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Scenario: You walk by a bus station and notice a, supposedly, couple that behaves suspicious. The woman seems to be afraid of the man (stares to the ground, submissive posture, he holds her arm tightly etc.) and you get the impression that you just interrupted at best an argument and at worst a beating. You didn't witness any physical/mental abuse, though. However, based on your judgement, the man only waits for you to leave the scene to continue harassing her, and if you don't step in nobody will. (She doesn't ask for (your) help.)

Such a scenario can obviously have many dynamics, e.g.:

  • Doesn't need to be at a bus stop
  • You are the only bystander vs. others are around but didn't choose to get involved yet
  • You are confident there is no danger in getting involved vs. the man seems aggressive towards you
  • Language barrier
  • Someone drunk is involved

I suppose a good way to intervene, in such situations, is to go up to them (maybe keep a distance of 2 meters) and ask whether there is a problem or everything is alright. After getting more insight into what the situation is one can take further actions (call the police), if necessary. However, from my experience, everyone involved (including myself) is in a high emotional state, under stress or overwhelmed with the situation. Calming down the situation (through talking) can take quite a lot of time and nerves (totally worth it if someone gets "saved").

My question is whether someone knows a reasonable/proven strategy to:

  • quickly assess what's going on
  • keep calm/keep an overview (especially when being attacked verbally/physically)
  • provide help for a lasting solution (if there is abuse in a relationship etc.)

in such a situation.

I think it would be ideal to separate both (out of sight) and talk to her alone, which is especially difficult when he is aggressive and tries to pull her away. Any thoughts on why this is a good/bad idea and how this could be achieved?

Since strategies might depend on physical appearance let's assume you are male and at least the same "weight class" as the abuser (not a trained fighter). Answers without such assumptions are, of course, appreciated as well.

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What you want to do is called Bystander intervention. Sadly, there seem to be as many ways to do it as there are situations that can happen. So you have to be able to be aware of your surroundings, of the safety of what you're about to do, and of the situation you are intervening in, to be able to decide for yourself what's best.

The mostly corporate training that I had that touched on doing this, focused on handling workplace bullying and sexual harassment. Tactics here mostly included speaking up ("Hey, this joke is not okay"), getting others involved in expressing that disapproval, and reporting to appropriate persons if someone still kept the unwanted behavior up.

Bystander intervention training is, according to the wikipedia page I linked, also given in post-secondary education (I'm assuming mostly US) to prevent all sorts of situations. Again, I'm getting much the same idea from that. That wiki page also links to Green Dot Bystander Intervention which is one form of strategy for bystander intervention. Apparently, that one focuses on three d's:

directly confronting a situation, distracting by changing the conversation and the energy of the interaction or by distracting the individuals, or delegating by finding someone who will be more successful in fixing the problem (bar tender, other friends, Police officer, etc.)

The Dutch government had an educational campaign a while back that focused on getting more bystander intervention for domestic abuse, their approach was mostly focused on how to handle your suspicions: They also suggested delegating, but also gave some guidance on having conversations with suspected abusers or victims, for when your suspicions didn't make you feel quite ready to delegate yet.

This 'cheat sheet' gives some guidance on what you can do when you see potential harassment/abuse happening in the streets: Again, it focuses on distraction, and delegating.

In any ways, for a random couple at a bus stop, depending on where the bus stop is and how many other people are around, directly confronting the situation is most dangerous, and if you don't saw any outright abuse/harassment happening and only have suspicions, it's probably too "heavy" a tool anyways. You can't exactly tell someone to stop holding a woman that may be his girlfriend, and if you didn't see him yelling at her or hitting her, you basically have nothing to directly address.

You might be able to distract though, by asking for directions, when the next bus comes or where the buses go or perhaps even simply loitering/pretending like you're resting: Dutch bus stops have benches. No one would bat an eye if morbidly obese me would sit on that bench or lean against the bus stop itself, catching some shade, pretending to be exhausted!

Getting them some professional help is going to be tricky. Maybe, if they're regular visitors to that bus stop, or if there are officers nearby because it's a very busy bus stop, or if you know them because they're also your neighbors, you can 'delegate' to an appropriate person/instance. But for two random strangers, you probably can't fix their entire problem/life.

Distraction is probably the closest you can get to intervening and at least making sure that they can't pick up the abuse again when you left, because you're not leaving until they're on that bus. And once they're on that bus, she's still safe a while longer as there will be other people around that will hopefully deter anything. But there's probably no way for a very random bystander to fix the entire problem and get them that long-lasting help.

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