to be willing to speak up for the victims who can’t. And there are safe ways to do that. But we must preclude that one should use EXTREME CAUTION when approaching a suspected domestic violence situation. Only do so if…

  • ...there are other people around.
  • ...you don’t suspect anyone has a weapon.
  • ...you feel safe doing so (aka, listen to your gut).

Below, we outline 5 possible ways to intervene if you witness domestic violence when in a public place:

  1. Call the Police. If you witness domestic violence happening—like in the case of hearing violence in the apartment next to you or see a weapon being used to threaten someone—call 911. However, if you only suspect violence is occurring, it may not get a police response.
  2. Ask Someone to Intervene with You. In the scenario above, you might not feel comfortable approaching the couple on your own. Ask an employee or another shopper if they would go with you to ask the woman if she needed help. In many cases of domestic violence, the abuser may be so controlling that the victim feels she cannot speak out for help, for fear of further harm or perhaps because she is being gaslighted. But simply knowing that someone else is concerned about her well-being could go a long way.
  3. Distract. According to NoMore.org, distracting is one way to at least help the situation you’re witnessing from escalating further. If you feel it’s safe to do so, strike up a conversation with the potential victim—ask if they have the time, pretend like you are old friends and haven’t seen them in a while or inquire where they got their outfit from. Try to deescalate the tension by striking up a conversation or separating the potential victim from the abusive partner. Then…
  4. Be a Friend. Again, only if you feel the situation is safe (there are no weapons in sight, others are around), ask the person you are concerned about if you could talk to them. See if you can separate them from the abusive partner for a moment—perhaps you need their advice on something in the store. Ask them if they need help and share your concerns about the situation. Express that you don’t feel they deserve to be treated that way. Share with them that there are 24-hour, confidential hotlines set up to talk to them about what they’re going through.
  5. Make a Racket. According to The Pixel Project, you can bring [unwanted] attention to a possible abuser by making sure they know you’re there and you’re watching. This works well if you are witnessing a public argument in a place where the abuser thinks he might be secluded—a parking lot, an alleyway, a seemingly quiet street. Start coughing loudly, hold a real or pretend conversation on your cell phone about what you’re witnessing, or turn up the music in your car—anything that lets the abuser know you’re near and you’re a witness.

Do you suspect a friend, family member or coworker is being abused, or have they confided to you about an abusive partner? Learn the best ways to help them and where to direct them for help by using our online toolkit found here.

Would you like to feel more comfortable in a potentially dangerous situation, like intervening? Read about learning self-defense tactics to empower yourself here and here.