Battered woman syndrome and intimate partner violence
People who find themselves in an abusive relationship often do not feel safe or happy. Yet, they 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 happens 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. The relationship 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. Fifteen percent of all violent crime involves 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.
What is battered woman syndrome?
Anyone can experience partner abuse, regardless of age or gender.
Psychotherapist Lenore Walker developed the concept of battered woman syndrome (BWS) 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 their situation.
Walker noted that the patterns of behavior that result from abuse often resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She describes it as a sub-type of PTSD.
What types of abuse does it involve?
Abuse of an intimate partner 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: A person uses threatening tactics that cause a person to feel fear and concern for their safety.
- Physical abuse: Including slapping, shoving, burning, and the use of a knife or gun to cause bodily harm.
- Psychological aggression: Examples include calling a person names, humiliating them, or coercive control, which means behaving in a way that aims to control the person.
Coercive control is a legal offense in some countries, but not in the U.S.
According to the NCADV, a person who is experiencing abuse may:
- feel isolated, anxious, depressed, or helpless
- be embarrassed and fear judgment and stigmatization
- love the person who is harming them and believe they will change
- be emotionally withdrawn and lack support from family and friends
- deny that anything is wrong or excuse the person who is abusing them
- be unaware of the type of help that is available
- have moral or religious reasons for staying in the relationship
When a person has been through an abusive relationship, the impact can continue long after leaving the relationship.
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, and worthlessness
- have intense feelings of fear
- have panic attacks or flashbacks to the abuse
The person may also behave in ways that can be difficult for someone outside the relationship to understand.
- refusing to leave the relationship
- believing that the abuser is powerful or knows everything
- idealizing the person who carried out the abuse when things are calm
- believing they deserve the abuse
Physical abuse can lead to injuries such as organ damage, broken bones, and lost teeth. Sometimes the injuries can be lasting and possibly life-threatening.
The impact of abuse on a person's wellbeing can be severe. For this reason, it is important to know that help is available and to seek help.
Abuse can happen on a single occasion, it can be a long-term problem, it can happen most of the time or only from time to time.
It often occurs in cycles.
- Tension building: Tension slowly builds and causes low-level conflict. The person who is carrying out the abuse may feel neglected or angry. They may think that these feelings justify their aggression toward the victim.
- 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 individual 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 happened.
According to the NCADV, people who carry out abuse can often be charming and pleasant outside the periods of abuse. These factors, too, can make it hard for a partner to leave.
The effects of partner abuse can last for a long time and include depression and fear.
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 individual leaves the relationship, they may experience lasting complications.
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 for a person to do alone. However, support groups and advocates are available to help those who are concerned about their situation or have decided to make the break.
It can take time to make the decision.
Ways to plan ahead include:
- asking for support from a trusted friend or family member
- saving money, if possible
- preparing to explain your experience in a calm way when you approach an advocate, lawyer, or other support
- being ready to give concrete examples of events and actions you have taken to keep yourself and your family safe
- seeking out contact details of organizations that can help
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 maybe this is not 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
- 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 perpetrators?
The CDC note that a number of factors or characteristics may be present in a person who uses violence in a relationship.
These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- low self-esteem and possibly social isolation
- a lack of non-violent problem-solving skills and a habit of using aggression to resolve difficulties
- witnessing abuse between parents as a child
- a desire for power and control
- having specific views about gender roles
- having a mental health issue, such as a personality disorder
- the use of 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 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 to not currently recommend this, as undergoing experimental therapy while staying 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 offering to support those who are experiencing or trying to leave an abusive relationship.
They can offer advice, help the person get medical assistance, and assist with finding accommodation where the person can stay until they feel safe and their situation becomes stable.
These organizations can also put people 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 ways to find 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/
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, calling 911 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.
Group therapy can help by providing a place to share experiences.
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 symptoms
- joining a support group
- attending CBT
Group CBT can give individuals the chance to share what they have been through with others who have had a similar experience and 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.
Not only health problems can arise from 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, 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 children to have equal access to both parents.
Intimate partner abuse can lead to mental and physical health problems, feelings of fear, low self-esteem, and guilt, and symptoms of PTSD, even after leaving the relationship.
Figures published by the CDC show that from 2003–2014, more than 50 percent of all homicides of adult women in the U.S. involved IPV. Over 11 percent of these women experienced violence in the month before they died.
These statistics underline the importance of knowing that, for people who are in an abusive relationship, help is at hand.
To get information about help in your state, click here.