Serious, long-term domestic abuse can result in a mental disorder called battered woman syndrome. Battered woman syndrome, which is also sometimes called battered wife syndrome, is considered a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
With battered woman syndrome, a woman may develop a learned helplessness that causes her to believe she deserves the abuse and that she can’t get away from it. In many cases, it’s why women don’t report their abuse to police or avoid telling friends and family what’s really going on.
Battered woman syndrome is serious, which is why it’s taken into account in homicide cases when women murder their abusive partners.
There are four stages that women who develop battered woman syndrome typically go through:
- Denial: The woman is unable to accept that she’s being abused, or she justifies it as “just being that once.”
- Guilt: She believes she has caused the abuse.
- Enlightenment: In this phase, she realizes that she didn’t deserve the abuse and acknowledges that her partner has an abusive personality.
- Responsibility: She accepts that only the abuser holds responsibility. In many cases, this is when she’ll try to escape the relationship.
Some women in abusive relationships never make it past the first 2 or 3 stages, as domestic violence can be fatal.
How does it develop?
Battered woman syndrome is caused by sustained and serious domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse typically follows an extremely predictable cycle, as follows:
- The abuser will win over the 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.
Women become trapped in abusive relationships for many reasons, which can include:
- financial dependence on the abuser, which is often manufactured by the abuser
- 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 okay, and they can change the behavior
As a woman becomes trapped in the cycle of abuse, battered woman syndrome can develop. This syndrome makes it difficult for women to regain control.
What are the signs?
Battered woman syndrome results in several distinct symptoms. A woman in an abusive relationship may:
- think the abuse is her fault
- hide the abuse from friends and family
- fear for her life or the lives of her children
- irrationally believe that the abuser is all-knowing and can see her every movement
- be afraid and never know what side of their partner they’ll see that day — a loving partner or an abuser
If you’re concerned about a family member or friend, watch for several important symptoms that could signal she’s in an abusive relationship and needs 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 a car
- showing an extreme difference in personality
- getting frequent calls from a significant other, especially calls that require them to check in or that make them seem anxious
- having a partner who has a temper, is easily jealous, or very possessive
Pay attention to these signs. You should also watch for clothing that could be hiding bruises, like long-sleeve shirts in the summer.
Short-term and long-term side effects
Several serious side effects are associated with battered woman syndrome.
Short-term side effects that may be seen immediately include:
- lowered self-esteem
- damaged relationships with friends and family
- severe anxiety
- feeling worthless or hopeless
- feeling like they have no control
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
The first step in treating battered woman syndrome is to get the woman to a safe place away from her abuser. She isn’t safe until she does this. 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 the victim is detailing the abuse. The therapist should help her to see that it was not her fault. They should facilitate empowerment.
The therapist should also evaluate for other mental health conditions and factors that may have contributed to the woman not recognizing the abusive relationship in the early stages.
Anxiety and depression can result from battered woman syndrome. The therapist will use a combination of anti-anxiety medications, antidepressant medications, and talk therapy to help the woman regain control of her life.
In some cases, the therapist may recommend interpersonal therapy, where they help the woman establish stronger relationships with her support system. These supportive relationships may have been damaged due to isolation caused by the abuse.
How to get help
If you think you have battered woman syndrome, it’s important to get help right away. Reach out to your support system as soon as possible if you feel comfortable doing so. You can also go to a therapist or call a domestic abuse hotline, whose numbers you can find on the following pages:
The therapist 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.
If you believe that you are in immediate physical danger, call 911 and ask the police to come immediately. Domestic abuse can be life-threatening, and women are often murdered by abusive husbands. Don’t take the risk.
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 like to ask, “Why would she stay? Why would she let this happen?” Many women in these circumstances feel shame or are afraid to admit what’s been happening. Make it easier for them to do so, and let them know that you’re always there if they need anything.
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.
You should never force someone with battered woman syndrome to do something, however. They’re already being controlled by one person. And if you force them to leave before they’re ready, there’s a good chance they’ll go back to the abuser, putting them in even more danger.
Battered woman syndrome and the law
Battered woman syndrome is often accompanied by legal issues. Women who press charges against their abusers, for example, need to testify against them in court. Women leaving abusive relationships may also file restraining orders to keep their abusers away from them and their family.
Many states recognize battered woman syndrome as a serious mental health condition. As a result, many of these states have laws that account for violent outbursts from battered women who injure or even kill their abusers. Legally, it can be argued (and won) that these instances were the result of severe mental distress or done in self-defense.
Battered woman syndrome is a serious mental health disorder that comes as a result of serious domestic abuse, often at the hands of a romantic partner. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, get help as soon as possible. The following resources can get you the help that you need: