All too often, when people hear of 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 posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychologist Lenore Walker, EdD, coined the term in her groundbreaking 1979 book, The Battered Woman.
“Battered woman’s syndrome is the psychological effects of living with intimate partner violence,” Walker says. She notes that battered woman’s syndrome is not a mental illness, but the result of what happens when you live day in and day out with trauma. However, PTSD, which people with battered woman syndrome often also have, is considered to be a mental illness.
The physical, sexual, and psychological abuse happens in cycles, Walker says. The tension builds, then there is an outburst of violence, followed by the abuser apologizing and promising to do better. And then the cycle starts all over again.
Battered woman syndrome also involves “coercive control,” in which the partner needs to know where she is at all times, cuts her off from friends and family, and retains financial control so she doesn’t have the 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) cuts across every demographic group, and the most common risk factor is simply being a woman, Walker says.
Consider these statistics:
- Every year, more that 10 million women and men are physically abused by an intimate partner (a heterosexual or same-sex spouse, live-in partner, or boyfriend/girlfriend), according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
- About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have ever had an intimate partner inflict severe 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 done to know if men go through the same psychological effects as women from intimate partner abuse, according to Walker. “We can't assume that 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 saw their own mother being abused by a partner are more likely to become involved 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 re-experience past traumatic events in their mind, feeling as if they are 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 more scary and more frightening, because pieces of the earlier abuse are in the person’s mind at the same time.” Intrusive thoughts can also come in 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 could mean being startled by noises and other triggers, crying often, and having problems with sleep.
Avoidance: When a person can’t physically get out of a situation, they might psychologically become distanced from what is going on by going into denial, or minimizing what is happening to them and numbing their emotions, Walker says.
Cognitive changes: “When you feel that you have to protect yourself at all times, you can experience confusion and a lack of attention,” Walker says. A woman who’s been abused by her partner may also not be able to remember all of the details of her abuse and have depression.
Researchers have studied the long-term effects of brain injury on women who have been repeatedly beaten and strangled by their partner. They found, not surprisingly, that repeated brain injuries from abuse can have long-term effects on memory, learning, and cognition.
Disruptions in other relationships: A key aspect of BWS is when the attacker tries to cut off or control all relationships their partner has, so she can’t turn to her friends or family for help, Walker says. In one study of women who had experienced intimate partner violence, 62% said they were either forbidden or rarely had contact with friends or family.
Health and body image problems: Not only is there physical damage from the beatings and abuse, but the extreme stress and anxiety can also lead to physiological symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems. “Many battered women also don’t eat well, because their partner has so much control over them that they get a very distorted body image,” Walker says.
Problems with sex. The person who’s been a target of intimate partner violence may have long-term problems with intimacy, even if they get out of the abusive relationship.
Dissociation: Battered women often develop the defense mechanism of being able to psychologically detach from their body during a traumatic experience, Walker says.
How to Get Help
“So many people say, ‘Well, why doesn’t she just leave?’” Walker says. “ But the most dangerous time in a battering relationship is at the point of separation.”
Ruth Glenn, president/CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), offers this advice: “If you feel as though you're experiencing domestic violence from someone who claims to care about you, you need to make the assessment about your safety, about your circumstances, and then determine what is the best way to address it, which may mean leaving, or it may mean seeking outside support so that you can stay there safely until you can leave.”
Of course, many women have children or jobs they can’t leave right away. That makes the decision to leave much more complicated. “The decision to stay may not seem rational to outsiders,” Glenn says. “But when you're faced with decisions that are literally about your life, you have to understand that they've got to be able to do their own assessment.”
Steps you can take:
Make a safety plan. Glenn says, “Ask yourself, what do I need to do to be safe in any circumstance? That could mean letting a neighbor know that if you flip on your porch light, she should call the police, or coming up with a code word so when you call a friend or relative and use that word, they know to come and pick you up.”
Reach out for help: Find resources in your community that can shelter you and provide protection when you leave, such as domestic violence shelters, places of worship, and hospitals. Call the NCADV hotline (800-799-7233) for more information and guidance.
You can also tell a health care provider or a therapist. While they are obligated by law to report domestic abuse, they can talk with you about what’s going on and help you make a safety plan.
Calling 911 is an option, of course – but many times, people targeted by their partner are afraid to file a report because they fear what their partner might do afterward. If you are afraid to do so, you may want to ask if your local police department has a Victim Services Unit or Special Crimes Unit and contact them directly.
Consider therapy to help yourself heal. Therapy can help a survivor of domestic abuse rebuild their life and have healthy relationships. Walker has 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 make a new life, Walker says. “Part of the treatment is to try to help women decide what they want in a relationship,” Walker says. “Most of the women were doing fine until they got involved with the batterer. We try to help them become more independent and more empowered.”