What would you do if you saw a man abuse his girlfriend?
Silent Bystanders. We all do it. We would all rather keep the peace, not draw attention, not make other people uncomfortable, even if we are uncomfortable, even when what we see disturbs us, is wrong. We observe, we think of acting, but most often we don't.
I was an innocent bystander...until I wasn't.
In September my husband and I attended a concert venue near our home with friends of ours. We were having a great time. Since turning forty, we have decided that these shows can only be attended by purchasing proper seats, in contrast to the lawn seats. The uncomfortable, lumpy and often muddy lawn, combined with the awkward younger kids drinking and making out makes us feel ancient and leaves an unpleasant grime not only on our bodies but our minds as well. So, we were "comfortable" in our over-priced seats, watching some great country music, which I love, and my husband tolerates every three or so years because he loves me. I was so happy, we were with good friends, and we had enjoyed an appropriate pre-concert dinner of wings and beer. It was a beautiful night, the stars were out, the weather was just cold enough to warrant my jeans and trench coat, but warm enough to dance and sing along without clasping hands in my pockets.
As we chimed in with the chorus lines and moved to the music, I observed the crowds around me, one of my favorite activities to do. I looked through the crowd and saw little signs of love and relationships around me. I watched couples who were comfortably in love; evident through tiny almost unnoticeable actions. The husband opens his wife's diet coke and drinks the first few sips because she doesn't like a full bottle. Or a woman who brings an extra large bag to carry her husband's sweater, knowing he will get cold. They have passed the passionate phase of their relationship when every new discovery of personality quirks are exciting. They have moved into the phase of comfort -- knowing and anticipating the small and "insignificant" characteristics of their partner.
I watched the sisters who came together knew every word to every song and brought along their daughters -- the spitting images of each other. A shared evening with two generations. Yeah, maybe the moms embarrassed their daughters a little with the dancing and singing out-loud, but they were there together, and in years to come they would remember their mothers and the evening they spent together.
The contrast of the seasoned couples and families enjoying the concert were the young couples, newly in love, still discovering each other. There was one couple in particular who moved me deeply. In fact, as I watched the tall young man in glasses, in his plaid flannel shirt, jeans just tight enough to be cute, but loose enough to show he didn't care how they looked with his clunky work boots, dance with his girl.
They weren't dancing the way I danced in college. You know the dance I am talking about...the white girl sway — rocking back and forth somewhat to the rhythm... no, this couple, they were swing dancing. Real dancing. They danced in the aisle; he spun her, she held him close. They kissed, the danced more, and more. In fact, I began thinking of a way that I could work a similar scene into the book I am writing. A raw love that is visible to anyone who catches a glimpse of them, a love that doesn't care who sees it. It was contagious. I held tightly onto Randy's arm, who was trying very hard to have fun. I whispered in his ear, "Remember what it was like to be in love like that? When you just can't stand to be apart, even just a few inches?" Randy silently handed me the bottle of water he'd grabbed for me when we walked in.
Another hour into the night this beautiful couple had transformed. He was so drunk that he couldn't stand straight. Her buzz had quickly evaporated as she tried to get him to sit down. But no, he wanted to dance. He was having a great time, even though by now he couldn't stand on his two feet. He tripped awkwardly, she caught his large bulk and tried for the tenth time to make him sit down in his chair. You could tell by her body language that she had done this before, she whispered soothing words into his ear; she pushed him at his waist to fold him into his seat. Each time she would get him into his chair she would cautiously sit down next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, whispering into his ear. Within a minute he would stand up and try to pull her out of her chair to dance, once again wobbling and teetering on his feet. He became more obstinate. He pushed her away. Now her body language told me she was afraid. I was no longer even aware of the concert, so distracted by this couple's deteriorating night, a routine which seemed too familiar to the young woman. I looked around; I saw that people were purposely looking away. They pretended that they couldn't see that he was losing control. They pretended that it wasn't their business. Their body language said, "Let them work it out."
As the evening progressed, and as he became more and more aggressive, I thought that someone would step in defense of her. Her friends perhaps, maybe one of the burly guys standing all around them. Eventually, he started using his fists to punch her on the hips; he camouflaged the action with what looked like holding her, but he was hitting her, over and over. She kept grabbing his hands and moving them away from her body, but he just kept at it.
Something inside me snapped. This is why women get abused; this is why things get out of control. No one says, "No! Enough!" No one sets boundaries, even when we know they have been crossed. God forbid that we make another person, no less a man, feel uncomfortable with our disapproval of his actions. I had enough. I would not stand by and watch him continue to abuse her. I leaned across the seat in front of me, and I wrapped my arms around her protectively, looking him straight in the eye, "Enough! Stop hurting her!" He was startled. She was startled.
He sat down, and she whispered to him, this time, he remained in his seat. A few minutes later, I whispered in her ear, "I'm sorry; I just couldn't stand by and watch him treat you like that." She waved me off in the uncomfortable and embarrassed way one does when attention is drawn to something that you don't want to discuss, the wave that means, "It's ok, I don't want to talk about it."
Around me, the tension in the air had changed. You could tell that I had voiced the opinion that we had all been feeling. What shocked me is that no one else stepped up and stopped what was obviously abusive and scary. Did I make an impact on her life? Did I force him to see clearly? I don't know, but I doubt it affected him at all. He was probably so drunk that he won't remember what happened. I hope that I at least gave her a moment to reflect on what he had done, that she understands that she should not tolerate abuse; that by allowing him to treat her like that, she is approving of his actions. How a couple can move from such loving behavior to such scary interactions is alarming, but it also shows us why couples stay together, despite the abuse. When things are good, they are wonderful, until they are not.
According to the Domestic Abuse Shelter, one in three women will be abused by someone at some point in their lives, and 4000 women will die of abuse from their partners each year. One in Three. One in Three. That is astounding. That means that not only do we stand by and watch, but we also let it happen to us, or someone we know intimately.
What if every time we witnessed abuse we said "no." What if every time someone made us feel small and insignificant, we said, "no?" It sounds so basic doesn't it, but in practice, it is far more challenging. That is why, at age 43 I interceded for the first time, and in a concert venue with at least twenty other people witnessing the same abuse I saw, only one person stood up to say, "Enough! No!"
If you have been abused, or know of a woman who is suffering abuse at the hands of her partner, offer her support. You can find organizations in Virginia in here, and nationally here.