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Battered Women's Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a mental disorder that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, long-term abuse. BWS is dangerous primarily because it leads to “learned helplessness” – or psychological paralysis – where the victim becomes so depressed, defeated, and passive that she believes she is incapable of leaving the abusive situation. Though it may seem like an irrational fear, it feels absolutely real to the victim. Feeling fearful and weak, and sometimes even still holding onto the hope that her abuser will stop hurting her, the victim remains with her abuser, continuing the cycle of domestic violence and strengthening her existing BWS.

Battered woman syndrome is recognized by many states as a legitimate mental disorder, and there are support systems available to women who suffer from a situation of domestic violence and BWS. It’s worth noting, also, that the laws of many states account for violent outbursts by BWS victims. If you or someone you know is afraid of coming forward to authorities because of an injury to the abuser, there may be ways to avoid punishment. Read ahead to learn more.

How Does BWS Develop?

Battered woman syndrome begins as an abusive cycle with three stages.  First, the abuser engages in behaviors that create relationship tension.  Second, the tension explodes when the abuser commits some form of abuse: physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or otherwise. Third, the abuser tries to fix his wrongdoing and apologizes. This third stage is frequently referred to as the “honeymoon” stage, and involves the abuser making amends for his bad behavior. During the honeymoon stage, the abuser is forgiven, and the cycle starts all over again.

As the cycle continues, the victim starts to feel that the abuse is her own fault. When the victim takes responsibility for her own abuse, this develops into “learned helplessness.” The victim feels helpless because she has convinced herself that the abuse is her own fault, yet she cannot understand why the abuse continues if it’s her own fault. She becomes convinced of her helplessness, and that the abuse cannot be escaped.  Thus, battered woman syndrome develops.

Recognizing BWS

Women suffering from BWS share certain observable characteristics. Speaking with a battered woman should reveal these characteristics and help to identify her as sufferer of BWS. The common characteristics of BWS women are as follows: 1) She takes full responsibility over the abuse, and finds it difficult or impossible to blame the abuser himself; 2) She fears for her safety; 3) She irrationally believes that the abuser is all-powerful and will hurt her if she contacts the authorities and seeks help.

BWS women will frequently show signs of depression, too. They may be less enthusiastic about the activities they used to enjoy. They may also start to abuse drugs and alcohol. Once the signs of BWS are recognized, it’s important to get help.

Getting help for BWS

As with any domestic violence situation, women with battered woman syndrome should contact local law enforcement authorities and report their abuser. The police will make an arrest and the prosecution will hopefully advance. At this point, many battered women may try to recant their statements. They may feel sorry for their abuser or may fear violence if the police let him go.

A large number of battered women recant, but it’s important to keep in mind that recanting may subject the battered woman to criminal charges for lying to authorities. It’s also worth noting that recanting does not usually affect the case. If the abuser has been arrested and his case moved forward, recanting will do little to prevent this.

Battered women may also worry about testifying in court against their abuser. In domestic violence cases, the victim is required to testify in court against her abuser. BWS women are often afraid of their abusers. There are support options, however. In fact, there are people known as victim’s aides who will stand in court and provide support for the victim as she testifies.

Aside from these legal options, there are also organizations that provide psychological and emotional support to battered women. This may be necessary, as the separation process can be extremely difficult and confusing for a battered woman. 

BWS and the Law

Battered woman syndrome is now recognized in legislation by many states and is considered when defending battered wives who kill or injure their abusive spouses. For the courts, BWS is an indication of the defendant's state of mind or may be considered a mitigating circumstance. For example, the court may consider that a BWS woman felt that she was justified in attacking her abuser, and that she was in reasonable fear of imminent danger due to her condition and her experiences with the abuser.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and possible a sufferer of BWS, please contact your local authorities and local support organizations. There are many avenues available for these women to receive help.

Next Steps
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