Understanding Battered Woman Syndrome
Women who live with abuse often blame themselves and believe their abuser when he says he’s sorry. They need help to learn how to break the cycle.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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If you are a woman being physically abused by your partner and you’ve lived through at least two cycles of being battered, you might have what’s known as battered woman syndrome. It may not seem like it now, but you can get help and break the cycle.
The term was coined decades ago by Lenore Walker, EdD, founder of the Domestic Violence Institute. This is how she describes one cycle of abuse, which she says has three phases:
In the first phase, tension builds between the batterer and the woman. The second phase is an explosion or encounter when the woman is the victim of battering and could be seriously injured. The third is when her abuser appears calm and loving, pleads for forgiveness, and promises to seek help. This is called the “honeymoon phase.”
Some experts see the battering cycle as a circle, Walker says. “I draw it as a graph because it repeats itself and keeps getting worse and worse.”
Walker believes battered woman syndrome is a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological disorder that is the result of facing or witnessing a terrifying event. The battered woman is so traumatized by her partner’s abuse that she may believe she is in danger even when she’s safe, Walker says.
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In her book, The Battered Woman Syndrome, Walker says most women who are battered exhibit four characteristics: They believe the violence is their fault, they can’t place the blame for the violence on anyone else, they fear for their lives and their children’s lives, and they believe their abuser is everywhere and sees everything they do.
Why Women Take It
Many battered women stay in abusive relationships. There are a number of reasons why they don’t leave, says Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in Woodmere, New York, and author of The Healing Is Mutual. They include:
- She worries she would have no way to support herself or her children if she left.
- She may come from a background of abuse and “is conditioned to look for the good in her partner just as she had to see the good in her parents,” Hirschhorn says.
- She truly believes her spouse or partner wants to help her. “It’s a ‘rescue syndrome,’” Hirschhorn says. The battered woman remembers why she fell in love with her partner and believes they can get back to where they began, Walker says.
- She’s likely to have low self-esteem. She believes she’s only getting what she deserves.
- She also might fear that if her partner learns she wants to leave, it will only heighten the abuse, says Rena Pollak, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encino, California.
Getting Out of the Abuse Cycle
Talk with your doctor.Discussing your battered woman syndrome symptoms with your doctor is a good idea because your doctor or nurse can give you resources if you don’t know where else to turn, Pollak says.
Seek shelter. Realize that you are not alone and that there are people who can help you, Pollak says. She recommends starting with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has advocates who can speak on the phone or online.
Have a safety plan.Most women can sense danger and when their partner is likely to hurt them. The National Domestic Violence Hotline says that whether you are living in an abusive relationship or planning to leave one, you should have a plan that identifies safe areas of your home where you can go if you need to. If you can’t avoid violence, make yourself small – curl up in a ball and protect your face with your arms.
Work with a counselor.A marriage counselor or therapist can help you see your strengths and help you realize it’s not your fault – despite what you’ve heard over and over again from your abuser.
Video: Battered woman syndrome: Symptoms, Stages and Treatment
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