Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered Woman Syndrome is a term used for women who are the subject of abusive relationships, usually with a husband. This term has been used by female defendants after violent acts as a psychological excuse for violence or aggression against others. These women become demoralized by domestic abuse and fail to attempt escaping their aggressors. Victims of domestic abuse tend not to seek help or defend themselves against their attackers. They may instead use aggression against others as a means of relief. Though men may also be the victims of spousal abuse, they are predominantly the aggressors.

Though the "syndrome" has not been medically proven as a viable excuse, the Battered Woman Syndrome is highly recognized and can be identified according to various symptoms. Dr. Lenore E. Walker, an expert on battered women, claims that women will undergo the psychological upsets of the battering cycle twice before being labeled a battered woman. This cycle includes: a tension-building phase that leads to a violent climax. The abuser will then offer love and comfort in the honeymoon phase. The abused woman will generally believe that she is at fault for the abuse. She refuses to place responsibility on her aggressor or recognize herself as a victim. The battered woman is afraid for her life and the lives of her children. Last, the woman will come to believe that her abuser is omnipresent and all-powerful. These symptoms of self-denial and confusion about who is, in fact, responsible make it nearly impossible for the abused woman to break free of this dangerous cycle. These women fail to realize that their abusers often suffer from low self-esteem and emotional insecurities stemming from domestic abuse they themselves suffered in their own childhood.

Battered women will stay in these unhealthy relationships for a number of possible reasons. The honeymoon stage, in which the abuser asks forgiveness and promises never to be violent again, instills hope in the woman that things will change. The woman may suffer from low self-esteem and believe that she deserves what she is getting or could never find anything better. The woman may feel completely helpless due to her nature or financial difficulties that do not allow her to leave. The battered woman may continue loving her abuser during the abuse or even after she has left her abuser.

Battered Woman Syndrome was first implemented as a legal defense in the courts in the 1970s. Lawyers defending a battered woman who has killed her abuser will fall back on the use of this term as a viable defense for the client. The defense will play on her mental deficiencies as a result of years of abuse. The woman will usually have killed her husband while he was asleep, as she is defenseless during an actual beating. Her lawyer will insist that she committed murder in an act of self-defense. Experts do not consider Battered Woman Syndrome as a form of mental insanity; rather it is a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Numerous studies have investigated the nature of domestic violence and whether or not a woman trapped in such an abusive relationship has the means of escaping it. Ann Goetting wrote Getting Out: Life Stories of Women Who Left Abusive Men, which delves into numerous personal accounts of women who have succeeded in breaking away from the cycle. The author attempts to discover why women become involved in abusive relationships in the first place, why they stay with abusive partners or return to these unhealthy relationships.

During the 1980s, it was reported that 20 to 25 percent of all female emergency patients were battered women. This estimate is inaccurate due to the fact that many women do not report abuse or fail to admit it to themselves.

According to Goetting, a man will resort to violence as a means of control; he does not intend to kill her, rather to keep her in her place. Said violence will lead to death only when the woman forgets her place, and the man loses his control over her. The author describes how the abuser reels his victim in. He seduces her with charm and chivalry, making the woman feel fortunate to have him. Then he intimidates her by making her afraid of disappointing him. The woman becomes desperate to keep him and do nothing to upset him. The man may resort to revealing a vulnerable side, prompting her pity or making her feel that she is the only one that can help him. The woman becomes entrapped in this relationship for psychological and emotional reasons. Then the cycle of abuse kicks in. Goetting claims that the only way for a woman to break free is to redefine herself as a victim rather than a devoted spouse. Women will often come to this realization once the abuse amounts to threatening her life or the lives of her children.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Self-Defense and Battered Women Who Kill: A New Framework
Robbin S. Ogle; Susan Jacobs.
Praeger, 2002
When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity
Belinda Morrissey.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Inconceivable Survivors: Battered Women who Kill"
The Domestic Assault of Women: Psychological and Criminal Justice Perspectives
Donald G. Dutton.
University of British Columbia Press, 1995 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Traumatic Bonding"
From Fear to Rage: Black Rage as a Natural Progression from and Functional Equivalent of Battered Woman Syndrome
Foster, Tosha Yvette.
William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 5, July 1997
Helping Battered Women: New Perspectives and Remedies
Albert R. Roberts.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Battered Women, Homicide, and the Legal System"
Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court
Pamela J. Jenkins; Steve Kroll-Smith; Marvin E. Wolfgang; Kai Erikson.
Praeger Publishers, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Sociologist, Gangs, and Battered Women: Representing the Discipline in the Courts"
Criminal Law and Women: Giving the Abused Woman Who Kills a Jury of Her Peers Who Appreciate Trifles
Angel, Marina.
American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter 1996
The "New Syndrome Excuse Syndrome." (Creation of Criminal Defenses Based on Psychological Syndromes)
Morse, Stephen J.
Criminal Justice Ethics, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1995
Psychiatric Evidence in Criminal Trials: To Junk or Not to Junk?
Slobogin, Christopher.
William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, October 1998
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