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Overview of Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered Woman, Signs of a Manipulative Relationship

In the United States, every 9 seconds a woman is battered and every year about 4,000,000 women are battered by their partners (Domestic Violence, 2005). Since a large number of women are abused by their husbands, it is important to study the characteristics of men who batter and women who are battered. Research on this issue will lead to improved intervention strategies and more customized treatment options. Psychologists define battered woman syndrome as a pattern of behavioral and psychological symptoms as a result of living in a battering relationship (Rubenstein, 2004). Battered woman syndrome is used to explain the experiences of a woman who was battered by her spouse, but not as a legal defense (Dutton, 1996). There are certain characteristics that are associated with women who are battered and with men who batter.

Battered woman syndrome develops out of a woman’s inability to defend herself following repeated attempts to stop the violence. The term started to be used in the late 1970s and was seen as a form of learned helplessness. The cycle of violence is what keeps the women in the relationship (Dutton, 1996). Currently, according to the American Psychological Association, battered woman syndrome is classified as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Dr. Lenore Walker, in order to be categorized as a “battered woman,” a woman must endure a minimum of two full battering cycles. There are three phases of the battering cycle. The first phase is the tension-building phase. The second phase is the acute or explosion battering event. The third phase is the honeymoon phase (Rubenstein, 2004).

There are four main characteristics of battered woman syndrome. The four main characteristics include that the woman has an irrational belief that the abuser is always present, the woman believes that the abuse is her fault, the woman is unable to attribute responsibility for the abuse elsewhere and the woman fears for her life and her children’s lives (Rubenstein, 2004). The psychological and physical abuse the woman must endure ranges from belittling and humiliating degradation to threats of murder and suicide. Usually, abuse starts out as verbal abuse and progresses to physical violence (Brady, 2000).

There are social, cultural, economic and psychological origins of battering. The unequal distribution of power between men and women perpetuates this problem. In the United States, the norm of a man using force on a woman is culturally acceptable. In childhood, boys are socialized to be aggressive, while girls are socialized to be passive (Domestic Violence, 2005). I agree that how we socialize boys and girls leads to the problem of men battering women.

Also, domestic abuse is perpetuated by children who have witnessed abuse or were abused themselves because they become the abusers or the battered woman as adults (Domestic Violence, 2005). In my opinion, children who are abused or witness abuse in their family are more likely to become the batterer or the battered because children learn how to behave based on imitation of their parents actions. For example, if a boy witnesses his father abusing his mother, he might think it is acceptable to abuse his wife as an adult.

In our culture, individuals receive minimal education on how to deal with emotions. This is especially true for anger (Domestic Violence, 2005). In my opinion, if children received education on how to deal with their emotions, the problem of domestic violence could be reduced. Children need to be taught how to channel their anger and frustrations through activities.

Approximately 1 in 10 women are battered by their husband and women are battered about 35 times prior to filing charges. For this reason, it is important to study the characteristics of women who are abused. Some of the characteristics of abused women include low self-esteem, unrealistic hope, isolation, bitterness, strong traditional view on marriage, and emotional and economic dependence (Domestic Abuse, 2005). There are many reasons why a woman remains in an abusive relationship. Some of those reasons include loss of self-esteem, learned helplessness, threats to kill self or children, and positive reinforcement during the honeymoon phase (Rubenstein, 2004).

Often, women with low self-esteem are more vulnerable to abuse. These women are frequently told that they are worthless, incompetent and bad wives and mothers. Usually, they place the needs of others ahead of their own needs. They have trouble expressing their feelings, needs and expectations. Even though the woman is being

abused, she will still love and feel devoted to her husband. Some women are attracted to abusive men because they have a strong need to take care of and be responsible for someone with problems. The woman has an unrealistic hope that she can change his behavior. Women who are abused frequently live in isolation and do not see the majority of their friends and family (Domestic Abuse, 2005).

For emotional and economic dependence, most of these women have no confidence in themselves and feel like they need to remain in the relationship. As a wife and mother, they believe they should be submissive, forgiving and nurturing (Domestic Abuse, 2005). They learn to feel a sense of powerlessness and be submissive. Women who are abused usually feel ashamed because they feel that the abuse is a result of their lack of abilities as a wife and mother (Domestic Violence, 2005).

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Most women try to alter their actions and hide the abuse from others. This is known as a “face saving” strategy used to maintain their identity (Brady, 2000). In fact, over 50% of women remain in an abusive relationship because they believe they can not support themselves and their children financially. The woman often has feelings of love and hate toward the abuser. Furthermore, women who were battered as children or witnessed abuse are more vulnerable (Domestic Violence, 2005).

Over the last two decades, domestic abuse and marital aggression has received a lot of attention from researchers. However, there have been few studies comparing abused and non-abused women who received treatment for marital problems. About 65%-70% of women stated that they were physically abused at least once, but only 3%-6% stated that was the reason for seeking marital treatment. In order to determine effective interventions for women who are abused, it is important to determine the characteristics of the relationship, the self and historical factors that distinguish them from non-abused women (Cascardi, O’Leary, Lawrence, & Schlee, 1995).

Abusive relationships are often characterized as fear producing, coercive and unpredictably violent. Interviews with battered women found that their husbands frequently use economic pressures, threats, emotional abuse, social isolation, destruction of property and the use of possessiveness and jealousy to control their wives. Women who are battered reported that they were fearful of their husbands. The researchers hypothesized that coercion, fear and unpredictable violence leads to battered woman syndrome, depression, anxiety and somatic disorders and substance abuse. Research conducted on women in psychiatric facilities showed that 50% of women who were battered sought treatment for alcoholism, schizophrenia, depression or personality disorders in the past. Studies have shown that the prevalence of substance abuse, anxiety and depressive disorders was higher in women who were abused (Cascardi, et al., 1995).

Many studies conducted on women who are battered found a relationship between being a victim of abuse in childhood and being battered by their husband as adults. Abuse in childhood increases the woman’s risk of being battered by her husband. The majority of women battered by their husbands had experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as children. However, in an analysis of 600 women, researchers found that the relationship between childhood abuse and wife abuse was not statistically significant. While childhood abuse may not increase a woman’s likelihood of being abused by her husband, it may increase the psychological effect of wife abuse (Cascardi, et al., 1995).

In one study, the researchers wanted to examine relationship abuse characteristics, rates of childhood abuse, and mood and anxiety disorders in women who were abused. In this study, there were 49 abused women and 23 non-abused women having marriage difficulties and 25 women satisfied with their marriage that participated. The Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R was used to collect information about current stressors and family history. The Child Abuse Assessment was used to examine any sexual, emotional or physical abuse in childhood (Cascardi, et al., 1995).

The results showed that women who were abused and those dissatisfied with their marriage had higher rates of emotional abuse as children. They also both had higher past and current rates of depression, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder compared to women satisfied with their marriage. This suggested that women who grew up in an emotionally abusive family are at risk for having a dysfunctional marriage characterized by conflict and distress. Furthermore, they both were more likely to have been diagnosed with major depression prior to their marriage. In the past, about 58% of abused women and 48% of women dissatisfied with their marriage had at least one episode of major depression. This suggested that a history of depression may be a risk factor. Also, there was a statistically significant relationship between major depression and childhood emotional abuse among abused women (Cascardi, et al., 1995).

Furthermore, there are certain identifiable characteristics of men who batter women. As the number of identifiable characteristics increases, the more likely the man will be physically violent. In some instances, a man who batters may only have one or two of these characteristics, but in an exaggerated form (Battering Personality, 2005). Some of the characteristics include inability to manage anger and express feelings with words, emotional dependence, low self-esteem, inflexible application of traditional sex attitudes, alcohol and drug dependency, social isolation, pride in combination with power, and protection from consequences (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Also, men who batter women often have a poor self-image, blame others for their problems, lack impulse control, have severe mood swings and are often cruel to animals (Domestic Violence, 2005).

There are common psychological characteristics or risk markers for men who batter. There are intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental aspects that increase the likelihood a man will abuse others. Intrapersonal aspects include low self-esteem, depression, defensiveness, fear of intimacy, low tolerance for stress, high power and control needs, high amounts of hostility and anger, and denial, minimization or justification of violence. Interpersonal aspects include lack of communication with spouse, possessiveness, suspiciousness or jealousy of spouse, difficulties in opening up in every relationship, problems expressing love, verbal aggressiveness and negative attitudes about women. Environmental aspects include witnessing violence as a child, unemployment, alcohol or drug abuse and child abuse (Domestic Violence, 2005).

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In addition, there are historical, psychological and situational factors that are common with severe wife abuse. Historical factors include prior arrests, use of a weapon, divorces, witnessing severe wife abuse, and abuse by the family as a child. Psychological factors include alcohol abuse, antisocial personality, aggression, emotionally explosive, depression, and high amounts of dependency and alienation. Situational factors include

availability of a weapon, recent separation, threat of divorce, child custody battle, verbal and non-verbal threats, open hostility toward wife, isolation from support systems and escalation of violence (Domestic Violence, 2005). This demonstrates that there are various risk factors for severe wife abuse.

Often, low self-esteem leads to depression, jealousy and sensitivity to criticism These men often show signs of extreme jealousy and possessiveness (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Jealousy is due to a lack of trust and the need to possess women. The abuser will often be jealous of the amount of time his wife spends with family, friends and children and accuse her of flirting with other men (Battering Personality, 2005). Men who isolate themselves from friends and family do not know how to handle stress (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Since they are unable to cope with frustrations, they often explode over minor issues. Battering their spouse serves as a way to reduce their levels of stress (Domestic Violence, 2005). The abuser usually does not have any supportive relationships. The wife frequently protects the abuser from suffering the consequences (Domestic Abuse, 2005).

Men who batter also have more rigid beliefs concerning the role of their wife in the marriage. They believe that women need to complete all household and mothering duties. Women also need to be submissive and are inferior to men (Domestic Abuse, 2005). In contrast, men should always be in control and be the authority figure (Domestic Violence, 2005). In my opinion, this is due to socialization practices in our culture. Through socialization men learn that women are supposed to be more passive, while men are supposed to be more aggressive. Even if a man who batters has high status or achievements in their life, they still frequently feel powerless (Domestic Violence, 2005). Pride in combination with power makes the man feel that they have the right to control their wife and gives them a sense of power (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Since they have self-image problems and are insecure about their masculinity, they feel they should treat their spouse like property. It is important that they are in control in all situations. These men are characterized by impulsiveness, such as frequently changing friends and jobs (Domestic Violence, 2005).

In addition, men who batter are very emotionally dependent on their wife (Domestic Abuse, 2005). They feel that their spouse is the only individual they can relate to and who understands them. For this reason, they have a fear of the relationship dissolving. In order to maintain the relationship, they will do everything and anything possible (Domestic Violence, 2005). In order to repress their own weaknesses, the abuser tries to control and exert power over the woman (Domestic Abuse, 2005). For inability to manage anger, men who believe violence is the main way to resolve conflicts as a child will not use alternative methods to direct their anger towards (Domestic Abuse, 2005). They believe violence is an appropriate way to resolve conflicts (Domestic Violence, 2005). In addition, men who do not engage in activities where they can release anger are more likely to release their anger on others (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Men who abuse women are characterized by hypersensitivity. Most abusers are easily insulted and even the most minor failures are seen as personal attacks (Battering Personality, 2005).

Furthermore, men who batter women have an inability to express feelings with words. This kind of man is usually not capable of true intimacy and feels threatened by being vulnerable and open in a relationship. When they feel frustrated, they want immediate gratification from their wife and they expect their wife to “read” their mind concerning their needs. If the wife fails to read their, they will believe that their wife does not love them. For an abuser, rejection equals violence (Domestic Abuse, 2005). They often try to repress the violence and project blame onto their spouse. Men who are abusive tend to only express “hard” emotions, such as guilt, anger and frustration. They either experience anger or happiness, but no emotions in the middle (Domestic Violence, 2005). In order to reduce the problem of domestic abuse, treatment for abusers needs to focus on teaching these men how to express their feelings through language.

Also, in numerous studies, there was a strong relationship between alcohol abuse and domestic violence. However, there is no evidence supporting a causal link between alcohol abuse and domestic violence. These two issues may just overlap. Studies have shown that battering is not due to alcohol abuse, but is a socially learned behavior. These men often use alcohol to avoid responsibility for their actions. In one study of 400 women who were battered, about 67% of batterers abused alcohol frequently. However, only 1out of 5 used alcohol during a battering incident. The relationship between alcohol abuse and domestic violence ranges from 25% to 80%. When men abuse alcohol during a battering incident, the abuse is usually more severe and results in greater injury (Domestic Violence, 2005).

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Furthermore, most men who batter were neglected or abused in childhood or witnessed violence in their family (Domestic Violence, 2005). Men who have experienced abuse or violence as children are more likely to become wife abusers as adults (Domestic Abuse, 2005). Approximately 70% of men who batter were neglected or abused in childhood or witnessed family violence frequently as they were growing up. For this reason, these men often enjoy killing or being cruel to animals and lack empathy for the pain and suffering of others. They may also abuse children physically or emotionally (Battering Personality, 2005).

Lenore Walker (1995) examined recent studies on physiological and psychological differences in men who batter. It is important to study the differences because of the effect it has on treatment programs for batterers. Based on previous research there are specific classifications of batterers based on the target of the abusive behavior. At first, researchers believed that men who batter could be placed in two main categories. The two categories include men who batter within their families and men who are violent outside of the home. However new classifications have surfaced out of treatment programs for men who batter. The first classification includes men who batter at home because of a need for power and control. The second classification includes men with psychological problems. The third classification includes men who have a criminal record and may have antisocial personality disorder.

Another way to classify batterers is based on psychological and physiological processes. Type 1 men appear more relaxed and are more antisocial. Type 1 men often are intimidating and control their spouse through bullying and antisocial behavior. This type of man performs the most serious and dangerous violent acts. They also have slowed heart rates. Criminals who have antisocial personality disorder often appear in control, relaxed and are very dangerous. During an argument, they have lowered heart rates. They are unable to accurately interpret the needs of their spouse because of their narcissism and independence. Type 2 men are emotionally dependent and usually have a bad temper. They are usually more emotional and more likely to express anger compared to type 1 men. They have an elevated heart rate (Walker, 1995).

Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral, psychoeducational and survivor therapy are treatment options for battered women and batterers. Many researchers argue that the issues battered women are faced with are social issues, but not psychological or physiological issues. However, other researchers contend that frequent abuse within the family leads to serious psychological and traumatic injury. Frequent abuse within the family frequently leads to battered woman syndrome (Walker, 1995).

In my opinion, battered woman syndrome is a psychological, physiological and social issue. Frequent abuse leads to the development of serious psychological problems, such as anxiety and depressive disorders, suicidal behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder. Research findings on the characteristics of men who batter and women who are battered allow health care providers to have information on how to customize interventions (Dutton, Kaltman, Goodman, Weinfurt, & Vankos, 2005).


Brady, B. M. (2000). America in crisis: Mind control/ritual trauma/battered woman syndrome and family violence. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 92, 17-20.

Cascardi, M., O’Leary, K. D., Lawrence, E. A., & Schlee, K. A. (1995). Characteristics of women physically abused by their spouses and who seek treatment regarding marital conflict. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 63, 616-623.

Domestic abuse (2005). CyberMontana. Retrieved November 7, 2005, from http://cybermontana.com/abuse/domestic.htm

Domestic violence information (2005). Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs. Retrieved November 7, 2005, from http://www.letswrap.com/dvinfo

Dutton, M. A. (1996). Critique of the battered woman syndrome model. National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women. Retrieved November 22, 2005, from http://www.vawnet.org/DomesticViolence/Research/VAWnetDocs/AR_bws.pdf

Dutton, M. A., Kaltman, S., Goodman, L.A., Weinfurt, K., & Vankos, N. (2005). Patternsof intimate partner violence: Correlates and outcomes. Violence and Victims, 20, 483-498.

Rubenstein, L. S. (2004). What is battered woman’s syndrome? DivorceNet. Retrieved November 7, 2005, from http://www.divorcenet.com/states/oregon/or_art02

Signs of a battering personality (2005). Metropolitan Battered Women’s Program. Retrieved November 22, 2005, from http://www.metrobatteredwomen.com/battering.html

Walker, L. (1995). Current perspectives on men who batter women-Implications for intervention and treatment to stop violence against women. Journal of Family Psychology, 9, 264-271.