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Battered Woman Syndrome

Lawyers use Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) to explain a battered woman’s behavior to a jury who does not understand why she “didn’t just leave”. After all, we all have the freedom to choose our own adventure in life, don’t we? Why does an abused woman stay with a violent partner?

BWS is a subtype of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. This means, in part, that if you are abused, you may or may not show or feel all of the signs of PTSD, but you probably show other mentalities and behaviors in addition to many symptoms of PTSD. Most of the studies I’ve been reading compile data from women who are physically abused, but they also list verbal abuse as a precursor to physical violence – it’s almost impossible to imagine that physical violence does NOT follow verbal abuse.

Symptoms of BWS: battered woman syndrome

First Stage, “Fight or Flight”

  • Breathing quickens, heart races, it is difficult to concentrate, and a panic attack could occur
  • You can recognize fight or flight because you may try to “turn off” your emotions. You deny what’s happening or minimize it to avoid dealing with the danger you’re facing.
  • Later, you may repress the memory of the event and smile as if nothing happened.

Second Stage BWS:

  • Over time, you feel that you’re not as smart or “with it” as you once were. Your memory can become fuzzy, so you’re not really sure if you’re remembering things correctly or not.
  • You may find that your mind wanders off to previous instances of abuse and holds you captive there, watching a movie you don’t want to see.
  • Because of the repetitive, intrusive memories, you could respond to future abuses inaccurately – the abuse may not be as severe or potentially damaging as you perceive it to be. It becomes very hard to tell the difference between a memory of past abuse and a current abusive event.
  • You could take deadly actions against yourself or the abuser.

My Thoughts

Although research into verbal, emotional, and mental abuse symptoms and effects is increasing, most studies focus on physical violence as the outcome. Granted, the effects of other types of abuse are included by default, but I am really interested to find studies done where there has been NO physical violence to document. (I’ll let you know when I find it.)

I see symptoms of BWS and PTSD in myself. There were four violent incidents (that I remember) in my 18 year marriage, and a part of me doesn’t think I “qualify” under the terms of the studies. On average, battered women experience physical violence at least 3 times per year (and/or partner rape almost twice per year). Nevertheless, I feel symptoms and recognize behaviors in myself indicative of both the syndrome and the disorder. I carried them with me when I left my husband, and still exhibit and feel them to this day.

The good news is that 1.) I recognize them as symptoms instead of continuing to think I’m “messed up” and dysfunctional and 2.) the symptoms are fading.

I wish someone would do a study to include relationships in which the physical violence is kept to a minimum over a long period of time. The first incident was within the first 6 months of my marriage, the second around year 7, then three and four came within a year of one another. Yet the “other abuses” were constant.

I also wonder about the finding that battered women suffering from BWS/PTSD could over-estimate the severity of subsequent abusive incidents. I am finding that in my new relationship, I will feel very deeply anxious about conversations and emotion-sharing events, in part because I’m waiting for the shoe to drop. I’m anticipating abuse where there is none. My other choice in “new studies” would be one that lets me know HOW LONG THIS COULD CONTINUE.

If I have to be without abuse for the same length of time I was with it in order to overcome it, that puts me at 57 years of age. Or maybe there’s a “half-life” or maybe a few years – maybe months (please!) on the moratorium for feeling crazy. I don’t want my mental and biological training of the past 18 years to hinder my ability to live a fruitful and healthy life; therefore, it won’t. I will overcome this challenge too.

91 thoughts on “Battered Woman Syndrome”

  1. Oooh. I found one answer to “How long will this continue?” and the answer isn’t so bad, in comparison to living IN the abusive situation. Symptoms of PTSD can continue up to 9 years after leaving the relationship (Riggs, Kilpatrick, & Resnick, 1992; Woods, 2000). [That tidbit comes from another study entitled “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Associated Functional Impairments During
    Pregnancy: Some Consequences of Violence Against Women” by April Harris-Britt, Sandra L. Martin, Yun Li, Cecilia Casanueva, and Lawrence L. Kupper]

  2. i am with a verbally abusive man and am truly hating myself because [1] there are children involved and [2] I saw the signs in the beginning when I would hear him speak about his kids’ mothers. It used to be every few weeks and now it’s gotten to be day in and day out. He calls me everything but a child of God but only in the presence of certain family members of mine. He starts arguments, then blames them on me. I try hard most times not to say anything but even when I don’t sometimes that makes it just as bad. I am currently on anti-depressants and medications for anxiety and see a therapist regularly due to a series of unfortunate events in my life beginning at birth. I have been diagnosed as bipolar and suffer from social anxiety and without meds, agoraphobia. [Things I believe he uses to his advantage against me] I’ve also gotten my oldest children in counseling as well. My question is… HOW DO I LEAVE? I’ve never had stability in my life, so sometimes I know I become too attached to trying to make the best out of a bad situation. PLEASE GIVE FEEDBACK AND I AM OPEN FOR COMPLETE HONESTY ONLY!

  3. get out! NOW…you are not nuts. he is manipulating you. go wherever..even if it’s to a shelter. take the kids and get out!

  4. sadeveryday my heart is breaking for you. I have avoided such chat rooms because I never have any answers as I was in the same boat for 16 years!!!! I have been out on my own for 4 months since the 18th. I’m proud to say I made it out alive. I needed the courage. I surrounded myself with good women first online and then met them in real life. They were my saving grace. They didn’t harp on me to get out, leave, talk badly about him, they just LISTENED. Every time without judgement or advice. Our men were good at isolating us. I so get this article. I pray it doesn’t take me that long to function normally again. Only you know when you’ve had enough. Until that day comes you will keep taking it. I’m sorry.

  5. I can’t help but wonder what happened to Sadeveryday – I hope she was able to get out. I just made this transition myself last year – I know it’s so hard and scary, but so very worth it.

  6. My heart cries out to you all. I am still in my situation. The depression increases with each day. I feel less than human. Like bruises, my soul is fading away. I do not get hit, but my mind is under constant attack. I have a son and daughter, I am terrified. How is it though, that this insane person is able to convince the world I am crazy. I wonder if he is the type who would take my life. Of course they all say they never would, but I’m not so sure. I went to my local resources and was turned away due to lack of proof. He has a strong religious background in his family and they own a lot of property around here. I have no friends, they are usually not approved. I have no family. I have no way out. I’m so tired of this shit. Why won’t anyone believe me? Why can’t I get help? This is such a sad society. Myself and my children are good people. We don’t deserve this.

    1. Teresa, I found the most community support after I left. It was like people in the help agencies were waiting to see if I was going to stay with him (where they cannot help) or leave him (where they can help). For example, after leaving, I qualified as a “displaced homemaker” and found help putting together a resume and with interview skills. Also after leaving and due to my lack of income, I qualified for food stamps. Additionally, I acquired a rental home after telling the landlord outright that I didn’t have the money to pay and as of yet had no job BUT handed her my resume and promised to have the money to her in short order.

      People can display a miraculous amount of goodwill when you tell the truth about what’s been going on in your marriage. Chances are my landlord had been exposed to domestic abuse at some point (1 in 4 women experience it) and kind of understood my position.

      Sometimes we need to take a leap of faith, trusting that the safety net is there in case we fall.

  7. after leaving several times have become very anxious and severely depressed dont know which way to turn no friends or family no inerest in anything

    1. Joanne, I am so sorry that you’re feeling so down! I’ve been where you are. Why don’t you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE for help. They can tell you where to find resources in your area and lend an ear. Talking helps a LOT. Could you see a therapist? There are free groups offered at your Department of Social Services, so call there too. Are you out of the relationship now or back with your partner? Either way, it’s okay. You can feel better whatever your current situation if you reach out to those who can help you.

  8. A little poem:
    For those who feel lost – hope
    Hope can bring you a rainbow spanning the continents of despair and fear.
    Women together with their sons an daughters can All Live.

    It takes time, to leave, to learn how to live
    To learn how to breath, it takes time

    To trust and learn with great clumsiness and foreboding
    What is love?! We can actually find love again –
    Our abusers biggest fear, so remember this,

    For every hour of the day they spend their time telling you
    That you are unloveable, remind yourself that the time will come

    Where you will find the Olive Bridge to the heart and make the crossing
    Here they can not follow you. Children thrive here and you become
    a home, a hearth, a place where you know, you belong.

    Do not rush this journey, but dare to hope
    for hope is the path to the Olive bridge. Look to the future
    We are all there waiting for you. You are amongst good company.

    trust. You will make this journey x

  9. Dear Everyone,
    I came here looking for a definitive answer to a question, my Google search was this “Can you be diagnosed with BWS if you were never hit”, because I was 2 years ago, and I’m still trying to understand it. I was also diagnosed with PTSD and acute panic anxiety disorder which always made more sense. But I found this thread and I feel intensely like I need to leave my mark here. So here it goes:

    I was married for 16 years to a verbally assaultive, emotionally abusive alcoholic; he never once hit me in all of that time. I raised a son in this environment who is now 20 years old. I left in November 2005 when he was 13 years old. We went into seclusion for 6 months after my leaving and never looked back. Why I stayed so long, I’ll never know. The damage done to me is nothing compared to the damage done to my child who remains shattered trying to find a way to make this man love him.

    While my ex got sober 2 years after I left, it was discovered how primarily dysfunctional he was underneath it all (alcoholism is typically just a symptom of something bigger). You can’t fix that kind of broken, he can stay as sober as a judge until the day he dies but the damage that he’s endured in his own life, brought on by himself and others is what molded him into the monster he was then, is now and will remain.

    I was blessed that he was an alcoholic when it was all said and done, because through his disease I found Al-anon. Al-anon’s focus is based and advertised as a support system for victims and families of the chemically dependent. They’re true purpose is to support and educate co-dependents and enablers which I guarantee you are if you can relate with ANY of the scenarios in this thread.

    My ex husband’s lies, emotional abuse, verbal assaults, etc. are not what got my feet out the door. Understanding my own illness to try to cure, control and blame myself for causing it all, did. When my Al-anon sponsor (who I only communicated online since I was literally and emotionally locked in my house for months on end, not allowed any basic human freedoms whatsoever…. sound familiar?), told me this: “You will only find healing when you understand that YOU are the sickest person in that house, that your willingness to remain ill has directly affected and damaged your child detrimentally on both and emotional and spiritual level. You have not paid any attention to the things that you can control, giving instead, what is completely out of your control all of your power and strength. Get out, save yourself, save your Son and let God handle your Husband.”

    First of all, let me just tell you the physical reaction I had to this brutal, point-blank statement which I read three times- I hit the power button on my computer after reading it; I shut his voice of reason down completely; what he said scared the Hell out of me because he was spot-on. I did not re-contact him for 3 months (and by then I had left). All the while that statement ate away at me. The truth can be so hard to hear sometimes.

    Accepting responsibility for my own lot in life was tougher than anything I’d ever done in my already very difficult existance. While my husband was a drunk, verbally abusive, a liar, a promise-breaker, a cheat, a thief and an emotional criminal; I was just as guilty when it came to the emotional stability of my child. Everything I hid from my then-husband, my son got to see. I cried all the time, I called “Friends” and vented and he heard my words of hate and rage and pain, then when my ex would come home, my dear son watched me cower to his ever demand, take the blame, go numb for the sake of one peaceful night. He watched me hand over my power, my SELF, my life out of fear.

    The confusion for him started at 12 years old when he finally realized I’d been lying to him his whole life and that Daddy really wasn’t “Working late”. At that revelation, his ability to trust me, my words, my judgment was lost. At that point he questioned everything he’d ever seen or heard in his entire life. My son, at 12 years was wracked with emotionally protecting his Mother and worse than that, making up for lost time. The War was on.

    The hate for his Father began to seep from everywhere. He was so brave and so open about setting boundaries and rules, he challenged his Father physically and I watched it go to blows. My 12 year old son fighting his 30 year old Father until blood splattered my walls. He went to battle for my emotional protection never once stopping to think about the harm that would come to him. I just sat and watched, paralyzed by the weight of it all. I had physically withered beneath the lies I told him to “Protect” him; my guilt was so heavy I couldn’t move.

    I was emotionally retarded to the point that the only emotion I really understood was fear of everything, all the time. I lived on the fault line of a constant earthquake. I had forgotten my own power. I had lost all of my strength; I don’t know when I turned myself over to the abuse, but I did and I did it completely and I had taken my child with me. THAT is what finally got my feet out the door.

    My son was never offered the chance to LOVE, I handed him FEAR from the start. 7 years later, he is so damaged and unable to trust that he hasn’t got one person he calls “friend” in the world. He is covered with hate tattoos even he doesn’t understand. He uses drugs to medicate. He seeks physical altercations as a solution to emotional pain. He has never had a girlfriend (he claims he is afraid to), he’s spent a lot of time in jail. He’s been through more counseling then I have, he’s been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Bi-Polar, PTSD and Paranoia. He said to me just last week after yet another episode with his Father “I don’t know why I need him to love me so badly; this has to stop.”…….

    My heart was on the floor. He tells me point blank that while he wishes he could, he can’t trust me, he can’t trust anyone. I lied to him out of love. His Father lied to him about EVERYTHING for control. How could anyone expect him to trust anything? His entire life was a lie.

    So, my answer to how long this lasts is this: Forever. Damage so deeply done to ones soul is a permanent fixture once it’s so wholly engraved in us. Leaving an abusive relationship can only be compared to the process of grief; it has no end, only acceptance.

    As adults we make choices that don’t always benefit us. If we are lucky (and I am),if we had an example set before our abusers entered our lives that made us know that what was happening to us was wrong. If so, healing and gaining acceptance is very possible. We can actually love again. We can understand our fears through counseling and time enough to live the normal, happy life we deserve. We can find someone who’ll love us enough to understand our triggers and accept them and find ways to work through them (Again, I am lucky).

    But for our children- standing still is unacceptable. You must get out and stay gone no matter how hard or scary or painful the process. Call Women’s Crisis,call Al-anon ASK FOR THE HELP YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO GIVE YOURSELF! Don’t worry about your “Stuff”, worry about the souls of the human beings in your care. This includes your own. You are as sick as you feel. You are never going to cure your abusers control issues, you will never love them enough or give enough or change enough. Never.

    If you are reading this thread now in search of feeling less alone, know that I sat where you’re sitting. For years I let the stories of other women being abused comfort me. I actually swaddled myself in their pain and told myself that my situation wasn’t as bad as theirs, so I’d survive. If you are in enough pain to seek the advice of strangers on the internet your abuser has successfully broken you. You need help. You’ve stopped talking to the real people or you feel like they’ve stopped wanting to listen.

    Understand that the abuse you’re enduring doesn’t hurt them; but you’re not leaving does, they don’t understand. They cannot help you if you are not willing to help yourself. Once they’ve tried unsuccessfully to help you, they have to back away to protect themselves. They do not love you less. They will be there for you when you’re “Out”. Trust in that.

    You are beautiful, powerful and ABLE. Ask yourself if anything that life can toss at you is as hard as what you will have to endure if you stay? Don’t leave until you know you won’t go back- your situation will only gets worse, your resources will be depleted and your strength, tapped. Your abuser will step up their game. Yell louder, suppress harder, lie more and create more fear so you never try to leave again. They know what they are doing to you. Let me say that again- They know damn well what they are doing to you!!!

    If you are a man or a woman, a Mother, Father or a Child, a friend or a lover and you are being abused- GET OUT. The opposite of love is fear, fear rules your abusers because They know you should run. They will continuously apologize and make promises they are too sick to keep, to confuse you and gain control. No one who loves you will try to suppress you (To keep down, stunt, inhibit your growth). No one who cares about you will hurt you in any way so stop listening to the lies. Use your resources; listen to your friends and family. Stop tuning them out and start asking for help. If you have children, do what I did- take a good long look at the cycle you’re creating in them. Ask yourself if they can handle it because if you’re reading this thread, you can’t- so how could they?….. Get out now.

    You are worthy of the love you long for.

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