Thoughts on Being a Bystander of Abuse

Abuse is a hot topic right now, in our culture generally, in the world of feminists and sexual minorities specifically, and in the lives of people I care about particularly. For these past few years I’ve been on the awkward sidelines of an abusive relationship. I saw some things that worried me, but I also liked some of the people who were exhibiting these worrying behaviors, and I was torn between my desire to support my sister’s family and my fears for her well-being. While there has been a lot of good information put out there on the topic of abuse, there isn’t much about what to do if you aren’t abused yourself, but think you might be witnessing it.
As it happens, my boyfriend Grant was in a similar situation a few years ago. He was living abroad and subletting rooms in his apartment, and one of his college friends (who will be given the fake name Dave) asked if he could rent a room and share it with his girlfriend (who we will call Selena). Grant was fine with this, but when they all started living together, he discovered Dave was a textbook abuser, complete with the abuse/gaslight/sugary aftermath/abuse cycle and the escalation of intensity. It was mostly emotional abuse, but as it escalated it began to include shoving, grabbing and other warning signs of impending physical abuse.
Grant and I have been comparing notes on how we handled our respective bystander experiences, and we agreed there’s still a lot that we don’t know. Still, we came to some similar conclusions, and I thought I’d share them, as a conversation starter if nothing else.
There is an ugly trilemma that goes along with abuse. First, people who are abused are, by definition, being hurt and need to get out. Second, abusers do things to keep their victims from escaping. This can be as overt as making threats to them and their loved ones, or as subtle as gaslighting them into believing they aren’t being abused at all, that their own hurt is a sign of mental illness or instability. Third, removing an abuse victim from their abuser without their consent is nigh impossible. Part of valuing consent is allowing people to take their own risks, to make their own assessments about their situation, and to be free to exercise their own judgment, even if you are afraid of the consequences of that self-determination. Furthermore, people who are abused but don’t want to leave their abusers, either because they don’t realize their situation or they don’t think the risks are worth it, will just go back when they have a chance. There are exceptions to the third part of the trilemma, child abuse for example, but often bystanders are stuck seeing that something bad is happening, seeing that help is needed, and yet being unable to directly remove their loved one from the situation.
This was in full play in my relationship with my sister. I knew that she was coming out of a fundamentalist religious culture that damaged her sense of her own autonomy, and her ability to make her own decisions. I also saw a lot of signs that she was unhappy, and that some of the people she was around were having a bad effect on her mental health, but she kept maintaining that she wanted to make her new family work. At the time we were pretty isolated from the rest of our family, and as I contemplated the situation I kept coming back to the conclusion that, in this case, the most important thing to do was support her ability to make her own decisions. So I was friendly to the family she had chosen, and even became fairly good friends with them. There were times when I even considered them extended family.
Grant, in contrast, knew that Selena had a history of abuse and having trouble recognizing it. Most of the people around him at the time advised him to leave it alone, to avoid getting involved for his own safety. Instead, he started gently bringing up the topic of their relationship. His first question was whether he had noticed that her voice gets higher when she’s around her boyfriend.
“Yes,” she said. “I talk like a little girl around him.”
He went on asking her if she had noticed this dynamic and that, and affirming the worries she had but was afraid to talk about. Unfortunately, she was very attached to Dave, and afraid of hurting him by leaving. In this case, the coercion was Dave’s ability to make her think she was in the wrong if she ever hurt him. Grant wasn’t able to change her mind about that, but he was able to give her someone to confide in. Where before he had been Dave’s friend, now he was Selena’s. This was especially important because they were all foreigners, and Selena in particular did not have many other contacts in the country to support her.
I was also someone my sister talked to when something happened that really worried her. Often these were delayed reactions; something happened that seemed right at the time, but in retrospect she felt wounded and manipulated, or the outcomes were bad. There were patterns of behavior that made it hard for her to confront anyone involved without being questioned, beaten down and gaslighted, whether she was confronting in the moment or in the aftermath. She was held to a high standard of honesty, yet her honesty was not respected. Sometimes I felt like I was a release valve for all that tension and drama. At times I got so angry, I wanted to completely cut off some of the people in her life, but I didn’t, because that wasn’t what she needed from me. She needed somebody to trust her enough to handle her own affairs, and so I had to keep on being friendly and supportive of the people in her life.
Without realizing it, I was training myself to walk a tricky balance between both affirming her feelings and affirming her family. There were times when I didn’t do a very good job of that. For example, I can remember some conversations where I did try to mitigate some of what had been done, because I was getting attached to the people involved, and in retrospect this embarrasses me deeply. Still, I think the general approach was right for the situation. She was hearing over and over again that the hurt she was feeling wasn’t valid. She needed somebody around who would affirm that no, actually, it was, and people who hurt you repeatedly and then invalidate that hurt when you approach them with it aren’t doing the right thing. In order to do that, I needed to make her feel like my presence and influence wasn’t incompatible with making her own choices about who to spend her time with. In order to do THAT, I needed to not pressure her to leave until she was ready to do so.
Grant, luckily, didn’t need to wait around until Selena decided to leave. As the fights got uglier and uglier, and they started keeping him and the other housemates up at night. This meant Grant had an excuse to kick Dave out. Furthermore, as Selena was a good tenant who, unlike the abusive boyfriend, paid her rent on time and cleaned up around the house, Grant was fully within his rights to let her stay, which is what he did. He offered himself as a scapegoat; she wasn’t hurting Dave’s feelings, Grant was. Of course, once they were physically separated and Dave had to devote his time to mooching off of others, Selena was eventually physically and emotionally able to end the relationship.
Our situations were very different and required very different approaches, but we both came to similar conclusions about the roles of friends and bystanders. It’s on the victim to choose when they are ready to leave the relationship, but it’s the job of the people around them to create a space where that is something that can reasonably happen. Victims need a safe place to land. They need condolences, affirmations, and in some cases physical protection or financial aide. If that place isn’t there, they probably won’t jump, because jumping doesn’t feel any safer than staying put. However, part of being that safe space means not pressuring them too hard to leave before they are ready. Doing that can actually endanger them; an abuser might realize you are a threat to their power and try to cut the victim off from you. How to manage that balance is tricky, and the right mixture will likely depend on the specific situation.
That is all I have on the topic, so I want to know the thoughts and experiences of the rest of you. What roles do bystanders have when they think they’re observing abuse? How can circumstances affect what action is appropriate to take? How can we look out for the people in our lives, and what boundaries do we need to respect when we do so? When is it time to step in?

My story of abuse

For years I’ve had a blog that was not secret, but not linked to any of my main blogs or social media accounts in an obvious way. I have now used that blog to write a detailed account of the abuse and sexual assault I experienced in a former relationship. I name names.

I did not write it on this blog because I don’t want some of those details to be part of the permanent history of this blog. I also don’t want this blog to be the center of the personal storm that’s brewing around my and others’ accusations of this person. But the story is there, now, for those who want to read it.

[Edited 11/2017: I have now made the linked blog, with the stories it tells, private. No particular reason for the timing… I had a feeling I might want to do this at some point in the future, and that point has come. I am still willing to share my story with most people who ask, I just don’t want it publicly on display to anyone, at any time.]

When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

A story of abuse

My previous post about best ways to respond if your partner is accused of abuse comes with a context. In brief, a former partner of mine has been working very hard to set himself up as a community leader and particularly an expert on abuse and consent issues. This is a problem for me, since I consider our past relationship to have been emotionally abusive, and since he violated me sexually on two occasions. The leaders of a particular organization recently asked me to share my story, which I did, as did several other women who had been abused or assaulted by him in the past. There’s quite a shitstorm brewing about all that right now, which surprised none of us.

One of the other women who came forward, who’s also a dear friend of mine, has posted publicly about her abuse at the hands of this partner and his household. She names names and holds no punches. She does this, in part, because two of the man in question’s partners specifically and publicly asked for details.

I’m undecided whether I want to do the same. I have made my own account privately available to people who asked for it, and may do the same publicly at some point. For the moment, though, I’m just signal-boosting her account, and undersigning that everything she writes is consistent with my experiences and observations of the people in question.

What to do if your partner is accused of abuse

There is a lively and timely conversation about abuse in polyamorous relationships, and the ways poly structures uniquely contribute to abusive situations, in both positive and negative ways. I have a lot to say about this. For today, though, I want to tackle one particular question: how one should behave if one’s partner is accused of abuse or consent violations.

One of the ways abuse in poly differs from many monogamous situations is that the abusive dynamics may be created and fed by several people in the poly network. While there may be a centrally abusive, controlling figure, often other members of the poly circle contribute in their own ways to creating a toxic environment that leaves one or more people feeling powerless and oppressed. This can operate a lot of different ways, but the simplest is when other partners of the abusive person insist that nothing is wrong, that the abusive partner is great and wonderful and thus any problems must be your problem. Whether this comes from a Stockholm-y place, or whether the abusive partner only operates abusively toward some partners (or some complicated mix of the two), this often leaves the abuse victim convinced that it must, indeed, be a problem with them. There’s no gaslighting like community-reinforced gaslighting, even when it’s completely unintentional on the part of most of the community members.

Despite the common (and appropriate) admonishment to “believe the victim,” when the accused abuser is someone that you love and don’t believe capable of abuse, I don’t think that you, in your heart of hearts, are obligated to believe the victim. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to try to convince themselves on principle to believe something they don’t believe. If you believe the accusation is false, for whatever reason, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise.

I do, however, think you’re obligated to behave and speak in victim-supporting ways. The only way to create a community that battles abuse and supports victims is for everybody to practice certain victim-supporting behaviors, even if they have doubts about the accuracy or severity of the accusations. The damage of siding with an accused abuser over their victim goes far beyond the immediate situation and the added pain caused to the victim; it tells all other victims of abuse that if they report, there is a danger that their community will rally around their abuser and they will feel further ostracized, victimized, and vulnerable. This fear, in turn, acts to protect and enable abusive behavior, as abuse goes unreported.

So much for the general principles. What are the victim-supporting behaviors that a partner of the accused should adopt?

1) Absolutely do not attack or question the victim, publicly or privately. You may have your doubts; you may be convinced the accusation is false; and in that case the instinct to rush to your partner’s defense may be strong. Resist it, for all the reasons stated above. By doing so, you’ll be harming not only that person, but any other current or future abuse victims in earshot.

2) Don’t try to put yourself on Team Victim if that’s not where your heart is. Being told “I totally support you” by someone whose behavior and words actually suggest that they doubt and question you sucks. It can become its own form of gaslighting and contribute to the vortex of powerlessness and self-doubt a victim feels.

3) If you must communicate with the victim, stick to validating their pain. “It’s clear this is a very painful situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Their pain is real, and you can be compassionate toward that even if you disagree about the facts of the situation.

4) If you must express your own opinion of the situation, frame it very clearly in terms of your perspective. “He never abused you” is very different from, “I personally didn’t witness anything that I would call abuse.” This applies whether you’re talking to the victim or to outside parties. Keep in mind that you cannot actually know what happened within the privacy of their relationship.

These are victim-supporting behaviors that apply no matter what the situation is. The other side of creating a culture that rejects abuse is supporting the abuser. This set of guidelines will vary a little bit based on the situation you’re in.

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately. “I believe you, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, I can’t believe they’re throwing these accusations at you on top of everything else they’ve done. I’m so sorry.”

It is also possible that the accused has behavior patterns that don’t function abusively for you, but do and did for other people. We are each vulnerable to different things, and it is possible to create an environment of manipulation and control without intending to. Also, people’s thresholds for labeling something “abuse” can vary, especially for emotional abuse. So maybe you agree that your partner treated another partner badly, but you feel that abuse is too strong an accusation.

In any of these cases — where you can see how your partner may be at least partially culpable, even if you don’t see them as abusive — you can support your partner and strengthen the community by holding them accountable in the areas where they are prone to cause harm. You don’t need to be their Personality Makeover Coach (I have a severe side-eye for relationships where one person is actively engaged in teaching the other to be a better person), but if they come to you complaining, “Can you believe X said that I was abusive because I did p, q, and r?” you can say, “I love you, but when you do those things it can feel really dominating/manipulative/invalidating to people, and I’d love to see you work on that.”

It is also possible that you, yourself, are being dominated, abused, and manipulated by the accused partner, and that at some level you feel or suspect this but are struggling with the conflict, fear, and cognitive dissonance that abuse victims so often suffer. If that’s the case, I’m so so sorry. You are in a really hard place, and my heart goes out to you. If you’re even able to acknowledge that this might be the case, you’ve come a long way. How to find your way out of the dark is way beyond the scope of this post, but know that if you keep coming back to the question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with my relationship?” the answer is probably yes. Start reading these resources for abuse victims — maybe not for yourself, maybe just to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your poly network and why community support for victims is so important. (But maybe also for yourself.) Follow the victim-supporting guidelines I wrote above (and if your partner is angry at you for doing that, or pressures you to go to battle for them, that is definitely a problem), but also, do what you need to do to be safe, and know that if you got co-opted into participating in an abusive dynamic, forgiveness waits for you on the other side.

*** Edited Feb 24th to add ***

I’ve gotten a few questions and requests for clarification, so I wrote a follow-up post which you can read here.