How to Talk to a Loved One Experiencing Domestic Violence


Domestic violence doesn’t have to be romantic — it can involve children, the elderly or any kind of care-giving relationship.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to recognize and spread awareness.

Domestic violence is defined as “intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contacts sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking,” according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are victims of physical violence by a partner every year. 

Every 9 seconds, a woman in the U.S. is beaten or assaulted by a current or ex-significant other, while 1 in 4 men are victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.

If you suspect a loved one is involved in a domestic violence situation, it’s important to know how to proceed.

“Domestic violence survivors are in the middle of the relationship and it’s hard to take criticism,” said Kerriann Ostlund, LICSW at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. Ostlund is a licensed social worker in the emergency department and a 26-year-old domestic violence survivor. She also penned a novel in 2017, titled “Good Enough,” on the subject of domestic abuse.

When someone is sharing signs the relationship isn’t healthy, take a step back and ask how they feel,” she advised. “Don’t jump to criticism right away; try to meet that person where they are.”

Some people in active domestic abusive relationships will not want to talk, and some will. In the event the survivor doesn’t want to disclose any information, Ostlund says the best thing a loved one can do is be patient.

“Just reiterate you will be there if and when they need you,” she said.

“It is easy to fall into a relationship that’s violent,” Ostlund stressed. “It’s common when you don’t have a lot of experience dating. Or maybe the person doesn’t recognize the destructive patterns and keeps falling into similar situations.”

These relationships — whether romantic or platonic in the case of an adult child taking advantage of an elderly parent — usually progress slowly and once the abusive person is comfortable dynamics can flip.

“As a loved one, you want to keep the lines of communication open,” Ostlund said.

Often, if approached outright, survivors can become defensive and may cut off ties, which is often what the abuser wants.

“It can be easy to stay in the relationship because they are usually very intense in the beginning,” Ostlund said. “And so it’s easy to justify the down periods.”

If you believe you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Hotline at 1.800.799.7233.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

MORE IN Live Well