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:
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.
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.