Battered woman syndrome, or battered person syndrome, is a psychological condition that can develop when a person experiences abuse, usually at the hands of an intimate partner.
People who find themselves in an abusive relationship often do not feel safe or happy. However, they may feel unable to leave for many reasons. These include fear and a belief that they are the cause of the abuse.
Abuse can affect people of any gender, age, social class, or education. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to the type of abuse that occurs within a relationship as intimate partner violence (IPV).
The CDC note that an intimate partner relationship can take many forms. It includes — but is not limited to — spouses, people who are dating, sexual partners, and people who do not have a sexual relationship. Relationships may be heterosexual or same-sex.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the United States experience violence from an intimate partner. Around 15% of all violent crimes involve an intimate partner.
Many agencies and organizations exist to help people who experience IPV. Read on to find out more about abuse in relationships and how to get help.
Psychotherapist Lenore Walker developed the concept of battered woman syndrome in the late 1970s.
She wanted to describe the unique pattern of behavior and emotions that can develop when a person experiences abuse and as they try to find ways to survive the situation.
Walker noted that the patterns of behavior that result from abuse often resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She described battered woman syndrome as a subtype of PTSD.
What types of abuse can it involve?
IPV can take many forms, including emotional, physical, and financial abuse.
The CDC currently list the following as types of IPV:
- Sexual abuse: This includes rape, unwanted sexual contact, and verbal sexual harassment.
- Stalking: This involves a person using threatening tactics to cause a person to feel fear and concern for their safety.
- Physical abuse: This includes slapping, pushing, burning, and the use of a knife, gun, or other weapon to cause bodily harm.
- Psychological aggression: Examples include name-calling, humiliation, or coercive control, which means behaving in a way that aims to control a person.
Coercive control is a legal offense in some countries, but this is not the case in the U.S.
According to the NCADV, a person experiencing abuse may:
- feel isolated, anxious, depressed, or helpless
- be embarrassed or fear judgment and stigmatization
- love the person who is abusing them and believe that they will change
- be emotionally withdrawn
- deny that anything is wrong or excuse the other person
- be unaware of the type of help that is available
- have perceived moral or religious reasons for staying in the relationship
The person may also behave in ways that can be difficult for people outside the relationship to understand.
These behaviors include:
- refusing to leave the relationship
- believing that the other person is powerful or knows everything
- when things are calm, idealizing the person who carried out the abuse
- believing that they deserve the abuse
The impact of an abusive relationship can continue long after leaving it. For some time, the person may:
- experience sleep problems, including nightmares and insomnia
- have sudden intrusive feelings about the abuse
- avoid talking about the abuse
- avoid situations that remind them of the abuse
- experience feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- have intense feelings of fear
- have panic attacks or flashbacks to the abuse
Physical abuse can also lead to injuries such as organ damage, broken bones, and lost teeth. Sometimes, these injuries can be lasting and possibly life threatening.
The impact of abuse on a person’s well-being can be severe. For this reason, it is important to understand that help is available and to seek help if possible.
Abuse can happen on a single occasion, or it can be a long-term problem. It can happen most of the time, or only from time to time.
It can also occur in cycles. The list below details some potential stages of an abuse cycle:
- Tension building: Tension slowly builds and causes low-level conflict. The person carrying out the abuse may feel neglected or angry. They may think that these feelings justify their aggression toward the other person.
- Battering phase: Over time, the tension grows into a conflict, culminating in abuse, which may be physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual. Over time, these episodes may last longer and become more severe.
- Honeymoon phase: After carrying out the abuse, the person may feel remorse. They may attempt to win back their partner’s trust and affection. The person who experiences the abuse may idealize their partner during this period, seeing only their good side and making excuses for what they did.
According to the NCADV, people who carry out abuse can often be “charming” and “pleasant” outside the periods of abuse. This can make it hard for a person to leave an abusive relationship.
The experience of abuse can lead to:
- reduced self-esteem
- long-term symptoms of PTSD
- long-term disability or health problems related to physical abuse
- feelings of guilt and shame
Even if the person leaves the relationship, they may experience lasting complications.
In fact, the impact of abuse can last for years. On average, a person who leaves an abusive relationship will do so seven times before they make the final break, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult to do alone. However, support groups and advocates are available to help those concerned about their situation and those who have decided to leave an abusive relationship.
It can take time to make this decision. Some ways to plan ahead include:
- asking for support from a trusted friend or family member
- saving money, if possible
- preparing to explain the experience in a calm way when approaching an advocate, lawyer, or other form of support
- being ready to give concrete examples of events and actions the person has taken to keep themselves and their family safe
- seeking contact details of organizations that can help
Some challenges that can make it harder to act include:
- a lack of financial resources, if the person has been financially dependent on their partner
- a sense of isolation and fear that nobody will understand
- a sense of guilt that this may not be the right thing to do
- a fear of further violence or of pressure to return to the same situation
- concerns about legal consequences or financial or material loss, especially if there are children involved
- a belief that the abuse is one’s own fault, leading to a sense of helplessness or powerlessness and an ongoing belief that, somehow, things can get better
What about the perpetrator?
The CDC note that a number of factors and characteristics may be present in a person who abuses in a relationship.
These include, but are not limited to:
- having low self-esteem and possibly social isolation
- having a lack of nonviolent problem-solving skills and a habit of using aggression to resolve difficulties
- witnessing abuse between parents as a child
- having a desire for power and control
- having specific views about gender roles
- having a mental health condition, such as a personality disorder
- having a tendency to use alcohol or drugs
In time, scientists might find an effective way to help a person who carries out abuse to change their behavior. However, most research so far has focused on people referred by the criminal justice system, which means that they already have a conviction for a crime against a partner.
Some studies have shown an “alarmingly high” rate of repeat offenses. Overall, there is not enough evidence to support any specific intervention to help people who carry out this type of abuse.
The CDC recommend a range of community programs in an attempt to prevent it.
However, experts do not currently recommend this, as undergoing experimental therapy while in an abusive relationship could increase the risk for the partner who is experiencing the abuse.
Organizations that can help
Help is available. There are organizations that specialize in supporting those experiencing or trying to leave an abusive relationship.
They can offer advice, help a person get medical assistance, and assist with finding accommodation a person can stay at until they feel safe and their situation becomes more stable.
These organizations can also put a person in touch with an advocate, who will stand by them as they go through the process of recovery. Advocates play an important role in coordinating care for survivors and their families.
Here are some sources of help:
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health have a list of contacts to get help in each state.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers online and phone help, as well as access to local resources. Call 1-800-799-7233 for immediate assistance. They also have a chatline: http://www.thehotline.org/what-is-live-chat/.
- The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) website offers information, resources, and advice.
- The National Dating Abuse Hotline number is (866) 331-9474. Their chatline is http://www.loveisrespect.org/.
When a person is in immediate danger, calling the emergency services may help protect them from serious harm.
After leaving an abusive relationship, it can take a long time to deal with the emotional and physical impact of the abuse, and the person may need a lot of support.
Options that can help with recovery include:
- learning about the impact of abuse, including how it affects self-esteem
- psychotherapy, to deal with the emotional consequences
- medical care, to treat any physical effects or injuries
- medication, to manage depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other related conditions
- support groups
Group CBT can give people the chance to share what they have been through with others who have had a similar experience, and to join with others in finding new ways to cope. It is essential to create an atmosphere where members can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Health problems are not the only consequence of abuse. There can also be legal implications.
In 2005, the Federal Violence Against Women Act declared that abuse is a violation of a woman’s human rights.
If there are children involved, the court may need to decide on custody arrangements. This can be difficult for the parent who has experienced the abuse, as the court may consider it best for any children to have equal access to both parents.
IPV, or battered woman syndrome, can lead to mental and physical health problems, feelings of fear, low self-esteem, and guilt, as well as symptoms of PTSD. These can persist long after leaving an abusive relationship.
The CDC suggest that from 2003 to 2014, more than 50% of all homicides of adult women in the U.S. involved IPV. Over 11% of these women experienced violence in the month before they died.
These statistics underline the importance of understanding that, for people in an abusive relationship, help is at hand.
To get information about help in a specific state, click here.