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Why the Signs of Relationship Abuse Can Be So Hard to Detect

How intimate partner violence flies under the radar.

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

Your coworker just began dating a new love interest. She fills you in almost daily about their latest adventures and how impressed she is with her new paramour. Two months into their relationship, you actually get to meet him when she brings him to an after-work happy hour. He seems polite enough, although a bit on the quiet side.

Within three months, your colleague has become withdrawn and no longer gushes about her beau. In fact, she doesn't bring him up at all and seems downright nervous whenever her phone rings. When you ask if she is OK, she quickly says that everything is fine. Yet clearly there has been a dramatic change. Although you witnessed her boyfriend treating her well in public, should you be concerned that he has a dark side in private?

Invisible Trauma

Despite enhanced awareness, domestic violence remains an insidious, invisible epidemic. Contrary to stereotype, domestic violence victims range from codependent spouses to independent entrepreneurs. In many cases, just as we cannot spot a domestic abuser by looking, neither can we spot a victim. Perpetrators as well as victims can be either men or women.

Although no two cases are alike, and they involve many different fact patterns and relational dynamics, many times we fail to recognize victims because we are looking for physical injuries, which may not be visible.

Recognizing Signs of Abuse

Not every domestic violence victim shows up to work with a black eye, or covered with cigarette burns, or wearing long sleeves in the summer to hide cuts and bruises. In fact, many do not show up at all. Although certainly not dispositive, a frequent red flag signaling potential domestic abuse is missed time at work. Absenteeism allows the victim to stay home while injuries heal, instead of fabricating accidents or excuses.

On the other hand, many victims do not miss any work, because their abusers do not inflict visible injuries. They are strategic in their methods of inflicting physical pain so as not to leave marks anywhere they would be visible, or at all. Other abusers prefer inflicting mental pain and suffering, controlling victims through emotional trauma.

But in every case, whether a victim is suffering physically or emotionally — or both, as often happens — there are often clues.

Spotting Subtle Injuries

Medical professionals have identified subtle signs of domestic violence and abuse. Some guidance is provided by “AKT answer relating to domestic violence and abuse” (2016) regarding what to look for during a consultation.[i] They advise to be on the lookout for the following red flags:

  • Presentation of vague or psychosomatic symptoms.
  • Complaint of depression.
  • Instance of self-harm.
  • Visiting a hospital in an emergency, but failing to show up for appointments scheduled in advance.
  • Injuries that are concealed or minimized (abdominal or breast injuries for example).
  • The presence of dominant family member who does all of the talking for the victim.

These indications are valuable clues, because even some serious injuries leave no marks at all.

Strangulation: Invisible but Potentially Fatal

Strangulation is a dangerous, potentially life-threatening injury suffered by domestic violence victims that is often undetected, due to the absence of visible marks. This requires first responders, both law enforcement and medical personnel, to be trained to detect signs and symptoms of this serious form of abuse. But in many cases, that is easier said than done.

Researchers continue to explore methods of detecting strangulation injury.[ii] Pritchard et al. in “Improving Identification of Strangulation Injuries in Domestic Violence” (2016) sought to explore exactly that — ways in which such injuries can be detected. They discuss strangulation as a highly gendered method through which abusers control and intimidate their victims, since it is typically a process through which a male abuser demonstrates absolute control over whether a female victim lives or dies.

They also recognize the association between strangulation and femicide. They cite research linking strangulation with a high risk of future violence, including deadly violence, making non-fatal strangulation a major risk factor for homicide, particularly femicide.

Perception Provides Protection

Because so much domestic violence flies under the radar, professionals continue to focus on enhancing the methods of detecting injury and abuse, in order to direct intervention efforts. Wherever we live, work, or spend our time, educating ourselves on what to look for and where to look in terms of spotting signs of domestic violence is critically important, as we continue to fight to cure this insidious, widespread epidemic.


[i]“AKT answer relating to domestic violence and abuse,” InnovAiT Vol 9, Issue 7, 2016, pp. e92 - e92,

[ii]Adam J. Pritchard, Amy Reckdenwald, Chelsea Nordham, and Jessie Holton, “Improving Identification of Strangulation Injuries in Domestic Violence: Pilot Data From a Researcher–Practitioner Collaboration,” Feminist Criminology Vol 13, Issue 2, 2016, pp. 160 – 181.