There are many signs to look for, in a possible DV victim.
The worst damage to a victim is often emotional damage, and unfortunately it’s hard to prove when it’s time to go to court. DV victims can present with a whole gallimaufry of psychological skeletons: eating and digestive disorders; depression, suicidal and self-harming impulses, anxiety, panic, confusion, hostility, PTSD, lethargy, sleep disorders, flashbacks, vigilance, drugs and alcohol, OCD, self-harming, confusion, reluctance to be touched, passive-aggressive behavior, a history of childhood abuse. One pattern is passivity: when she realizes there is no way to “break the code” and predict the triggers that will set him off, she gives up, becomes passive, loses the ability to solve problems or to express her feelings and needs; even worse, she can lose her sensitivity to the coming of lethal danger.
Over the long term her entire personality can change. She has mood swings, co-dependency, self-destructive feelings and behaviors. She feels afraid, fear of any conflict, walking on eggshells, angry, helpless, alone, numb, isolated from family and friends. She believes she’s worthless, she can’t do anything right, she blames herself; she feels she couldn’t survive alone and is even lucky to have him. She deserves abuse, she’s crazy, she thinks. She’s ashamed to talk to others – some criticize her for not leaving the abuser sooner, while others criticize her for disliking this obviously nice guy.
Of course physical damage is to be expected. Women with serious injuries – external and internal bleeding, broken bones, burns (i.e. when the abuser throws dinner at her) – will wait days before seeking treatment, and/or explain away the injuries. Look for repeated medical visits, injuries, sexual violence, defense injuries, chest pains, hyperventilation, and physical manifestations of stress like headaches, stomachaches and rashes.
The victim may try to hide her problems. She will conceal her bruises with makeup, glasses and long sleeves, be late or absent for work.
A good listener will hear signs of abuse also. A victim may be unsure of what abuse really is, especially emotional abuse. She will seek help for vague symptoms, hesitate to describe injuries, omit details, minimize injuries, take the blame for the fights, make excuses for the abuser, focus heavily on him and her relationship with him, mention his jealousy, express belief that he can do anything (including injure and kill). She checks in with him often and gets lots of calls from him. If the abuser himself is there, she tries hard to please him, agreeing with all he says; he may try to speak on her behalf, making her uncomfortable, sticking to her like glue, calling often. She may ignore or even abuse the children, who may seem frightened. She may express initial shock at being attacked, and have a clear memory of an particularly vicious attack. She may have an upbringing that is religious and/or evincing a traditional view of marriage.
If the listener has known her a while, she may seem to have "shrunk", since beginning the relationship, becoming less than she was.
There are a number of men’s groups like the National Coalition For Men who regularly try to peddle discredited myths about women, asserting that women attack men as often as the other way around, and that many claims of abuse are faked. This, alas, is inaccurate. A woman is the best judge of whether she’s battered – if anything, women minimize abuse rather than exaggerating it. The overwhelming majority of women who claim abuse are being abused. If she says it’s happening, it’s happening. And incidentally, men are much more able than women, to put their partners in daily fear for their safety, and exploit that fear to control their partner.
One researcher came up with four questions a doctor should ask, the “HITS” list: “In the past year, has your partner hurt you, insulted you, threatened you or screamed at you?” or, if you want to go further, “Has someone frightened you, slapped, punched, kicked, raped, harassed, humiliated you? Tried to control what you say and do? Throw things, break things etc?”
Or you could ease into the questions. How are things at home? What happens when disagreements arise? Is there anger, fear, control, jealousy, spying? Insults, punishments? Pushing, hitting, rape?