A popular myth we often hear is that domestic violence almost exclusively happens at home. After all, the most common name that we give to abuse in intimate partner relationships is domestic violence. Many of us will have also heard the phrase “violence in the home” and the idea that domestic violence is something done “behind closed doors.” How, then, do we make sense of incidents of abuse that bleed into the public sphere? 

While it’s true that many forms of domestic violence - also known as intimate partner violence - take place within a private residence, out of sight and functionally invisible to outsiders - in today’s blog, we will discuss when abuse takes place outside the home (hint: it often does), and why it is so important that we break down the myth that intimate partner violence is something that only happens in private.

Partner abuse in public settings - restaurants, parks, stores, places of employment, and so on - is not the exception to the rule; rather, abuse that occurs publicly is an all too common extension and continuation of abuse that takes place in the home. 

Blurring the lines between public and private, we know that there are countless instances when abuse transgresses into public spaces. Our advocates and counselors hear about incident after incident in their work with clients; we ourselves may witness it while out going about our daily activities: an abusive partner openly berates their partner in a store or restaurant; they grip their partner’s wrist, kick them under the table, or give their partner a threatening glare to let them know to keep quiet; an abusive partner humiliates and insults them at social gatherings in front of friends and family; they make threats to show up to their ex’s fitness class or church group, and sometimes actually do stalk them, instigating violence at their place of work or another public space. At its most extreme, we read the horrifying stories of mass shootings that, at their core, were incidents of “domestic” intimate partner violence. 

Labeling particular kinds of violence as domestic (as opposed to “community violence” or “street violence”) ignores the reality that many survivors are experiencing the abuse in public spaces as well. It also facilitates a sort of shirking of responsibility. If the issue is merely a private spat, we feel more comfortable averting our eyes, continuing on with our day, and assuaging any guilty feelings with the comforting salve of, “It’s none of my business.” Cultural norms that dictate what is private to a person’s marriage or relationship with their partner may also give us pause and stop us from offering our support to a friend or family member who may be experiencing harm.

Beyond its impact on us as individuals - and the likelihood that we step up as supportive bystanders - the ways that intimate partner violence has been relegated to the domestic sphere has long had a detrimental impact on the ways that our justice system, policies, and laws treat relationship abuse. In the history of organizing to end domestic violence, activists had to overcome time and time again the harmful norms that located relationship abuse firmly in the private realm. The high value assigned to privacy within marriage (note: this privacy only applied to people with certain privileges, namely, that of husbands to lead and “discipline” their families as they saw fit) helps us to understand the many years that survivors had to fight for reforms to make intimate partner violence and spousal rape illegal. The laws had instead been crafted to protect husbands’ right and entitlement to privacy, not their spouses’ (or childrens’) right to emotional and physical safety. 

Even today, despite domestic violence being a crime, police and the justice system too often minimize the harm of intimate partner violence, viewing it as less concerning and less urgent than other forms of violence. Instead, they may treat it as something for couples and families to sort through themselves. Local community initiatives and violence prevention funds may neglect to sponsor programming that supports survivors and works to end the cycle of abuse, seeing those, again, as issues that only impact the abused party and their immediate household.  

However, we know that intimate partner violence does not only harm the victim; it harms any children they may have, as well as the family, friends, and colleagues who care for them and love them. When violence happens in public settings, it harms those who witness it; seeing violence can trigger those who have experienced harm in the past. When violence goes unchallenged, it can embolden others to believe that abuse is ok and may increase the likelihood that others will abuse. We also know that intimate partner violence is also closely interconnected with other expressions of violence, like street or community violence.

If there is one takeaway from reading this, I hope it is this: 

Intimate partner violence is a community issue, its ripples of harm impact the entire community, and it is the role and responsibility of every member of the community to end intimate partner violence. Any and all forms of violence, including domestic abuse, harm the communities we belong to, particularly if that violence is ignored, minimized, or normalized. We can no longer avert our gaze.

When we witness verbal or physical violence, are concerned for someone we know, or are exposed to discourse that minimizes the impact of partner abuse, we have a responsibility to act. This is not to say that intervening is easy, comfortable, natural, or straightforward. It is ok to acknowledge that intervening is hard, and it can be helpful to think about the barriers to intervening so that we can consider the ways by which we can overcome them. 

Rather than getting stuck on what feels most difficult for us, one helpful tip we can use is to identify what our strengths are. Are we a really attentive listener when someone is hurt? Are we more confident determining when outside help needs to be brought in, like calling a hotline? Are we a bit of a goofball at heart and comfortable creating a diversion or telling a silly story to give the person being harmed some breathing room, or a chance to get away? Or are we at our best simply calling out a harmful behavior for what it is? We can also do our part to dispel myths about intimate partner violence, and we can speak up in the communities we are a part of to advocate that they be mindful and inclusive of partner abuse as a community issue. 

Of course, different scenarios will call for different interventions (or a combined effort). The important thing is that we have done something rather than nothing. If you or a group that you are a part of is interested in learning more about Bystander Intervention, feel free to reach out to us to hear about any current opportunities at info@sarahsinn.org