When it Comes to Domestic Abuse, Be an Upstander, not a Bystander


You don’t have to live in an abusive household to have a story about domestic violence. After all, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men in the U.S. report being directly impacted by their experiences with relationship abuse. It seems nearly everyone has a story about a time at a restaurant, the grocery store, or even school drop-off when they heard or saw something that just seemed “off.” Maybe you heard someone speak to their significant other with hostility or disrespect, maybe body language made us take a second look, or maybe there was even a glimpse of physical violence.

Granted, a one-time encounter with a seemingly off situation is tough to judge. We all go through moods, and I’m not suggesting you call the Family Advocacy Program because you got a gut feeling in the cracker aisle of the commissary. But at the end of the day, you can decide whether or not to pay attention to signs that something is wrong and take action to support someone who may be too afraid to ask for help. You can be a bystander, avert your eyes, and pretend you don’t see or hear anything. Or, you can be an upstander and extend a word of encouragement, or a listening ear to someone who may be experiencing relationship abuse.

What are some signs to look for?

Witnessing an isolated incident makes intervening a little tricky. We all have off days. We argue. We have emotional outbursts in public and do things we aren’t proud of. But all of us in the military community have a duty to recognize the line between couples who can’t seem to communicate and often disagree, and relationships where one partner seems to always have the upper hand, belittle the other, or act with aggression. Before you choose to reach out to someone who may be at risk, consider the following warning signs from the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious

If you know the person well, you are likely to pick up on sudden personality changes. For instance, a friend who is usually outgoing and social begins to flake on plans or becomes reserved and secretive.

How can I be an upstander without making the situation worse or risking my own safety?

First, if you witness violence firsthand, or have reason to fear for the immediate safety of yourself or someone you know, you must call 911 or base law enforcement.

For situations that are concerning but are not emergencies, you can share available resources and support. If someone you care about is experiencing domestic abuse, it can be very difficult to know what to do. Your gut instinct may be to try and “save” them from their relationship or convince them to leave the person who is harming them. The key thing to remember is that your job as an upstander is to support the choices of the victim—not to make decisions based on what you would do yourself. Domestic abuse is about power and control, so one of the best ways you can help a person in an abusive relationship is to consider how you might empower them to choose for themselves what is best for their safety and healing.

On base, your best bet is the Family Advocacy Program. Save the number in your phone for a quick reference. Off base, victims (or loved ones concerned for a victim’s safety) can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or chat with someone online. The Hotline can refer you or the victim to resources outside the gate, including legal assistance and emergency and transitional housing options.

If you know the victim —if it’s your friend, neighbor or colleague — it’s OK to ask the obvious question. “Do you feel safe at home?” It’s OK to be concerned, and you can show your support by:

  • Talking about the Family Advocacy Program, doing your best to remove the stigma and assure them that FAP can be a resource for their safety, and the safety of any children in the home.
  • Telling your friend to keep records of harmful or threatening actions including texts, emails and social posts. These items can be useful to identify patterns of behavior to create a safety plan, or down the line as evidence for law enforcement, if the abuse is severe and an unrestricted report is made.
  • Offering to keep copies of these records for safekeeping where they will not be found by the alleged abuser.

If you’re ever in doubt, think, “If I was in their shoes, what kind of support would I want someone to give to me?” Assure your friend, or anyone you know who may be experiencing domestic abuse, that they are not alone – the military community has their back. You can call Military OneSource at any time to get advice on how to connect to your local Family Advocacy Program, or speak with a non-medical counselor for help navigating what can be a stressful but critical time as a friend, family member, or loved one of somebody who is in a domestic abuse situation.

Kristi Stolzenberg
Written By Kristi Stolzenberg
Marine Spouse

Kristi started writing for Blog Brigade as a new Milspouse in 2008, and all of a sudden, she’s a seasoned (but not overly salty) Marine spouse.

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