Behind the Façade: The Socially Charming Domestic Abuser

How an abuse victim’s attempted cover-up might reveal the crime

Posted Apr 12, 2018

Public Appearance Exposes Private Abuse

Having spent over two decades prosecuting cases of domestic abuse, I've seen that perpetrators can fly under the radar for years because they are able to disarm with charm—clothing themselves with (misplaced) trustworthiness and credibility.

In some cases, friends and coworkers of the victim are shocked when charges are filed.  “We met him many times,” they explain.  “He was wonderful!  Surely, there must be some mistake.”  Unfortunately, the only mistake was the victim's selection of a partner. 

The true colors of socially charming, charismatic domestic abusers are revealed indirectly, through red flags indicating circumstantial evidence of aggression.    

How the Cover-Up Reveals the Crime 

Many domestic violence victims try to conceal their abuse—both literally and figuratively.  Nonetheless, evidence of a turbulent home life often manifests itself through a victim's emotional displays in the workplace, as well as physical signs of abuse, often (unsuccessfully) characterized as frequent “accidents.”  

Such mischaracterization is necessary because some abusers attempt to dominate and control their victims by intentionally inflicting physical injuries right before they leave for work or a social engagement.  The resulting injuries often prompt victims to call in sick or cancel plans in order to avoid being seen in public until the injury heals.  

But if a victim has already missed a significant amount of work, cannot cancel a medical appointment that took months to set up, or is hosting a social event, he or she may choose to honor the commitment, attempting to cover up the injury as much as possible.

Victims who choose to bravely face the world under such circumstances often do not realize how obvious developing redness and swelling is to those around them.  Some perceptive acquaintances in close proximity may actually see the area around the injury changing color and appearance as the day progresses.  These observations prompt questions and expressions of concern, which are often met with implausible explanations of how the victim sustained the injury.  

But not all abusers leave marks.  Some perpetrators confine their abuse to forms of physical aggression such as pushing and shoving, and sometimes strangulation (potentially fatal), that leave no marks. Others are even more subtle, controlling their victims through tactics such as domination, intimidation, and humiliation

Whether physical or emotional, some abusers who mistreat their partners confine their abuse within their own home, ensuring there is no “evidence” for concerned family, friends or co-workers to observe.  

Home Court Advantage

Outside observers are not privy to the interpersonal dynamics at play within an abusive relationship.  They have no idea of what goes on at home, even if they have met the abusive partner in a social context. Appropriately, research distinguishes between family-focused and equal opportunity abusers.

In “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence,” (2016) Petersson et al. studied male perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV) classified into two groups for purposes of the study, family-only and antisocial.[i]  Consistent with prior research, they identified family-only perpetrators as those who were only violent with partners, as compared with antisocial perpetrators who were violent with others as well.                                 

They found that antisocial abusers were more psychologically abusive, tended to be younger, presented more IPV risk factors, and were significantly more likely to inflict severe or deadly IPV as compared with family-only perpetrators.

Petersson et al. also focused on spotting red flags. They found that victims were more likely to report antisocial abusers to the police for psychological violence such as making death threats, due to the fact that the victims took such threats seriously, aware of the abuser's capacity for violence due to a history of violent behavior.  Previous violence is often predictive of future violence.

They found that family-only abusers were less likely to be reported by their victims. Within this group, however, risk for acute IPV was elevated in perpetrators with violent attitudes, such as supporting or condoning the use of violence in response to sexual jealousy or patriarchal beliefs. 

They also noted that research suggests escalation of violence increases the risk of deadly IPV, and that femicide (the killing of a spouse) is often preceded by a rapid escalation of violence.  

Perception is Power

Family, friends, and concerned colleagues often feel powerless to help a victim of suspected abuse when they do not know exactly what is going on behind closed doors, and intervention efforts have been met with denial or resistance.  Nonetheless, a working knowledge of domestic violence risk factors is important to facilitate early detection.  

In addition, a working knowledge of the resources available to report suspected abuse and to assist victims will better equip family, friends, and coworkers to facilitate an intervention should the opportunity arise. 


[i]Joakim Petersson, Susanne Strand, and Heidi Selenius, “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence: A Comparison of Antisocial and Family-Only Perpetrators,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2016, 1-21.