Bystander Paralysis: It Happens to Everyone – Even Domestic Violence Experts Survivor Speaks

By Veronica Quinonez

sunlight entering into a room

I have several years of experience in violence prevention and victim services for power based violence. “Power based violence is a form of violence that has a primary motivator: assertion of power, control and/or intimidation in order to harm another. This includes relationship/partner violence, rape/sexual assault, stalking, and other uses of force, threat, intimidation, or harassment of an individual (University of Missouri, (n.d.)” I even studied it in school. So I should know exactly what to do when I overhear a domestic disturbance next door right? Wrong.

I live in an apartment complex so I’m in pretty close quarters. I could hear my new neighbors moving in just a couple of weeks before the incident. I hadn’t met them yet and didn’t even know what they looked like. On a Tuesday morning, while I was working from home, it started. I heard yelling but wasn’t alarmed yet. We all yell and get into fights. Then I heard, “you’re really going to do that over something so small?!”. A dog started barking and I heard, “don’t hurt her please don’t hurt her she didn’t mean it she’s a puppy.” I turned my camera off during the work meeting and prepared to do something. All of a sudden I heard a woman running away heavily while screaming and I felt the wall shake behind me as something hit it. I grabbed my phone.

I started having an internal debate with myself.

Should I call the cops? What if they make it worse? What if I make it worse by doing so?

Should I knock on their door to interrupt the situation? What if they have a gun? What if I get hurt by getting involved?

I also started thinking about who lives in my neighborhood. I’m Latina and brown myself. I specifically moved to this apartment complex to be around minorities because I was experiencing racism in the white neighborhood I came from. So there was a good chance my neighbors were Black or Latino. Calling the cops could seriously be harmful to them. I know the research on police brutality in response to Domestic Violence calls. I also know this increases with people of color and that victims of color are often treated poorly by police officers. I know my personal experience with law enforcement.

I had information paralysis. It was almost like having too much information was making it harder for me to do something. I didn’t want to cause harm.

I then heard the man leave with the dog and I was so thankful that I didn’t HAVE to call the police. The police officers arrived some time later and I heard him speaking to them. I don’t know who called the police but I was ready to be a witness. They never knocked on my door. I burst out crying and felt wildly guilty that I didn’t do anything. I should be better at this.

I wanted to write about this because I wanted to highlight that even an expert in the field who teaches bystander intervention didn’t intervene. I decided to opt for the “check in after” option and get to know my neighbor so I could talk to her afterward. I didn’t feel safe intervening in the moment and I wasn’t sure what her wants/needs were. We don’t acknowledge how traumatic simply being a bystander can be. If you are struggling with how you have handled past situations or you’re unsure of what to do in a future situation – that is OK. When I teach bystander intervention I do tell people that safety is first. It can be scary to intervene and do something. Sometimes checking in after the fact with someone is just as good of an option as intervening during the act.

It’s also OK to acknowledge that some situations might trigger a trauma response in a bystander where your brain decides to fight, flight, or freeze. Perhaps you know the four D’s of bystander intervention (direct, distract, delegate, and delay). Depending on the situation, that might go out the window. You may very well freeze. That’s ok. You can still check in with the person after the fact and see if they’re ok. You can try to have a conversation about what you heard or witnessed and see if they feel comfortable talking to you about it.

I will continue to fight for violence prevention and awareness but this event has given me a new perspective. A perspective that is kind to ourselves. I absolutely want all of us to continue learning and trying. This doesn’t mean intervention can never happen. I hope you google the four D’s to bystander intervention after reading this. I hope you think about the ways you might help or get involved. At the same time I hope you allow yourself and others grace as we grow. Perhaps you intervene in everyday ways by calling out “victim blaming” or educating family/friends on the dynamics of domestic violence. Perhaps you’re familiar with resources so when a friend comes to you for help you’re ready with that information. Perhaps you listen and believe someone who discloses abuse to you. That may seem like a small act but it is one of the most powerful things you can do for a survivor. Intervention is like a spectrum. Let us all do what we can along that spectrum.


Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center // University of Missouri. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021

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