What is battered woman syndrome?
Too often, when people hear about a woman who has been repeatedly beaten by her partner, someone asks, “Why does she stay with them?” »
The answer is extremely complicated, but some answers can be found by understanding a condition known as battered woman syndrome, which is considered a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychologist Lenore Walker, EdD, coined the term in her groundbreaking 1979 book, The battered woman.
“The battered woman syndrome is the psychological effects of domestic violence,” says Walker. She notes that battered woman syndrome is not a mental illness, but the result of what happens when you live with trauma day in and day out. However, PTSD, which is often also suffered by people with battered woman syndrome, is considered a mental illness.
Physical, sexual and psychological abuse occur in cycles, says Walker. Tension mounts, then there is an outburst of violence, followed by the abuser apologizing and promising to do better. And then the cycle begins again.
Battered woman syndrome also involves “coercive control,” in which the partner must know where she is at all times, cuts her off from friends and family, and retains financial control so she does not have money to leave. Partners may not only threaten to kill the woman and her children, other relatives or pets if she leaves, but also threaten to kill themselves.
Who is at risk for battered woman syndrome?
Battered woman syndrome (BWS) affects all demographic groups, and the most common risk factor is simply being female, Walker says.
Consider these statistics:
- Each year, more than 10 million women and men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner (a heterosexual or same-sex spouse, living partner, or boyfriend/girlfriend), according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
- About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have seen an intimate partner inflict serious physical violence, according to the CDC.
Men are also abused by their partners, and the term “battered person syndrome” is also sometimes used. But there hasn’t been enough research to know whether men experience the same psychological effects as women from domestic violence, according to Walker. “We can’t assume it’s the same syndrome because men and women have different levels of power in society,” she says.
Research shows that women who were sexually or physically abused as children and/or who witnessed their own mother being abused by a partner are more likely to be involved in an abusive relationship as adults.
What are the symptoms of battered woman syndrome?
Walker describes eight criteria that define BWS:
Intrusive memories: Women with BWS often relive past traumatic events in their minds, feeling like they’re happening over and over again, Walker says. “So you have the psychological effect of past events as well as the present event, which makes it even scarier and scarier because elements of the prior abuse are in the person’s mind at the same time.” Intrusive thoughts can also take the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and daydreams.
Anxiety: Women with BWS have high levels of anxiety and hypervigilance when something doesn’t seem right, Walker says. This leads to the fight or flight response. This can mean being startled by noises and other triggers, crying often, and having trouble sleeping.
Avoidance: When a person can’t physically get out of a situation, they can psychologically distance themselves from what’s going on by denying or minimizing what’s happening to them and numbing their emotions, Walker says.
Cognitive changes: “When you feel like you have to protect yourself at all times, you may experience confusion and lack of attention,” Walker says. A woman who has been abused by her partner may also not be able to remember all the details of his abuse and may suffer from depression.
Researchers have studied the long-term effects of brain damage on women who have been repeatedly beaten and strangled by their partner. They found, unsurprisingly, that repeated brain damage from abuse can have long-term effects on memory, learning, and cognition.
Disruptions in other relationships: A key aspect of BWS is when the abuser tries to cut off or control all of their partner’s relationships so they can’t turn to friends or family for help, Walker says. In a study of women who had experienced domestic violence, 62% said they were either forbidden or rarely had contact with friends or family.
Health and body image issues: Not only does beating and abuse cause physical damage, but extreme stress and anxiety can also lead to physiological symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal issues. “A lot of battered women don’t eat right either, because their partner has so much control over them that they have a very distorted body image,” Walker says.
Problems with sex. The person who has been the target of domestic violence may have long-term intimacy issues, even if they leave the abusive relationship.
Dissociation: Battered women often develop the defense mechanism of being able to psychologically detach themselves from their bodies during a traumatic experience, Walker says.
How to get help
“So many people say, ‘Well, why doesn’t she leave? ‘” Walker said. “But the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you separate.”
Ruth Glenn, President/CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), offers this advice: “If you feel like you are being victimized by someone who claims to care about you need to assess your safety, about your situation, and then figure out what’s the best way to deal with it, which may mean leaving, or it may mean seeking outside support so you can stay there safely until you can leave.
Of course, many women have children or jobs they can’t leave right away. This makes the decision to leave much more complicated. “The decision to stay may not seem rational to outsiders,” says Glenn. “But when you’re faced with decisions that literally affect your life, you have to understand that they have to be able to make their own assessment.”
Steps you can follow:
Make a security plan. Glenn says, “Ask yourself, what must I do to be safe in all circumstances? This could mean letting a neighbor know that if you turn on your porch light they should call the police or come up with a password so that when you call a friend or relative and use that word they know that he must come and get you. .”
Ask for help: Find resources in your community that can shelter and protect you when you leave, such as domestic violence shelters, places of worship, and hospitals. Call the NCADV hotline (800-799-7233) for more information and advice.
You can also talk to a health care provider or therapist. Although they are required by law to report domestic violence, they can talk to you about what is going on and help you develop a safety plan.
Calling 911 is an option, of course — but often people targeted by their partner are afraid to file a report because they fear what their partner might do next. If you are afraid to do so, you can ask if your local police department has a victim services unit or a special crimes unit and contact them directly.
Consider therapy to help you heal. Therapy can help a victim of domestic violence rebuild their life and have healthy relationships. Walker developed a program called Survivor Therapy Empowerment Treatment (STEP), which she describes as “a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, feminist therapy, and relationship therapy.” A professional counselor is another resource.
As impossible as it may seem if you’re in an abusive relationship, there is a way to rebuild your life, says Walker. “Part of the treatment is trying to help women decide what they want in a relationship,” says Walker. “Most women were fine until they got involved with the abuser. We try to help them become more independent and self-sufficient.
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