People of all genders can experience battered woman syndrome. The diagnosis uses the term "woman" because more women than men are victims of domestic violence. However, the term "battered person syndrome" is also used to refer to victims of any gender.
Women are also much more likely to be the victims of severe and life-threatening domestic violence. Of all homicides committed by an intimate partner in the United States, 94 percent of the victims are female.
What is battered woman syndrome?
Women are more likely than men to be the victims of domestic violence.
Battered woman syndrome is not a medical diagnosis. Instead, it describes a pattern of behavior closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychotherapist Lenore Walker developed the concept of battered woman syndrome in the late 1970s to characterize the unique pattern of behavior and emotions abuse victims experience.
Many analysts suggest that battered woman syndrome is a subtype of PTSD.
Women with battered woman syndrome change their behavior in an attempt to survive an abusive situation.
Research suggests that people in abusive relationships may be in the most danger when they leave their abusers. In fact, almost half of the women murdered in the U.S. are killed by current or former partners, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Battered woman syndrome sometimes refers to criminal behaviors displayed by women who have experienced an abusive relationship.
Rarely, people with battered woman syndrome kill their abusers because they see no other way out. In the law, traditional self-defense models may not apply to abuse victims, because they may kill their abusers at a moment when they are not being physically harmed.
However, in a limited number of cases, women have cited battered woman syndrome as a defense for these actions. Some courts now consider abuse as a mitigating factor in homicide cases, which may change the verdict or severity of the sentence.
People with battered woman syndrome typically show signs of PTSD related to the abuse. Those symptoms may continue even after leaving the abusive relationship.
- difficulty sleeping, including nightmares and insomnia
- sudden intrusive feelings about the abuse
- avoiding talking about the abuse
- avoiding situations reminiscent of the abuse
- feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness
- intense feelings of fear
- panic attacks or flashbacks to the abuse
In addition to PTSD, people with battered woman syndrome show symptoms that may be confusing to outsiders.
- learned helplessness
- refusing to leave the relationship
- believing that the abuser is powerful or knows everything
- idealizing the abuser following a cycle of abuse
- believing they deserve the abuse
Tension building is one of the stages of battered woman syndrome.
Battered woman syndrome often coincides with a cycle of abuse. A victim's symptoms may change with the abuse cycle.
The stages of the cycle of abuse include:
- Tension building: This is a period during which tension slowly builds and causes low-level conflict. The abuser may feel neglected or angry and think that these feelings justify aggression toward the victim.
- Battering phase: Eventually, the tension grows into a conflict. The abuser physically, emotionally, or sexually abuses the victim. Over time, these episodes of abuse tend to last longer and become more severe.
- Honeymoon phase: After the abuse, the abuser may feel remorse or attempt to win back the victim's trust and affection. Some victims idealize their abusers during this period. Some abusers may also justify their abuse during the honeymoon period.
Side effects and complications
Side effects of battered woman syndrome include anxiety and PTSD.
People with battered woman syndrome may struggle to leave their abusers. They can sustain lasting injuries, including organ damage, broken bones, and lost teeth. Some suffer life-threatening injuries.
Even when people survive the abuse and leave abusive relationships, battered woman syndrome may cause lasting complications, including:
- reduced self-esteem
- long-term PTSD
- long-term disability or health problems related to physical abuse
- feelings of guilt and shame
Treatment for PTSD
Women with battered woman syndrome or PTSD need help to get out of an abusive relationship. That may include financial support since many women are dependent on their abusers.
Leaving an abusive relationship can also have legal consequences, so some organizations offer free legal support to abuse survivors, particularly if there are children involved.
Once a person's living situation is stabilized, they will need help to deal with the emotional and physical aftermath of abuse. Treatment may include:
- learning about battered woman syndrome and how it affects self-esteem
- psychotherapy to deal with the emotional consequences of the abuse
- medical care to treat any physical effects of the abuse
- medication to manage depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms
- joining a support group
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult for a person to do alone. It can help to plan ahead by asking for support from loved ones, saving money, and consulting with a lawyer.
Abuse victims should also have an emergency plan, including a plan for how to protect their children.
People leaving an abusive relationship may need to go to a shelter. Shelters can connect survivors to legal and other help, as well as provide immediate safety.
The Department of Health and Human Services maintains a comprehensive list of state-by-state resources for abuse survivors.
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.
People in immediate danger should call 911 or the emergency services number in their country.
Battered woman syndrome may develop when a person faces chronic abuse; usually from someone they live with or spend significant periods of time with.
Some people with battered woman syndrome feel guilty or ashamed when they return to an abusive relationship. They may also worry that they have done something to deserve the abuse, or that people will judge them for not seeking help earlier.
The average abuse survivor leaves a relationship 6 to 8 times before they can leave for good.
It is possible to leave an abusive relationship safely, and many organizations are there to help. Seeking support from friends and loved ones can also help a person leave an abusive relationship.
Organizations that can help include:
Anyone who is experiencing domestic abuse or knows someone who is should seek help as soon as possible.