You know family violence happens. You know it’s not ok. But what do you do when someone you know is involved?
You hear the yelling. You hear the thudding, the slamming door. You tense up. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve heard this. You don’t know exactly what’s happening next door, but you have a really bad feeling about it.
It could be anyone. It could be your brother, your sister, your best friend, your boss, your kid’s teacher, the girl at the checkout. You don’t have the whole story. You just have the snippets you see and hear; the critical comments, the nervous looks, the raised voices and yes, maybe the bruises too.
Part of you wants to ignore it, to decide it’s none of your business. You start to wonder if you’re imagining things. You don’t want to interfere in something private. And you definitely don’t want to make things worse.
But then again, how much worse can it be? People you know may be caught up in something that’s hard to change without help. And if you don’t do something, who’s going to? The question isn’t ‘whether to act’, it’s ‘what to do’.
So what do you do?
What to do isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe. Sometimes you have to feel your way. The range of behaviour stretches all the way from meanness to murder. The actions you take and the changes you might hope for will differ accordingly.
Where the risks are high and immediate, calling the police is a sensible option. They are trained to deal with high risk situations. It feels like a very serious action to take – and it is. But how much more serious could it be if you look the other way? Sometimes a serious response is the best help you can offer.
At the other end of the spectrum you can make a positive difference by getting directly involved. What you say and do could make a significant difference. And here’s how you can start.
Take it one step at a time. The situation isn’t about to change in one go. People’s feelings are often very complicated. Violence in the relationship doesn’t necessarily mean the partners dislike each other, or want to split up. There can be a lot of love and loyalty alongside the violence. There can also be a lot of shame and anger, fear and self doubt.
You don’t have the whole story, and the story isn’t really yours even though you’re taking part. So your challenge is to act without judging anyone or trying to decide what should happen.
If you only know these people slightly start by introducing yourself. Look for opportunities to spend a little time together. Invite their kids over to play with your kids. When you know each other better, it may be a little easier to find a way to help.
Think about which partner you approach. Generally it’s better to start with the person of your own gender. Research does show that men acting violently tend to respond better to approaches from other men. However, if you have a much stronger relationship with the partner not your gender that still might be the best way to go.
Whichever partner you speak to, you need to start the conversation. However hard it feels to you, it will be much harder for them. You don’t have to do it all at once. You just have to start.
Asking someone outright if they are hitting - or being hit by - their partner isn’t necessarily the best place to start. It can be a difficult and risky question for either partner to answer. Do they lie? Do they incriminate themselves? Do they risk the consequences of telling someone?
It may be better to make an observation than to ask a question.
“I heard loud voices the other night” rather than “were you having a fight?” You let them know that you know and that you’re noticing, without them having to admit anything.
Keep it very matter of fact. Simple, neutral statements rather than opinions or questions are easier for people to deal with. It feels less like a criticism, and that means they feel less need to defend themselves or their partner.
Offer your help as a statement, not a question. “I’d like to help” or “you can come to my place for some time out” gives some information. “Can I help?” asks something of them. They probably have enough to deal with right now without adding questions they don’t know how to answer.
Offer practical help. “It would be fine to send the kids over to my place if you need to”. “You can ring me if you need to talk or take a break”. These are the sort of things you can offer now.
Be clear that it’s the behaviour that’s the problem. You can say - “It’s not okay to act like that”. Don’t criticise the person doing it - “what a jerk”. Comments like that come across as attacking. They invite a bristly reaction. You want to be an ally not a critic. You want to show that you can have a different point of view without needing to get aggressive about it.
In situations that feel safe, it’s good to offer a different perspective. You could say - “I’m concerned about the way you treat your partner. No one deserves that.”
“I worry about the way you behave at home. I’ve seen you control your self at work so I know you can do it.”
“I feel really uncomfortable when you talk to your partner like that. It makes me worry about you - if you do that with us around what might you do when we’ve gone? It’s not okay.”
Once you’ve raised the issue then keep communication open. Make sure you keep phoning or visiting and treating both people normally. You want to be a support that goes on being there while they work out what they want to do.
You don’t have to fix this yourself. You don’t have to become a family violence expert. Your best role is as someone they know who cares. You raise the issue, and you support them while they decide what steps they want to take. You’re respectful and constructive. You show that it’s possible.
If it feels a bit daunting, you may want to talk it through with someone first to get clear about your options. You can visit www.areyouok.co.nz for ideas and information or you can talk it through with one of our counsellors. You can find the counsellors in your area here.
Does what you do change if kids are being hurt or neglected?
We’ve all got a role in looking out for kids. If there is an immediate crisis you can ring the police. You can also talk confidentially to CYF (0508 326 459) about what you can do, and whether they need to get involved.
Sometimes you worry that those steps could be too strong a reaction. You also know the risks of doing nothing could be high. In those cases you might find the Child Matters website helpful. They describe quite a few different ways you might help.