In the United States alone, statistics show that one in every four women experience domestic violence (NCADV, n.d.). The National Coalition against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reported that around 1.3 million women in the US have been victimized and subjected to physical assault by their partners. Although domestic violence affects both men and women, NCADV reiterated that 85 percent – the majority – of all victims are women. Other alarming facts about domestic violence is that in most cases, women do not report these violent incidents to the police due to fear. Moreover, in families, children witness violence between their parents, which then consequently affect their psychological wellbeing. Research studies show that boys who witness violence at home would more likely abuse their partners during adulthood (NCADV, n.d.). Hence, domestic violence brings about various problems that not only affect the physical and emotional wellbeing of women but also that of their children and other family members.
The following discussion focuses on the impact or effect of domestic violence on women, specifically the Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS). Essentially, BWS refers to the psychological impact of domestic violence or abuse, which prevents women from seeking retribution or looking for ways to disentangle themselves and their children or other family members from their partners and the cycle of violence in the home. The succeeding sections cover specific aspects of BWS, particularly the syndrome’s definition and characterization based on Walker’s study and existing research on the topic, the link or relationship between BWS and other psychological disorders such as PTSD, and finally an assessment and reflection of the issue within one’s personal perspective.
Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS)
Lenore Walker (1979) extensively defined and discussed Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) in his works. According to Walker, BWS is “a predictable pattern of psychological response to domestic violence” (Weiner & Craighead, 2010, p. 205). BWS manifests a predictable pattern because it occurs in a cycle. Walker argued that BWS follows three stages in the cycle: tension-building, periods of normal behavior called the honeymoon phase, and acute battering episodes. The honeymoon phase occurs in between periods of tension and battering or violence (Huss, 2008). Walker emphasizes that since domestic violence follows a cycle, it traps the woman into staying in the relationship.
As formerly noted, domestic violence begins with tension and ends in abusive and violent episodes. In between, however, is the honeymoon phase. Due to this phase in the cycle, abusers are able to manipulate women to stay in the relationship because the latter expects that after the tension and violent episodes, their relationship with their partners would not only return to normal but become better. As Walker argued, “The cyclical nature of the violence immobilized a woman’s ability to act decisively in her own interests, making her feel trapped in the relationship with no means of escape (Raitt & Zeedyk, 2002, p. 66).
Because the man that abuses the woman sets or follows through the cycle of abuse or battery, the woman cannot predict the flow of the relationship and therefore, cannot decide whether to leave or stay (Raitt & Zeedyk). If the relationship is in the honeymoon phase, the woman feels life and therefore, not likely to leave the relationship. Nonetheless, abusive episodes follow the honeymoon phase and by this time, the woman would have lost the chance or opportunity to leave her partner. According to NCADV (n.d.), violence is a manifestation of an individual’s desire for power and control. Violence may be physical and sexual, but these consequently affect the psychological or emotional wellbeing of women. Forms of violence include coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, blaming, the abuser’s use of children to manipulate their partners, economic abuse, and demands for male privilege (NCADV, n.d.).
Walker (1979) claimed that the need for men to gain power and control over their partners eventually lead to the “application of learned helplessness to women who have been the victims of an abusive partner” (Huss, 2008, p. 69). Walker essentially borrowed the idea or concept of ‘learned helplessness’ from Martin Seligman. Seligman (1967) previously conducted a research study involving dogs towards the goal of determining the link between depression and learned helplessness. Seligman conducted animal experiments with dogs by placing them in an environment they were not able to escape. While within the confines of this setting, Seligman then subjected the dogs repeatedly to aversive stimulus, specifically electric shocks. After the animals’ repeated exposure to this stimulus and being unable to escape, Seligman then opened spaces for the dogs to escape. Nonetheless, the dogs remained in the cage instead of using the exits to escape as they were conditioned during the experimentation that they have nowhere to go to escape (Huss).
Walker then applied the concept of ‘learned helplessness’ as defined in Seligman’s research to describe BWS. In Seligman’s study, conditioning brought about learned helplessness among the animal subjects. According to Walker, the cycle of battery, which involves the tension, honeymoon, and acute violence, induced learned helplessness among female victims. As a result, women suffering from BWS are characterized by their inability or refusal to ‘escape’ their situation, a trait specifically attached to the aforementioned syndrome (Huss). Consequently, BWS “would be used to explain the reason for a woman failing to leave an abusive relationship or believing that abuse was imminent despite the batterer being passed out asleep” (Huss, 2008, p. 69).
Walker (1984) defined Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) using four general characteristics. According to Walker, a woman is suffering from BWS if she places blame on herself after experiencing violence, if she places blame on others instead of the abuser, if she feels fearful particularly for her life and that of her family and friends, especially her children, and if she believes that the abuser is powerful. Walker equated the latter to the woman’s belief that the abuser is omniscient and omnipresent (Walker, 1984). Despite these factors, women still remain with the abuser as they have been conditioned to do so. The cycle of violence made women believe that they deserve the abuse, and that even if they refuse to be abused, they would not be able to find ways to do so.
Based on existing research, women still stay with their abusers for various reasons. One of the main reasons being that women are financially dependent on their abuser. For this reason, women cannot find the means to leave their abusers. Other reasons include women’s belief that their partners may change for good, especially if both are in the honeymoon phase of the cycle of battery. Women also fear their partners, which is why they refuse to leave them. Fear manifests primarily due to threats from the abuser. Some abusers even use their children to urge women to stay with them even after violent episodes of abuse. More notable manifestations of BWS that psychologists are highly concerned about involve the outcome of abuse and violence such as depression, lack of energy, and loss of self-esteem among women. Depression, lack of energy and a low self-esteem prevents women from looking for ways to escape their situation.
Victims of domestic violence and abuse suffer through unique forms of trauma that other victims do not experience. Trauma for sufferers of domestic violence, for instance, differs from that of rape or stalking victims. According to Weiner and Craighead (2010), manifestations of BWS are unique because female victims personally know their abusers. Hence, women would have experienced feelings of love, trust, care, and understanding toward their partner. Consequently, these positive feelings prevent women from realizing the negative effects or outcomes of abuse on themselves and their family. Determining these unique manifestations allows people to understand BWS, which would then explain why women characterize traits associated with this syndrome.
One of the most notable outcomes of research studies on BWS is the idea or assumption that it could only end through violence. Walker (1979) argued that BWS leads to psychological paralysis. As formerly noted, BWS subjects women to a submissive position where they willingly accept and subject themselves to their partners’ actions, whether it is emotional or psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Based on research studies, some women eventually act as a result of their situation. Walker argued that in some instances, the psychological paralysis resulting from BWS may only end “by an act of violence” on the woman’s part such that she fights back or stops her abuser (Raitt & Zeedyk, 2002).
Overall, Walker’s arguments imply that in some instances, after prolonged exposure to domestic violence, the woman undergoes a period of psychological paralysis. Consequently, violence reaches a saturation point influencing the woman to act out and also display violence. In some situations, violence between the woman and her partner lead to death and results in cases whereby the woman claims self-defense on her part. The legal aspect of BWS will be discussed further in the succeeding sections.
Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
BWS is related to another psychological disorder, the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The American Psychiatric Association (1980) related PTSD to BWS due to the latter’s traumatic effects on women violently victimized by their partners. Added to this are various research studies whereby psychologists determined symptom patterns wherein battered women met PTSD diagnostic criteria (Goodman & Epstein, 2008). “The pattern of features associated with BWS/PTSD include: extraordinarily high levels of anxiety, anger, helplessness, horror and/or shame; re-experiencing overwhelming intrusive memories and intense emotions; emotional constriction and avoidance of painful memories and reminders” (Weiner & Craighead, 2010, p. 205). Avoidance among victims of abuse allows women to protect themselves from or repress painful thoughts and memories, and consequently go about their daily activities. Other manifestations of BWS coupled with PTSD include paranoia and heightened sense of being in danger, as well as hypervigilance. Disconnect from social circles including family and friends is also a manifestation of BWS and PTSD. Hence, women’s distance from their family and friends prevent the latter from detecting problems in the former’s relationship and wellbeing. Without the woman’s access to social support, it becomes more difficult for her to leave her partner.
Weiner and Craighead (2010) also asserted that the link between BWS and PTSD is relevant because two thirds of abused women also suffer from the latter. Hence, psychologists aim to implement treatment to target both BWS and PTSD. Doing so is highly important because victims of abuse often resort to problems associated with PTSD. Sufferers of PTSD, for instance, eventually resort to alcoholism and substance abuse. Others become depressed and harbor suicidal thoughts (Weiner & Craighead, 2010). These particular detrimental outcomes on the physical and psychological wellbeing of women necessitates comprehensive treatment for BWS through those associated with PTSD treatments.
Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) within the Legal Context
Further understanding of BWS necessitates a view of the issue within the legal context. BWS as a theory “has had significant impact on the treatment and prosecution of cases where a battered woman is charged with the killing of her violent partner” (Raitt & Zeedyk, 2002, p. 67). In some cases, domestic violence leads to death such that battered women fight back and eventually end up killing their partners. During the legal proceedings, the prosecution uses BWS as a means to characterize the wellbeing and state of mind of women at the time of the incident. In this way, the court would understand the factors or conditions that led an individual to physically fight back and kill the abuser.
Within this context, the prosecution uses BWS as a means to establish the incident as self-defense on the part of the woman. Hence, defining BWS in terms of its symptoms and manifestations, as well as the conditions that brought about these outcomes, is highly important in understanding not only the state of mind of domestic violence victims but also the effect of this on their psychological wellbeing (Raitt & Zeedyk, 2002). Establishing BWS as the cause of a woman’s actions is important because it would help contextualize the individual’s actions and make them admissible in court. BWS “has the potential to contextualize the woman’s actions so that they are more comprehensible to the court”, which is particularly important, “where a woman’s account of her experience and the law’s expectations of her are in conflict” (Raitt & Zeedyk, 2002, p. 66).
Overall, the understanding and definition of BWS within the psychological context allows women to substantiate or justify their actions when they lead to murder during altercations in the home. The legal view or aspect of BWS is technical and necessitates a separate discussion but it is important to establish the link between psychology and law in this topic in order to highlight the importance of defining the syndrome and determining underlying concepts and aspects that contextualize women’s state of mind and actions as a result of repeated domestic violence.
Conclusion and Reflection
Based on the foregoing discussion, I may conclude that BWS is largely a psychological condition that may be addressed through therapy. After reading about Seligman’s research on learned helplessness, we have come to understand the psychological issues underlying BWS. We understand that the cycle of violence in BWS, as described by Walker (1979) that alternates between tension, the honeymoon phase, and violent episodes may be considered as a form of conditioning. In Psychology, we learned about conditioning and its impact on behaviorism such as B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov’s studies on this matter. Through conditioning such as the introduction of positive and negative reinforcements could change patterns of behavior. Seligman’s research study, on the other hand, substantiates conditioning but lead to opposite effects, such that the outcome is detrimental as it is learned helplessness. Hence, based on the parallelism between theories and behaviorism and one of the underlying aspects of BWS, which is learned helplessness, this syndrome is primarily a result of conditioning. Abuse and battery inside the home eventually leads to BWS among women because abusers subject women to repeated cycles of the tension and violence phase, as well as honeymoon phase.
Considering the abovementioned analysis of former research studies, we may then discuss further views and perspectives about the issue. Theories and practices related to behaviorism, for instance, may be effective in addressing BWS because this syndrome, as we established earlier, is a result of conditioning through the cycle of violence. Some practices in Psychology, for instance, such as Cognitive Behavioral Theories may be effective in addressing BWS. Furthermore, since we have also established BWS’ link to PTSD, addressing the problems or issues of women suffering from BWS/PTSD could benefit from treatment meant for the latter. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also one of the major and common treatments to address PTSD. Hence, in dealing with women suffering from BWS, treatments for PTSD could also work to help them cope with their situation and overcome the detrimental effects of domestic violence.
Since domestic violence is cyclical, and therefore a conditioning process that brings about BWS among women, we support the idea that men use violence to gain power and control over women and their relationship. Regardless of the reason that caused tension and led the man to abuse his partner, whether it is the woman’s fault or not, domestic violence says something more about the abuser than the victim. Although BWS explicates the emotional and psychological state of mind of women that suffered from domestic violence, abusers or batterers are also suffering from psychological disorders because of their behavior and the way they treat their partners.
In a way, BWS stigmatizes women such that some people think of them as weak because of their incapacity to take themselves out of their situation and leave their partners. Instead of showing understanding towards women who were subjected to repeated domestic violence, some people resort to victim blaming. They blame the women for staying with their partners and in a way consenting to violence. However, these people fail to understand that the problem or issue lays in the actions of men who are abusing their partners instead of those of women who feel trapped in their relationship.
Concerning the negative image of women undergoing BWS, people need to gain a deeper understanding of domestic violence and its impact on women. For one, people need to realize that as formerly discussed, domestic violence reveals the psychological wellbeing of abusers or batterers such that they have unresolved issues. As a result, these men resort to violence in order to regain power over women and control other people and their relationship. It is because of this behavior that women develop learned helplessness, become depressed, and fail to leave their relationships because of low self-esteem, financial dependence on their partners, and fear for their lives and their family or children’s safety.
Hence, BWS and the conditions of women are merely the manifestations of deep seated psychological problems experienced by abusers or batterers. People’s focus and attention must be on abusers or batterers particularly because there is a need to identify symptoms of potential domestic violence and have them incarcerated or undergo therapy because of their behavior. Moreover, people must also understand BWS as a condition and learn that to combat this, they must show support and understanding towards women suffering from it.
Apart from the treatments to help women victimized through domestic violence, another issue that warrants attention is BWS’ contribution to women’s cases. As formerly noted, BWS affects legal cases particularly when women eventually end up killing their partners when they fight back. Understanding BWS and defining the reasons behind it, its symptoms and manifestations, will help courts determine the state of mind of women subjected to domestic violence and make sound decisions when it comes to prosecution in a way that is just and fair.
Huss, M. T. (2008). Forensic psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
NCADV. (n.d.). Domestic violence facts. Retrieved from: http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet(National).pdf
Raitt, F. & Zeedyk, S. (2002). The implicit relation of psychology and law: Women and syndrome evidence. New York, NY: Routledge.
Weiner, I. B. & Craighead, E. (2010). The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.