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?