This month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, understandably, the focus has been on the victims – how to recognize an abusive relationship, how to protect yourself, and how to get out of one. But every person who is hitting someone he loves has other people who love him – a mother, a father, siblings or a friend. What are they supposed to do?
Every situation is unique, so it’s always important to think carefully about the specifics of the situation and avoid taking any actions that could put you in jeopardy. At the same time, assuming this person trusts you and respects your opinion, you are in a unique position to send a message that might – just might- have an impact. Assuming the person trusts and respects your opinion, you have an opportunity to send some powerful messages, through your words and actions, that could encourage them to stop the abuse:
Message #1: “This isn’t right.”
Most of the friends and family members I’ve met of domestic violence perpetrators knew what was going on, although not always the extent of it. The brave ones spoke up. “Man, this isn’t how you treat someone you care about.” “You shouldn’t be treating your girlfriend that way.” “I don’t think it’s okay to hit someone you’re in a relationship with [or used to care about].
Even braver ones set limits. “Hey dude, I don’t want to be around this.” “I can’t support this, bro. I don’t want my family to see this stuff.”
The most courageous set limits and validated the victim. “I’ve heard this from other girls he’s been with but I just didn’t want to believe it.” “Yeah, I believe you. It’s not okay that he treats you this way.”
Anything you say should be said with love and concern, done one-on-one, and should be repeated. If you don’t feel comfortable saying anything to them, it’s your decision and your relationship.
I hope you will; consider the possible impact of your silence. Be mindful that the person may think that, because you haven’t said anything, you think it’s okay or normal for them to treat their partner that way.
Message #2: “I can see the impact.”
Many abuse perpetrators are ashamed deep down about what they are doing. But, on the surface, it’s common for them to minimize or deny it; “it was just a little slap across the face,” “she blew it all out of proportion,” or “it’s no big deal.” I have often been blown away by the creativity with which a batterer made excuses.
You can help your friend or family member be accountable by providing a reality check about the actual impact of what he is doing. “Little slaps” don’t leave black eyes. It is a big deal when you watch a happy-go-lucky and outgoing person become increasingly afraid and withdrawn.
Message #3: “Other things are suffering, too.”
It would be nice if the negative consequences of domestic abuse on the victim was enough to persuade him to stop. Sadly, though, this isn’t usually enough. That’s why it can be useful to list other possible consequences – traumatized children, arrest, incarceration, legal complications, strained/lost relationships, embarrassment, and so forth.
Message #4: “You are responsible.”
It’s true that many abuse perpetrators were abused as children. It’s true that stress makes it more difficult to control our temper or our actions. It’s true that there are some people who are vulnerable to mistreatment or who are willing to accept inappropriate blame for something a partner or spouse.
None of these is any excuse for abusive behavior. Unless you think it would be unsafe, I encourage you to challenge these statements and make clear that it’s not the fault of the victim ‘s behavior or your friend’s childhood or current situation. We all have our crosses to bear and we all have the same responsibility for carrying ours without hurting other people. There are always people who can help.
Message #5: “Please get some help.”
There are batterer intervention programs that work. If your friend or family member blames his battering on a mental illness, there are psychologists or psychiatrists who can help. He says substance abuse is the problem? Lots of great rehab programs out there. There are resources available to help people change their abusive behaviors, and you can help your friend locate and access these services in their community.
I know these issues can be complicated, especially depending on the nature of your relationship with them. No one likes to rock the boat. It can also be tempting to maintain the relationship or show support for the person you care about, even if it’s at the expense of someone else.
But, if you know someone who’s abusing a loved one, I encourage you to take action. By taking a strong but caring stand against violence, you have the opportunity to show someone who respects you that domestic abuse is harmful, it is his responsibility, and he can change it. We teach our children to speak up when they see someone being bullied; we should be willing to do the same.
As American author Jack Mcdevitt said, the measure of a civilization is in the courage, not of its soldiers, but of its bystanders.