Battered woman syndrome
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
As the women’s movement raised social awareness of domestic violence in the 1970’s, Lenore Walker, an American psychologist, began interviewing women who had been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by their husbands and boyfriends. Contrary to the notion that battered women are masochistic, her interviewees abhorred the abuse and wished to be safe. Walker formulated the concept of battered woman syndrome to describe a constellation of reactions to domestic violence, especially traumatic responses, lowered self-esteem, and learned helplessness.
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Diagnostic Features (Psychology and Mental Health)
Walker and others argue that battered woman syndrome is a subtype of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in that it stems from an unusually dangerous, life-threatening stressor rather than personality, and that it involves traumatic stress symptoms, including cognitive intrusions (such as flashbacks), avoidant or depressive behaviors (such as emotional numbness), and arousal or anxiety symptoms (such as hypervigilance). American psychologist Angela Browne describes further correspondence between battered woman syndrome and PTSD, including recurrent recollections of some abusive events, memory loss for others, psychological or social detachment, and constricted or explosive emotions. Complex PTSD, as formulated by American psychiatrist Judith Herman, further recognizes the multifaceted pattern of personality, relationship, and identity changes in the survivor.
The low energy and decreased self-care that come with depression, and associated coping mechanisms such as substance use, may impede a woman’s ability to seek safety. Walker’s research participants often developed learned helplessness when efforts to avoid abuse led to increased violence. However, American psychologist Edward Gondolf and others have found that battered women are more resourceful and persistent in their self-protection and help-seeking than Walker’s sample suggested.
Walker’s cycle of violence consists of a tension-building stage,...
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Incidence, Prevalence, and Risk Factors (Psychology and Mental Health)
A task force of the American Psychological Association estimated in 1994 that four million women in the United States are victims of domestic violence each year, and one in three women will be assaulted by a partner sometime in their lives. Research in the 1990’s found that between 31 percent and 89 percent of battered women meet the criteria for PTSD. Few individual predictors for becoming a victim of or being vulnerable to battered woman syndrome have been confirmed. Among those suggested are witnessing or experiencing violence in one’s family of origin, leaving home at an early age, and holding traditional, nonegalitarian gender roles.
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Treatment (Psychology and Mental Health)
Psychological treatments are usually most effective when integrated with community services that aim to eliminate the economic, legal, and social obstacles to women’s safety by offering temporary shelter, support groups, and financial, job, and legal assistance. Partner violence often comes to light in the context of couples therapy, and then only with appropriate assessment questions. Because of the power differential and coercion present when a partner is violent, batterer treatment should precede consideration of couples therapy.
Therapy for the survivor usually begins with danger assessment and safety planning, exploration of the abuse history, and screening for PTSD and other psychological reactions. It is vital that therapy empower the client to make her own decisions, to avoid re-creating the powerlessness felt under the abuser’s control. The therapist helps the woman recognize her strengths while providing an empathic, nonjudgmental space for her to tell her story and evaluate the patterns of abuse. Individual or group treatment may be recommended, and symptom management techniques or medication may be introduced. When the woman feels safer, treatment may move into a healing stage in which emotions, self-blame, body issues, childhood abuse, and power and intimacy issues are more fully addressed.
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Role of Battered Woman Syndrome in Court (Psychology and Mental Health)
In cases in which a battered woman kills her abuser, battered woman syndrome has become admissible in many courts as part of the defense of provocation or self-defense. Expert testimony is used to combat misconceptions and provide information about battering, so that the jury can interpret the woman’s perception that defensive action was necessary, much as in other self-defense arguments. The admissibility of expert testimony about battered woman syndrome has been challenged on the grounds that the experience and the symptom patterns of battered woman syndrome are not universal or adequately researched. However, evidence regarding battered woman syndrome has been admitted in the majority of cases in which it has been introduced in the United States.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Blowers, Anita Neuberger, and Beth Bjerregaard. “The Admissibility of Expert Testimony on the Battered Woman Syndrome in Homicide Cases.” Journal of Psychiatry and Law 22, no. 4 (1994): 527-560. A good review of battered woman syndrome and the appropriate use of expert witnesses in a battered woman’s self-defense claim.
Dutton, Donald G., and Susan Painter. “The Battered Woman Syndrome: Effects of Severity and Intermittency of Abuse.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63, no. 4 (1993): 614-622. Offers empirical support for the concept of battered woman syndrome as a distinct, enduring syndrome.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Presents survivor reactions to major categories of human-made trauma, including battered woman syndrome.
Walker, Lenore E. Abused Women and Survivor Therapy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996. Treatment guidelines for working with abused women.
__________. The Battered Woman Syndrome. 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2000. The original description of battered woman syndrome.
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