Domestic Violence

Can You Spot a Domestic Violence Victim? Here Are Some Clues

Reading emotional red flags

Posted Nov 25, 2019

Your coworker's cell phone starts to ring. You watch the blood drain from her face as she answers, her expression registering a mix of anxiety and dread. She speaks softly and says very little, and although you cannot hear the voice on the other end over the workplace din, her demeanor tells you all you need to know about the tenor of the interaction. Afterwards, she is quiet and uncommunicative. You know from past experience if you ask her what is wrong she will say “nothing.” So as a practical matter, what can you do?

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Source: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Identifying Domestic Violence Victims 

Most of us have witnessed some version of this dilemma, leaving us with no tangible proof of anything, but a terrible feeling about what is going on behind the scenes.  

Domestic violence is an insidious but largely invisible epidemic that transcends economic and social classifications, as well as demographics and gender. After 23 years as a prosecutor I can attest to the reality that both men and women can be domestic abusers as well as victims. Yet due to the personal issues involved, as well as social stigma, domestic violence continues to fly under the radar.

Many abusers inflict both physical harm and psychological trauma. Psychological abusers seek to control their victims with domination, intimidation, and humiliation. They destroy their victim's sense of self worth, credibility, and importance. They accomplish this through live tactics as well as through technology, as I discuss in a prior column, "Remote Controlled: Domestic Abuse Through Technology."

Not only do victims fail to report their victimization, they do not give friends or coworkers much to work with in terms of physical evidence. Most victims do not arrive at work with black eyes and bruises. Even in the rare case of a visible injury paired with an implausible explanation, a suspicious coworker still struggles with the decision about what to report and to whom. 

In addition, many crimes related to interpersonal abuse, such as criminal threats, stalking, and false imprisonment, to name a few, do not require physical injury. And there are emotional red flags potentially signaling domestic abuse, physical or nonphysical, that have been recognized practically, as well as empirically. You may be able to detect them if you know what to look for and where to look.

Emotional Regulation and Domestic Violence Victims

Nicole H. Weiss et al. (2018) studied emotional regulation among 210 female domestic violence victims. Their results distinguished three classes of women who were victimized, separated by different levels of difficulty regulating positive and negative emotion.

Across these classes, they examined differences in psychiatric difficulties such as symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as risky behaviors such as abusing drugs and alcohol. They note that their findings extend theory on emotional regulation difficulties “by suggesting that higher levels of difficulties regulating positive emotions may occur only among individuals who exhibit high levels of difficulties regulating negative emotions.”

They found that women who had more difficulty regulating emotion, regardless of whether it was positive or negative, had greater psychiatric difficulties. They also found that women who had more difficulty regulating emotion engaged in more alcohol and drug misuse.

From a therapeutic perspective, Weiss et al. note that their findings suggest the value of person-centered approaches in order to identify patterns of difficulties in terms of emotional regulation, and risk for psychiatric challenges and potentially dangerous behaviors.

Seeing is Believing 

So if emotional regulation can reveal potential evidence that might indicate victimization, particularly in connection with other factors, how can we be better witnesses? Because isolation is another indicator of toxic relationships, we might miss signs and symptoms of abuse due to lack of exposure. Victims might call in sick to work, friends may cancel lunch plans the night before—with a dubious explanation.

Appreciating the sensitive nature of broaching the subject of interpersonal violence, seeking opportunities to interact with friends and loved ones in person, talking instead of just texting, will increase the chances of detecting signs of both physical and psychological abuse, and the opportunity to offer support.


Nicole H. Weiss, Angela G. Darosh, Ateka A. Contractor, Shannon R. Forkus, Katherine L. Dixon-Gordon, and Tami P. Sullivan, “Heterogeneity in Emotion Regulation Difficulties among Women Victims of Domestic Violence: A Latent Profile Analysis,” Journal of Affective Disorders 239, 2018, 192–200.