Should you intervene if you witness domestic violence in public?

It’s a scenario many of us can imagine, or maybe it’s one that you’ve actually seen play out: you’re shopping for groceries when you hear a raised voice from down the aisle.

“Why do you keep buying things we don’t need?”

“I’m sorry, you’re right. We don’t…”

“I’m sick of you, can’t you do anything right?”

You recognize the signs of a survivor of domestic violence. Their eyes are downcast, their arms are wrapped around themselves, and they are clearly afraid of the person they’re with. They clearly need help.

Do you intervene? Will it help the survivor, or place them in greater risk? Is it safe to say anything? Those questions might echo through your mind, and it can be hard to know what’s the right thing to do in such a situation. The answer is deceptively simple- do something. What that is, isn’t quite as simple.

There are three fundamental things to consider if you witness domestic violence in public. The first is your safety and the safety of those around you. Abusers often fear confrontation with those who aren’t their victim, but some are prone to violence- especially if they’re under the influence.  The second is the safety of the survivor, who may be at risk of harm if the situation escalates. The third is the long-term well-being of the survivor, who may take the opportunity to escape if given. Or, if they don’t leave at that time, having others confirm that the abuser’s behavior is not okay may break through the gaslighting  and emotional manipulation they’ve likely endured.

One of the hidden risks in intervention is that the abuser may blame the survivor for the actions of bystanders, especially if they physically intervene. This can inadvertently result in greater danger later on, behind closed doors. However, in addition to the benefit of validating and encouraging the survivor, careful intervention may show the them that there’s support available to them, giving them hope and strength when they’re ready to leave.

This list is not exhaustive, but includes some signs that a person you may see in public is impacted by domestic violence. Remember that they may exhbit all or none of these signs, domestic violence can look very different from one case to another.

  • They seem afraid of their partner and anxious around them
  • They cut conversations short when their partner comes near
  • Their partner criticizes or humiliates them in front of other people
  • Their partner orders them around and makes all the decisions, such as what to buy or how much to spend
  • They appear nervous and depressed, or very quiet
  • You observe physical injuries
  • Their children seem afraid of the partner or unwilling to be around them

If you intervene, remember that the primary goal is to prevent a situation from escalating. Even better, to create an opportunity to check in with the individual and see if they need help.

There are many ways you can help to stop a situation from escalating, depending on the specific circumstances. For example:

  • Find a reason to be within the abuser’s line of sight. By moving elsewhere in the aisle or to another spot on the sidewalk, you can have a pretext for being within the abuser’s line of sight. Just knowing that people can see or hear their behavior may cause them to stop.
  • Make some noise. If the abuser assumes they’re in a private space, make some noise so they know they can be observed. Cough or start a conversation on your phone. Turn up your music. Whatever it takes to remove the blinders that cause the abuser to focus on the person in front of them
  • There’s safety in numbers. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening alone, ask someone to go with you. Or if you’re not comfortable approaching at all, let someone know so they can assist. If the situation appears dangerous or to be escalating, call 911
  • Record and document everything. If possible, record the interaction on your phone to help the survivor get help from law enforcement and the court system. Annotate dates, times, witnesses, what you heard, license plate numbers, and anything else that might help the person in danger. Keep in mind, however, that many survivors won’t take legal action or work with police until they’re ready to do so
  • Create a distration. Try asking for the time or where something is located in the store. Ask the survivor where they got their outfit. Ask if they have seen your friend who may have left without you. This may cause the abuser to disengage or, ideally, leave. If the opportunity presents itself to separate the abuser and survivor, be there to listen and offer whatever help you can
  • If you can talk to the survivor alone, give them support but respect their agency. “I’m concerned about what I just saw. Do you need help?” can go a long way for someone experiencing domestic violence. Such a phrase lets them know that people care about them, that the behavior is unacceptable (and not their fault), and that there’s hope. It’s important that they know that they don’t deserve to be treated in such a way. At this point, you can tell them about resources like Operation Safe Escape or the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Remember that many survivors of domestic violence need time to plan and prepare their escape, and trying to compel them to leave right away may actually do more harm than good. On average, a survivor of domestic violence makes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship, which can be complicated by custody and financial issues. So even if the person is ready to leave in that moment, giving support once or finding a way to offer continuing support may help empower them when they need it.

It may be difficult to accept if someone isn’t ready to leave when the danger seems apparent. Try to remember that the survivor has likely had their autonomy stripped away by the abuser, and they may not have been able to make their own choices on many things. Telling them what to do or trying to force them to make a decision on the spot can inadvertently retraumatize the person you’re trying to help. Instead, respect their choice and remember that they have a much better idea of what’s safe and what they’re able to do in that moment than you do. And understand that some people may not ever leave an abusive relationship for one reason or another. You can share your concerns, give support, tell them you care, help them develop a safety plan, and give them resources, but you can’t make their choices for them.