It’s football season and I live with an armchair quarterback. Lore has it that his Mom put off going to the hospital when she was in labor with him. The Game was on TV and she wanted to witness a Green Bay win before birthing her firstborn son. Babies can wait— Bart Starr throwing a winning touchdown apparently can’t. Finally, his Dad insisted on a trip to the hospital and Mr. Barnabas (my husband) was born in the heart of football season.
So, Mr. Barnabas grew up at the knee of some of the team’s quarterbacks — Bart Starr, Lynn Dickey, Don ‘Majik’ Majkowski, Brett Favre and now, Aaron Rodgers. Mr. Barnabas has enthusiastically coached them all. From his armchair. He has perfect hindsight bias. He’s a man who doesn’t fuss and fume about nearly anything, but he does weigh in about the yahoos who don’t run the ball, call the right play or ‘just pass it already!’
That’s the thing about armchair quarterbacks— that perfect American idiom— where a person can have an opinion or judgment about nearly anything but doesn’t have any real skin in the game. Said person is comfy in their easy chair; but unable to act. Truly bound to being a spectator, all they can do is yell at the screen, shake their heads in disgust and drown out the bad plays with chips & salsa.
Armchair quarterbacks are great in football. Their antics are funny. True fans are entertaining. Cheering the team from the living room couch is quintessentially American. But when it comes to higher stakes in the real game of life, armchair quarterbacks take a different tone. Armchair quarterbacks in the midst of abuse and crisis aren’t funny. Nor entertaining.
I knew my share of armchair quarterbacks commenting on my abuse. With no skin in the game, they felt it their place to do all the coaching from the comfort of their non-abusive relationships. They called ‘all the right plays’ what I should have, could have or what they would have done. But I was the one getting CTE from the repeated hits. I was the one in fear of losing my team; losing all composure, losing the game.
Some armchair comments that aren’t helpful:
‘That’s just him. He didn’t mean it. He’s really a good guy. Give him another chance. I can’t believe what you’re telling me.’
Defending and excusing the abuser is unacceptable. We all make choices. Violence is not a mistake. It’s a crime. Ask further questions, probe deeper, tread lightly but do not take a common stance of being uninformed or blindly loyal to a person who is abusing another. Believing the abused person is crucial. These types of comments were likely the most prolific messages I had during my abuse. It made me feel crazy to be sitting in conversation (with a black eye covered up by make-up) and a college authority parrot back these exact words to me. ‘He’s really a good guy. Give him another chance. I can’t believe what you’re telling me.’ Little has changed in 30 years. Stop trying to drown out the bad plays with chips and salsa. Believe the black eye.
‘I would never let that happen to me. Just one hit and I’d be out of there.’
This wasn’t in my plan either. You know, to let it happen to me. I didn’t go looking for a man who would abuse me. And he didn’t start with a punch. He started with lies. He started with foul language and a sharp kick to my behind. Abuse can often begin subtly, gradually and have false starts with lots of apologies and reasons to stay in the game. It grows over time and is not obvious to the naked eye. Clearly, if the abuse did not happen to you— a hypothetical scenario where you are strong and brave and the abused victim is standing in front of you as a real loser ‘cause she stayed in the fight is simply non-productive, and hurtful. Stop yelling at the screen. Just listen.
‘Just fight back! Kick him where it counts!’
I did fight back. I’ve talked to other abused women who didn’t fight back. Fighting back against a person twice your size and strength is usually futile. Not fighting back against a person twice your size and strength is usually futile, too. It’s not about fighting back. But from experience, it sure does escalate the intensity quickly. I don’t regret fighting back, but it didn’t stop the beatings. It didn’t stop the toxic barrage of insults.
‘Why don’t you just leave?’
‘Why didn’t you just leave?’
The main reason a person does not leave in an abusive situation is fear. Well-founded fear. I was threatened repeatedly and often with a detailed account of how (Un)incredible Hulk would kill my father, my cousin, a specific older woman in my life and me if I ever told or if I ever left. Abusers hate and target your protectors. The threats were vividly real. As was the fear. One threat he repeated still haunts me thirty years later. The fear has spooked me nearly as long. My first words when I was rather dramatically rescued from my situation was to hysterically repeat, ‘He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me.’
Studies have found that women leaving an abusive relationship are in the most danger. For their lives. This is widely reported. The layers of complexity in leaving abusive situations should prevent that armchair response. Many women are married to their abusers and have children as a result of that union. Victims leaving a situation need a plan, resources and a safe place. The advice is not misguided but it also should not be flippant. Getting out is imperative. But in abusive situations, we are talking about someone’s life. Safety and the reassurance of safety is also vital.
Quite often, getting out cannot be done alone. It is not for the faint of heart.
It is easy to become impatient with the abused, but stay the course. Leaving takes thought, time, effort and energy: all of those resources are usually redirected toward simple survival. You walk them safely out of the stadium. Recognize their fears. Stop shaking your head in disgust. Take pro-active and purposeful action.
More than 38 million women have been the victim of domestic violence in the United States. It has likely touched you or someone you know. If you learn that someone is currently or previously abused— bring some skin to the game. Offer a towel for their brow, bring water to their parched spirit, offer to call the plays and find them resources, shelters, and a locker room that’s safe. Be more than an armchair quarterback with cavalier remarks and simple solutions.
In the game of football, my husband might be an armchair quarterback. But in the true fight for my life and for my healing, he was more than a fan. He often carried me off the field to tend to my injuries or carried me on his shoulders for a victory lap. He stooped down with a towel as a servant to this washed up athlete — this girl who was once abused. And he wasn’t the only one. He certainly was not the only one.
Be like Mr. Barnabas to those you know who are suffering. Be a true and abiding friend to those who confide in you their story. Take the field. Be a part of the team that brings hope and healing. Run the ball. Get the win. You never know who might be the receiver.
It’s football season.
I’m cheering for you.
Thirty years ago I wrote a poem depicting the types of cavalier remarks I was receiving.
Read the poem Nothing to Lose on the site's Poetry tab.
National Domestic Violence Hotline