Battered wife syndrome has been defined in different ways historically, but according to the 8th edition of Mosby's Medical Dictionary, battered wife syndrome is defined as,1
"repeated episodes of physical assault on a woman by the person with whom she lives or with whom she has a relationship, often resulting in serious physical and psychological damage to the woman. . ."
These repeated assaults (battering) begin to change how a woman thinks about herself and life leading to a state of learned helplessness – wherein a wife believes that no matter what she does, the battering will not stop. Women suffering from battered woman syndrome often believe that the abuse is their fault and that they deserve to be assaulted. This is never true and help for battered women is available.
While the term "battered woman syndrome" refers to women, it's also possible for men to be in a similar situation and suffer the same effects. For the purposes of this article, the victim is considered to be female while the abuser is considered to be male but this is not always the case. People in same sex relationships can also suffer from battered woman, or battered spouse, syndrome.
Profile of an Abusive Husband
While wife batterers can be of any age, race or socioeconomic status, they do often share some character traits.
Perhaps the most closely correlated of all factors is alcohol.2
- In one study, alcohol use preceded the violence in 90% of batterings while in another study the number was reported at 60%
This is not to suggest that alcohol causes wife battering – because it does not – but it does indicate that wife batterers are more likely to be violent, and the violence may be more severe when they are drinking or when they are withdrawing from alcohol. Wife batterers may also use alcohol as an excuse for their behaviour.
Spouse batterers may also:
- Have come from home environments where battering took place
- Be childlike, remorseful and yearning to be natured, when not aggressive
- Be extremely jealous / possessive
- Attempt to control every moment of the wife's life
- Abuse the children (noted in between 25-54% of cases)
(Information on help for batterers and batterers intervention is here.)
Profile of Someone Suffering from Battered Wife Syndrome
Those who suffer from battered wife syndrome also share common traits. Like batterers, battered wives often come from a history of abuse. In fact, many battered wives initially got married to escape the abuse present at home and may have been married young, very quickly and with no engagement period.
Those suffering from battered woman syndrome also tend to have a uniform response to violence including:
- Agitation and anxiety verging on panic
- Apprehension of imminent doom
- Extreme vigilance
- The inability to relax or sleep
- Nightmares of violence or danger
- Feelings of hopelessness and despair
Due to these extreme reactions to violence in the relationship, those suffering from battered woman syndrome react to any perceived danger (real or not) by pacing, increased activity, screaming and crying.
People suffering from battered woman's syndrome often are passive and unable to act when the violence commences, possibly due to learned helplessness.
Spotting Battered Wife Syndrome
Battered wives seek medical help far more often than non-battered women and so it would be natural to assume that doctors would diagnose battered wife syndrome frequently; however, they do not. Doctors often fail to ask about domestic violence even when a woman repeatedly sees them.
This is complicated by the fact that people suffering from battered wife syndrome often present with symptoms that have nothing to do with the battering like:
- Depression; anxiety
- Stomach aches
- A choking feeling; hyperventilation; chest pain
- Pelvic pain
- Back pain
- Drug abuse
And as women with battered woman syndrome typically won't bring up the abuse on their own, the doctor must look for signs of domestic violence and solicit information with non-judgemental and open-ended questions such as, "How does your spouse express anger?"
These types of questions need to be made routine in any case where battered wife syndrome is suspected.