Being a “bystander” of abuse


It saddens me to admit that I have been a bystander of domestic abuse pretty much my entire life. This isn’t to say I had an unhappy childhood – quite the contrary, my childhood was both privileged and happy. I had a home with my own bed, was fed nourishing and delicious meals daily, and two loving parents. Many children in this country can’t say that and I consider myself fortunate in many ways. I suppose it was my upbringing that gave me the foundation of strength and resilience I would need later in life to face what was to come; homelessness, disability, poverty, rape, assault, and abuse.

In many ways, I am still fortunate in that I was able to escape my abuser – though getting a divorce from him has proven to be a trial even after more than a year of separation. Many victims of domestic violence can’t leave because of economic ties, family ties, or emotional and psychological ties. Abuse is insidious that way. It’s horrifying to understand that an abuser really can make their victim believe in their bones that they can’t get on in life without the abuser. It’s bad enough when the problem limited to familial connections and economics, but the psychological dynamic of abuse compounds the problem.

Abusers know how to find a good “victim.” They know to seek out people who are kind, compassionate, patient, and hard-working. These are all traits to be admired, but abusers know how to exploit each and every one. Kindness and compassion prevents victims from striking back. Patience is used to keep the victim around when things “get tough.” And because victims of abuse are hard-working people, they will work to improve the relationship even when there is really nothing they can do to make the abuse stop.

So back to being a bystander…

I must begin by explaining what I mean by using that word. Often when we think of a “bystander” we imagine a passive bystander like the priest and the Levite in the parable of The Good Samaritan. A passive bystander is someone who does nothing when observing a situation in which another will experience harm.

I want to emphasize that passive bystanders are not bad people. In some situations, there truly is nothing to be done or a bystander’s intervention is impossible. Sometimes bystanders are in such a state of shock they are unable to respond in a manner that is characteristic of who they truly are. And sometimes, bystanders genuinely have no idea what to do because they have never faced such a situation and have not had the opportunity to think about what the best response would be.

I could give some situational examples, but I bet if you use your imagination or take a moment to reflect on your own life experience you can think of some instances in which you observed something hurtful (teasing, bullying, harassment, etc.) and did nothing. I encourage you to do so now, but please do this reflection without judging yourself – a feat easier said than done, I know. When I think back on times in my own life when I observed such behaviors and did nothing, I do feel some shame even when these instances happened decades ago in grade school. In order to move from being a passive bystander to an active bystander, we must be gentle with ourselves and move past this shame.




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