Battered Women's Syndrome
Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a mental disorder that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, long-term abuse. BWS is dangerous primarily because it leads to “learned helplessness” – or psychological paralysis – where the victim becomes so depressed, defeated, and passive that she believes she is incapable of leaving the abusive situation. Though it may seem like an irrational fear, it feels absolutely real to the victim. Feeling fearful and weak, and sometimes even still holding onto the hope that her abuser will stop hurting her, the victim remains with her abuser, continuing the cycle of domestic violence and strengthening her existing BWS.
Battered woman syndrome is recognized by many states as a legitimate mental disorder, and there are support systems available to women who suffer from a situation of domestic violence and BWS. It’s worth noting, also, that the laws of many states account for violent outbursts by BWS victims. If you or someone you know is afraid of coming forward to authorities because of an injury to the abuser, there may be ways to avoid punishment. Read ahead to learn more.
How Does BWS Develop?
Battered woman syndrome begins as an abusive cycle with three stages. First, the abuser engages in behaviors that create relationship tension. Second, the tension explodes when the abuser commits some form of abuse: physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or otherwise. Third, the abuser tries to fix his wrongdoing and apologizes. This third stage is frequently referred to as the “honeymoon” stage, and involves the abuser making amends for his bad behavior. During the honeymoon stage, the abuser is forgiven, and the cycle starts all over again.
As the cycle continues, the victim starts to feel that the abuse is her own fault. When the victim takes responsibility for her own abuse, this develops into “learned helplessness.” The victim feels helpless because she has convinced herself that the abuse is her own fault, yet she cannot understand why the abuse continues if it’s her own fault. She becomes convinced of her helplessness, and that the abuse cannot be escaped. Thus, battered woman syndrome develops.
Women suffering from BWS share certain observable characteristics. Speaking with a battered woman should reveal these characteristics and help to identify her as sufferer of BWS. The common characteristics of BWS women are as follows:
1) She takes full responsibility over the abuse, and finds it difficult or impossible to blame the abuser himself;
2) She fears for her safety;
3) She irrationally believes that the abuser is all-powerful and will hurt her if she contacts the authorities and seeks help.
BWS women will frequently show signs of depression, too. They may be less enthusiastic about the activities they used to enjoy. They may also start to abuse drugs and alcohol. Once the signs of BWS are recognized, it’s important to get help.
Getting help for BWS
As with any domestic violence situation, women with battered woman syndrome should contact local law enforcement authorities and report their abuser. The police will make an arrest and the prosecution will hopefully advance. At this point, many battered women may try to recant their statements. They may feel sorry for their abuser or may fear violence if the police let him go.
A large number of battered women recant, but it’s important to keep in mind that recanting may subject the battered woman to criminal charges for lying to authorities. It’s also worth noting that recanting does not usually affect the case. If the abuser has been arrested and his case moved forward, recanting will do little to prevent this.
Battered women may also worry about testifying in court against their abuser. In domestic violence cases, the victim is required to testify in court against her abuser. BWS women are often afraid of their abusers. There are support options, however. In fact, there are people known as victim’s aides who will stand in court and provide support for the victim as she testifies.
Aside from these legal options, there are also organizations that provide psychological and emotional support to battered women. This may be necessary, as the separation process can be extremely difficult and confusing for a battered woman.
BWS and the Law
Battered woman syndrome is now recognized in legislation by many states and is considered when defending battered wives who kill or injure their abusive spouses. For the courts, BWS is an indication of the defendant's state of mind or may be considered a mitigating circumstance. For example, the court may consider that a BWS woman felt that she was justified in attacking her abuser, and that she was in reasonable fear of imminent danger due to her condition and her experiences with the abuser.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and possible a sufferer of BWS, please contact your local authorities and local support organizations. There are many avenues available for these women to receive help. (source)
How to help women abused and controlled by male partners
As Yolantha in this video says, she did not recognise she was in a domestic violence situation. She was attracted to her man because he was passionate about things. She had never heard of psychological abuse and control and what it entailed. But when she was given some information, she still didn’t want to believe it,but it's true.
How do you help a woman who is denying, minimising or excusing her partner’s abuse and control?
It depends on what stage she is at . . .
The first stage is known as precontemplation – the stage before contemplating changing the status quo. Dienemann and her colleagues (2007) suggest this stage equates to when the woman is fully committed to the relationship.
When a woman in a relationship marked by one-sided power and control is fully committed to the relationship, she might talk about the positives, hiding any evidence of being abused. She might relabel the man’s abuse as the result of a stressful job, problems with his childhood, or that he is just being a ‘normal’ man. Our society places a great deal of emphasis on the notion that it is the woman’s role to make the relationship work. While a woman is fully committed she may not separate herself from the relationship.
She may placate or submit to his requests and demands – not because she is codependent, but because it is a strategy to try to stop him from denigrating her. She may spend years trying hard to please him, or to improve herself to gain his acceptance and approval – in an attempt to reduce or stop his anger, or to reduce his suspicions that she is not a good enough housekeeper or mother, or that she is having an affair with another man. She might start to silence herself and stop ‘answering back’ – stop arguing the point – which are yet more attempts on her part to help him revert to the loving caring man he once was.
She may become more and more isolated
In the meantime he may have criticised her friends or threatened them so they may have stopped visiting, or stopped calling her. He may have explicitly told her she could not see her family or friends, he may have threatened to harm her family or friends . . . so over time she becomes more and more dependent on him for closeness and more and more isolated.
Friends and family may have tried to intervene
Friends and family may have mentioned to her that, “He’s controlling you”. She may have argued the point and made a seemingly valid excuse for his behaviours. Often friends and family might say, “He’s abusing you”, or “Leave him”. But at the time when she is very committed to making the relationship work, committed to helping him change and she is in fear of the relationship failing she may reject friends and family believing that “no one understands”.
Increasing psychological and physical harm
As months and years pass, she may become more demoralised because she has not changed him, he has continued to blame her while not taking responsibility and she has accepted the blame. It is highly probable that her self-esteem has become battered, she has lost confidence, she has become confused, numb, developed depression, post traumatic stress and anxiety. Many women by this stage may have developed physical health problems such as stomach pain, indigestion problems, fibromyalgia, headaches and chronic fatigue. She may be told by her partner she is crazy and she may feel as if she is going crazy.
Friends and family often feel helpless, powerless and hopeless
Friends and family often cannot work out how to help her or the right things to say. She may ask for help but reject it, she may just want to be heard and not want to have her problems solved. She wants to be understood. She wants to save her relationship while at the same time she wants the abuse and control to stop. If there is no physical violence it is very very difficult to define and name psychological abuse and control. It is difficult for the woman to do this. It is difficult for the man to define his behaviours as abuse – he may feel completely justified in his domination and control and disciplinarian behaviours – as a man – as head of the house. It is very difficult for friends and family and colleagues to – firstly even see psychological abuse and control because so much of it is subtle – and secondly to define it and name it even if they do suspect something.
This is stage 1 in a long process – so what can you do to help at this stage?
- At this stage it is highly likely the woman will only want to talk and be understood
- Tell her she does not deserve abuse, does not deserve to be controlled and she is not to blame
You could also do the following, but you may be rejected because she may just want to be heard
- Raise doubt in the woman’s mind – explain the ways this is not a healthy relationship
- Provide her with information about psychological abuse and control
- Tell her the difference between a healthy relationship and a relationship marked by one-sided power and control
- Do not force her to do anything – that is probably already a tactic used by her abusive and controlling partner
- Know that she probably sees any abuse as temporary – inform her of the risk of further abuse and control by a man who so far has refused to take responsibility for his behaviour
- Burman, Sondra. (2003). Battered women: Stages of change and other treatment models that instigate and sustain leaving. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 83-98.
- Dienemann, Jacqueline A., Glass, Nancy, Hanson, Ginger & Lunsford, Kathleen. (2007). The domestic violence survivor assessment (DVSA): A tool for individual counselling with women experiencing intimate partner violence. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 28, 913-925.