How to spot the signs of domestic violence and abuse

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Nov 3, 2020

How to spot the signs of domestic violence and abuse

Don’t stand by and watch abuse happen, learn how to spot the signs that someone might be facing domestic violence, and discover the things that you can do to step in and offer support

Domestic violence and abuse could take many different forms, and may include child abuse, elder abuse, and intimate partner violence. In the UK, domestic violence is defined as:

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional.’

For the year ending March 2019, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that 1.6 million women and 786,000 men aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year. But in lockdown, charities are starting to see the number of people reporting abuse rise – with a joint investigation from Panorama and Women's Aid finding that one call relating to domestic abuse was made to police every 30 seconds, in first seven weeks of lockdown.

While navigating how to handle DVA can be challenging, we don't need to stand by and let it happen. Here, Dr Parveen Ali, lead educator on the ‘Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence’ FutureLearn course, explores the signs that you should be aware of, and the practical things that you can do to step in:

Identifying signs and symptoms of abuse

Recognising someone experiencing DVA could be very tricky at times and very easy at others. But it is often very difficult for those experiencing abuse to open up to someone, and talk about their issues.

The victim could present with varied manifestations, some of which could be obvious but most could be subtle. Let’s look at some obvious indicators of DVA (however, we do need to be aware that DVA could be only one explanation of such symptoms):

Obvious manifestations may include visible injuries on the body:

Cuts, bruises, burns (cigarette or something else), broken teeth, biting or grip marks, signs of wrist or ankle joints. An individual may present with multiple injuries at different stages of healing, repeated injury (particularly to breast and abdomen), all with ambiguous or implausible explanations. The victim may provide inconsistent explanation of the cause of the injury in an attempt to hide or minimise the extent of injuries.

There could be many other manifestations which are not easily attributable to DVA. For example:

The person may present with a lack of confidence, low self esteem, withdrawn, fearful, depressed, anxious. They may present with a history of alcohol or substance misuse. In addition, there could be signs and symptoms of self-harm. There could be signs of financial issues indicating no control of access to their own money, lack of money, difficulty in paying for things that they should be able to afford, reluctance to discuss money.

Why they don’t leave

Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy for someone experiencing abuse, for many different reasons including:

  • Fear: victims may have spent a long time in an abusive relationship full of fear and control, and that fear stops them from even thinking of leaving the relationship. Fear of escalation in violence and abuse, fear losing life, fear of losing children, fear of children being abused, fear of negative reactions from family members, friends, community, and society.

  • Dependency: The victim may be financially, emotionally or psychologically dependent on the abuser. Where they are not economically independent, they may also have a fear of losing house, not having means to support themselves and children.

  • Love: A victim may still love the abuser and think that if they persisted, they will change and the situation will get better.

  • Not recognising abuse: It takes a very long time for victims to recognise abuse. Even when they recognise it, they may still believe that they themselves are responsible, and that if they behave differently the abuser may change their behaviour and stop being abusive.

  • Shame and guilt: The victim may not leave an abusive relationship because of feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. They may also be fearful of not being believed.

  • Hopelessness: A victim nay feel hapless and helpless and believe nothing will improve their situation and therefore do not make any decision to leave the relationship.

Supporting Someone experiencing Abuse

If you are concerned about a friend being abused, the first thing is to develop their trust and let them know you have noticed something is wrong. They may not be ready to talk about it, so try to give them time and space to be comfortable to talk about it. Try to provide them with private spaces and quiet times to facilitate discussion.

If they tell you that they are suffering DVA:

  • Listen to them attentively

  • Do not suggest that they are responsible for the DVA and do not blame them

  • Acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage and strength to talk to someone about experiencing DVA

  • Give them time to talk, but don't push them to talk if they don't want to

  • Acknowledge they're in a frightening and difficult situation

  • Tell them nobody deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what the abuser has said

  • Support them as a friend – encourage them to express their feelings, and allow them to make their own decisions

  • Don't tell them to leave the relationship if they're not ready – that's their decision

  • Ask if they have suffered physical harm – if so, offer to go with them to a hospital or GP

  • Help them report the assault to the police if they choose to

  • Be ready to provide information on organisations that offer help for people experiencing domestic abuse

  • Have an open, honest and direct conversation. You may start a conversation by saying something like, “I’m worried about you because …..” or “I’m concerned about your safety…”

  • If they has not spoken to anyone else, encourage them to seek the help of a local domestic violence agency that understands what they are going through, and offers specialist support and advice.

If you would like to support a friend or family member experiencing domestic violence, such situations are extremely challenging as well emotionally distressing. It's normal to feel angry and frustrated. And although you would like to protect your friend or family member, you need to remember that intervening in the situation without proper consideration can be dangerous for yourself and the victim. However, if you witness an assault/ abuse, you can call the police on 999.

Domestic abuse services

For more information and for support, visit:

  • Women’s Aid – discover more advice and information on abuse and connect with advisers via online chat services and email.

  • National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247, free 24 hour helpline

  • Shelter – information on homelessness and escaping domestic abuse.

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