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Why Women Stay: Understanding Battered Woman Syndrome

Why Women Stay: Understanding Battered Woman Syndrome

Intimate partner violence often leads to psychological changes that cause women to take responsibility for the abuse.

To put it lightly, the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States is alarming. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women have been victims of some sort of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime, and 1 in 4 have been a victim of severe physical violence.

When it comes to getting help, the statistics are also shocking—less than 34 percent of those injured by intimate partners reach out for medical treatment after being abused.

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a psychological condition resulting from abuse, most commonly from an intimate partner. While more women are abused by intimate partners than men, “battered person syndrome” can be used to describe the abuse of victims of all genders.

BWS is extremely serious and can have lasting implications for both the woman and any family members involved.

What is battered woman syndrome?
BWS is used to classify the behavior and lasting effects of abuse. While the term battered woman syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis, it is considered a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that comes about following a traumatic event. Some, but not all, abused women will be clinically diagnosed with PTSD (by way of the DSM-5, the handbook used by medical professionals to diagnose mental health conditions).

The term has been around since the 1970’s when psychologist Lenore Walker first coined the classification in an effort to describe what abuse victims—specifically women—go through.

Many battered women consistently hear that they are worthless. They tend to be in intimate relationships with their abusers, who may constantly remind them of their faults. This type of abuse can often lead to developed helplessness, and these psychological changes may also cause women to take responsibility for the abuse. Battered women feel frightened, exhausted, fearful of people and are especially afraid to leave their abuser.

What to look for in an abusive relationship
BWS is a direct result of intimate partner violence, which usually involves a partner who seeks power and control. Abuse is expressed in many different forms, but abusive partners evoke fear through violence, threats and emotional manipulation. They prevent partners from making their own decisions, forcing victims to do what the abuser wants—and often times threatening them in the process. Forms of abuse vary, but can involve:

  • Physical abuse such as hitting, choking or using weapons
  • Sexual violence and coercion; reproductive coercion
  • Financial abuse and monitoring
  • Digital abuse, such as controlling social media accounts
  • Emotional abuse such as bullying or intimidation

Unfortunately, abusive relationships can be hard to predict in the beginning. Such relationships often start off completely normal—in fact, according to psychiatrist Franklin Drummond, MD, of Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, abusive partners can seem very charming and caring when first dating. “They often have a seductive personality, sweeping women off their feet, making them feel special and showing them extra attention that they'd never had before.”

Symptoms of BWS
The symptoms of BWS mirror that of PTSD, which is usually seen in military personnel or people who are exposed to trauma or abuse, says Dr. Drummond. The three main categories of symptoms include:

  • Recurrent flashbacks, nightmares or recollections
  • Avoidance of people, places or events that serve as reminders of the abuse
  • Changes in behavior after the trauma, such as trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, feeling anxious and jumpy or getting easily irritated or angry

PTSD is more common among women than men, in part because women are more likely to experience rape and other forms of interpersonal violence.

Why is it so hard for women to leave?
Leaving an abuser is extremely important for the safety of the woman and any family members she’s caring for. Staying in an abusive relationship can lead to physical injuries like organ damage, broken bones and even death. However, not only do some women forgo medical treatment following intimate partner abuse, many find it difficult to leave their partner.

Fear of abandonment is a big part of BWS, says Drummond. Women may also worry that losing a relationship with the abuser could have repercussions. They may feel as if “financially, they’ll lose everything if they end the relationship, leaving them possibly homeless with no resources to provide for themselves or their children,” says Drummond. In extreme situations, victims may feel like they will be killed or that their children will be harmed if they leave, he adds.

The emotional and physical trauma that victims go through can understandably cloud their mind. “The helplessness in the face of ongoing trauma changes a person’s psychology and is one reason they make seemingly bad decisions, like staying with their abusive partner.”

How to get help
Although many women fear for their safety and may feel as though they can’t leave an abusive relationship, Drummond notes that there are many resources available for those who need it.

There are a variety of local and national shelters that are accessible for women to take refuge. They are safe and secure, keep your information confidential and help prevent you from being followed by your abuser. You can find a shelter near you using DomesticShelters.com or the National Adult Protective Services Association.

Other resources include organizations that offer around the clock chat lines and information about what women can do in domestic violence situations. Some of them include:

And when it comes to treatment for PTSD, a therapist can talk you through options. These may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Patients focus on past trauma and work toward understanding, identifying and changing the way they view and handle certain situations. This is often the most effective treatment for PTSD.
  • Medications: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or antianxiety medications can be prescribed to relieve symptoms and improve mood.
  • Present Centered Therapy: A type of treatment that helps patients work through current life situations, rather than focusing on the past.

If you feel you have BWS or have experienced domestic abuse, the most important thing you can do is get yourself and any children involved out of the situation. Find a shelter, seek support from friends and family or reach out to one of the organizations that can walk you through how to leave. Once out of the environment, you can seek treatment in a safe and comfortable setting.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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