What Is Battered Women Syndrome?

Woman affected by domestic violence
Woman affected by domestic violence (Image: sad image by Alexandra Gnatush-Kostenko from Fotolia.com)

Battered women syndrome is a psychological condition resulting from consistent or severe domestic violence. The theory behind it states that a woman learns helplessness after cycles of repeated violence. A woman becomes depressed to a point where she is unable to take independent action to fight back, to escape or to seek help from others. The theory has been viewed as controversial when presented in court cases where a battered woman has killed her abuser.


Dr. Lenore Walker first introduced battered women syndrome in the 1970s as a way to help women explain their abusive experiences for the purpose of mounting a defense in criminal trials. In 1979, Dr. Walker released the book “The Battered Woman,” which provided insight on the reasons why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, the course of action leading up to her fighting back and why the killing of her abuser is an act of self-defense.


According to Dr. Walker's theory, to be classified as a battered woman, a woman has to have endured two cycles of abuse. One type of abuse is generational, meaning the abuse is passed down, such as from parents to children. Episodic abuse refers to a repeating pattern within a family system, such as spousal or child abuse occurring over a certain length of time and being witnessed by the woman.


Battered women can be physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially or even sexually abused by their partners. Abuse crosses the boundaries of age, race, ethnic or religious affiliations. Contributing factors in abusive situations include low self-esteem, fear, financial dependence or lack of access to proper help. Battered women endure the abuse believing they deserve it or are not able to function without their abusers.


Denying to others and to herself that a problem exists in the relationship and believing violence is an isolated incident constitute the first stage of battered women syndrome. Guilt is the second stage, during which abuse has become normal, and the woman recognizes the abuse but feels she is to blame. Enlightenment, the third stage, is reached when the battered woman stops blaming herself for the abuse and recognizes the fault of the abuser. The woman does not leave the relationship but seeks help for her partner and hopes for change. Responsibility is the final stage of battered women syndrome. The woman comes to terms with her abusive partner and realizes the problem is beyond her control. She no longer makes excuses for the abuse and begins to take steps to leave the relationship.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Battered women syndrome is considered a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD includes a history of exposure to a traumatic event that is remarkably distressing to almost everyone. Symptoms of PTSD include daytime fantasies, nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety disorders. PTSD is most associated with women who have backgrounds of physical and sexual violence.

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