Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome, also known as battered person syndrome, can be the product of long-term domestic abuse. Battered woman syndrome is considered a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

People living with battered woman syndrome may feel helpless. This can cause them to wrongly believe they deserve the abuse and that they can’t get away from it. In many cases, this is why people don’t report their abuse to police or loved ones.

If you believe you or someone close to you is living with battered woman syndrome, know that it’s possible to treat this condition and lead a full life. Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of battered woman syndrome, as well as how it’s treated.

The stages of battered woman syndrome

Because of the unique circumstances that different people can find themselves in, battered woman syndrome may not look the same in everyone who lives with it. 

That being said, there are generally thought to be four stages of battered woman syndrome:

  1. The person is unable to accept that they’re being abused, or they justify it as being “just that once.”
  2. The person believes they caused the abuse.
  3. In this phase, the person realizes that they didn’t deserve the abuse and acknowledges that their partner has an abusive personality.
  4. The person accepts that only the abuser holds responsibility for the abuse. In many cases, this is when they’ll explore their options for leaving the relationship.

How battered woman syndrome develops

Battered woman syndrome is caused by domestic abuse. While it’s something that can happen between intimate partners, the term “domestic abuse” is an umbrella term that can include things like child and elder abuse, too. 

Domestic abuse between intimate partners typically follows a certain cycle:

  • The abuser will win over a new partner, often moving quickly into a relationship with tactics like “love bombing,” grand romantic gestures, and pressuring for commitment early.
  • The abuser will be emotionally or physically abusive. This often starts small, like a slap instead of a punch or punching the wall next to their partner.
  • The abuser will feel guilty, swearing they’ll never do it again, and be overtly romantic to win their partner over.
  • There will be a temporary “honeymoon” period, where the abuser is on their best behavior, luring their partner into thinking that they’re safe and things really will be different.
  • Abuse occurs, starting the cycle all over again.

People become trapped in abusive relationships for many reasons, which can include:

  • financial dependence on the abuser, which the abuser often manufactures
  • wanting to have a complete family unit for their children’s sake
  • being afraid to leave
  • disbelief or denial that the partner is actually abusive
  • severe depression or low self-esteem that makes them think the abuse is their fault
  • believing that if the abuser loves them, it’s OK, and they can change the behavior

As a person becomes trapped in the cycle of abuse, battered woman syndrome can develop. This syndrome makes it difficult for people to regain control of their lives. 

The signs of battered woman syndrome

Battered woman syndrome results in several distinct symptoms. A person in an abusive relationship may: 

  • think the abuse is their fault
  • hide the abuse from friends and family
  • fear for their life or the lives of their children
  • believe that the abuser is all-knowing and can see their every movement
  • be afraid and never know what side of their partner they’ll see that day — a loving partner or an abuser

Warning signs

If you’re concerned about a family member or friend, watch for several important symptoms that could signal that they’re in an abusive relationship and need help. These include:

  • withdrawing and making excuses not to see friends or family or do activities they once did (this can be something the abuser is controlling)
  • seeming anxious around their partner or afraid of their partner
  • having frequent bruises or injuries they lie about or can’t explain
  • having limited access to money, credit cards, or transportation
  • showing an extreme difference in personality
  • getting frequent calls from a significant other, especially calls that require them to check in or make them seem anxious
  • having a partner who has a temper, becomes jealous easily, or is very possessive
  • wearing clothing that could be hiding bruises, like long-sleeve shirts in the summer

Side effects of battered woman syndrome

Several serious side effects are associated with battered woman syndrome.

Short term

Short-term side effects that may be seen immediately include:

  • depression
  • lowered self-esteem
  • damaged relationships with friends and family
  • severe anxiety
  • feeling worthless or hopeless
  • feeling like they have no control

Long term

Research has shown that battered woman syndrome and domestic abuse can result in long-term health consequences that can last for decades. Long-term effects can include:

  • PTSD-like symptoms, including flashbacks, dissociative states, and violent outbursts against the abuser
  • health issues caused by stress, such as high blood pressure and associated cardiac problems
  • health issues from the physical abuse, such as damaged joints or arthritis
  • chronic back pain or headaches
  • increased risk of developing diabetes, asthma, depression, and immune dysfunction due to long-term stress

Treatment for battered woman syndrome

The first step in treating battered woman syndrome is to get the person to a safe place away from their abuser.

If you or someone you care about is living with battered woman syndrome, you can form a safety plan and a getaway plan without the abuser. It’s also good to have a doctor examine any injuries that may have been sustained in the abuse.

A therapist with experience in PTSD or domestic abuse should be consulted. The therapist needs to validate the victim when they detail their abuse. 

The therapist should help them to understand that none of this was their fault and should also help empower them. 

Treatment strategies 

Anxiety and depression can result from battered woman syndrome. Treatment plans for these conditions may include a combination of anti-anxiety medications, antidepressant medications, and talk therapy to help the person regain control of their life. 

In some cases, the therapist may recommend interpersonal therapy, where they help the person establish stronger relationships with their support system. These supportive relationships may have been damaged due to isolation caused by the abuse. 

How to get help for battered woman syndrome

If you think you or someone you love is living with battered woman syndrome, it’s important to get help right away. 

It’s key to reach out to your support system as soon as possible, if you feel comfortable doing so. You can also go to a therapist. 

If you’re looking for more support, you can call a domestic abuse hotline:

Both therapists and hotlines can help provide you with resources and information, such as where to find a shelter. They can also help you develop a safety plan to get away from the abuser. 

In case of emergency

If you believe that you’re in immediate physical danger, call 911 and ask the police to come immediately.

How to help others

If you suspect that someone is in an abusive relationship or has battered woman syndrome, it’s important for you to withhold judgement. 

Even though the abuser is in the wrong, many people may question why a person would stay. Many people in these circumstances feel shame or are afraid to admit what’s happening. Make it easier for them to do so and let them know you’re always there if they need you.

If possible, help them gain access to resources they don’t have. Help them develop a safety plan to get away from their abusers. If you can, give them access to transportation and information about shelters. 

It’s important to remember that you should never force someone with battered woman syndrome to take action. If you try forcing them to leave before they’re ready, they may go back to the abuser.

Battered woman syndrome and the law

Battered woman syndrome is often accompanied by legal issues. People who press charges against their abusers, for example, need to testify against them in court. People leaving abusive relationships may also file restraining orders against their abusers. 

Many states recognize battered woman syndrome as a serious mental health condition. As a result, many of them have laws that account for battered people who fight back against their abusers.

Bottom Line:

Battered woman syndrome is a serious mental health condition that develops as a result of serious domestic abuse, often at the hands of an intimate partner. But treatment is possible for people who escape, and it’s possible to move forward with your life.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, it’s important to get help as soon as you’re able. The following resources can get you the help that you need:

References:
Campbell JC. (2002). Health consequences of intimate partner violence.
sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673602083368
https://www.healthline.com/reviewers/nicole-washington-do-mph
Written by Ana Gotter — Updated on May 6, 2021
Strucke M, et al. (n.d.). Battered woman syndrome.
courses2.cit.cornell.edu/sociallaw/student_projects/BatteredWomanSyndrome.htm
Walker LE. (1991). Post-traumatic stress disorder in women: Diagnosis and treatment of battered woman syndrome.
psycnet.apa.org/journals/pst/28/1/21/ 
https://www.healthline.com/health/battered-woman-syndrome
Photo Credit: Yuris Alhumaydy

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