Domestic Violence: How to Be a Better Bystander

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To be blunt, domestic violence is frightening.

Seeing it happen, hearing it happening or finding out it is happening to a friend is stressful. What do you do? Finding a supportive way to get involved may seem overwhelming.

domestic violence sign

Credit Image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Flickr

You may fear that your instincts are wrong, that you’re blowing it out of proportion. The person being abused may downplay what you saw or heard. So what do you do? The main thing is to do something. If your gut is telling you that what you are seeing or hearing is wrong, do something.

Often bystanders don’t act because they fear retaliation, loss of friendships, embarrassment or because they just don’t know what to do. I have heard from friends and family who haven’t said anything because they think that is only a role for professionals, be they law enforcement or counselors. And to be sure, those professionals will have options and experience you don’t. But they aren’t there right that second, and you are.

If someone you care about is being abused, talk to the victim about what you can do to increase their safety. Although your instinct might be to shout, “Leave right now!” leaving now is actually the most dangerous time, and making a safe plan to leave and be stable can take time. Help the survivor make plans to stay somewhere safe if necessary; offer transportation assistance, childcare or help caring for pets. Most of all, offer support and validation. Don’t minimize or deny your loved one’s experience of what’s happened, and don’t blame them for the abuser’s choices to be violent. Connect with Peaceful Paths or the domestic violence center that serves your area.

If violence is happening in front of you, try to get help. Call 911, try to get the victim safe without putting yourself at risk, yell that you are getting help and that you see what’s happening. While anyone can be a bystander, an empowered or active bystander is one who recognizes a problem and decides to intervene in a way that feels safe and appropriate for him or her. No two interventions will look the same, because there is no “right way” to intervene.

Being an empowered bystander can also start with small interactions and showing those around you that you don’t tolerate abuse. When you encounter rape culture or abuse treated casually in popular culture or the media, speak out about it. When you hear men talk about women in objectifying ways, push back. “I don’t like when people talk about women like that.” “I would never treat my girlfriend like that.” FCADV and DCF’s “I am Courageous” campaign gives youth and adults more examples of how to stand up to abuse. While you may not change the world, you are identifying yourself as an ally and a safe person to a friend or family member who may be experiencing abuse and you’re setting an example for those who may also be uncomfortable with rape jokes, blonde jokes, racist comments and oppressive language. Maine Coalition against Sexual Assault’s Backbone Zone is another example of a highly successful social norms campaign that encourages youth to call out hurtful or violent language, with the slogan, Everyone has a backbone. Use yours.The Backbone Zone encourages everyone to reconsider sexist and homophobic insults and to remind others to use their backbones in standing up for others. It can be scary to stand up to others who are using hurtful or oppressive language, but with practice it becomes easier and bystanders become empowered, confident in their ability to effect positive change and intervene on a larger scale if necessary.

Below are some approaches you could consider. This list is by no means exhaustive—you could probably think of others for any given situation.

Use your judgment and common sense. The most effective time to act may be later, not on the spot, and you may want to get advice before taking action.


  • Name or acknowledge an offense.
  • Point to the “elephant in the room.”
  • Interrupt the behavior.
  • Publicly support an aggrieved person.
  • Use body language to show disapproval.
  • Use humor (with care).
  • Encourage dialogue.
  • Help calm strong feelings.
  • Call for help.


  • Privately support an upset person.
  • Talk privately with the inappropriate actor.
  • Report the incident, with or without names.

Helpful Links:

Peaceful Paths, Inc.

National Domestic Violence Hotline:, 1-800-799-7233, TTY 1-800-787-3224


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