The battered woman syndrome

Battered woman syndrome and intimate partner violence

Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult for a person to do alone. However, support groups and advocates are available to help those who are concerned about their situation or have decided to make the break.

It can take time to make the decision.

Ways to plan ahead include:

  • asking for support from a trusted friend or family member
  • saving money, if possible
  • preparing to explain your experience in a calm way when you approach an advocate, lawyer, or other support
  • being ready to give concrete examples of events and actions you have taken to keep yourself and your family safe
  • seeking out contact details of organizations that can help

Challenges that can make it harder to act include:

  • a lack of financial resources, if the person has been financially dependent on their partner
  • a sense of isolation and fear that nobody will understand
  • a sense of guilt that maybe this is not the right thing to do
  • a fear of further violence or of pressure to return to the same situation
  • concerns about legal consequences or financial or material loss, especially if there are children
  • a belief that the abuse is one’s own fault, leading to a sense of helplessness or powerlessness and an ongoing belief that somehow things can get better

What about the perpetrators?

The CDC note that a number of factors or characteristics may be present in a person who uses violence in a relationship.

These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • low self-esteem and possibly social isolation
  • a lack of non-violent problem-solving skills and a habit of using aggression to resolve difficulties
  • witnessing abuse between parents as a child
  • a desire for power and control
  • having specific views about gender roles
  • having a mental health issue, such as a personality disorder
  • the use of alcohol or drugs

In time, scientists might find an effective way to help a person who carries out abuse to change their behavior. However, most research so far has focused on people referred by the criminal justice system, which means they already have a conviction for a crime against a partner.

Some studies have shown an “alarmingly high” rate of repeat offenses. Overall, there is not enough evidence to support any specific intervention to help people who carry out this type of abuse.

The CDC recommend a range of community programs in an attempt to prevent it.

One suggestion is that carefully designed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for couples might help by enhancing communication and problem-solving skills.

However, experts to not currently recommend this, as undergoing experimental therapy while staying in an abusive relationship could increase the risk for the partner who is experiencing the abuse.

Organizations that can help

Help is available. There are organizations that specialize in offering to support those who are experiencing or trying to leave an abusive relationship.

They can offer advice, help the person get medical assistance, and assist with finding accommodation where the person can stay until they feel safe and their situation becomes stable.

These organizations can also put people in touch with an advocate, who will stand by them as they go through the process of recovery. Advocates play an important role in coordinating care for survivors and their families.

Here are some ways to find help:

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health have a list of contacts to get help in each state.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers online and phone help, as well as access to local resources. Call 1-800-799-7233 for immediate assistance. They also have a chatline: http://www.thehotline.org/what-is-live-chat/
  • The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) website offers information, resources, and advice.
  • The National Dating Abuse Hotline number is (866) 331-9474. Their chatline is http://www.loveisrespect.org/

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, calling 911 may help protect them from serious harm.

Battered Woman Syndrome: Key Elements of a Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Women who are victims of intimate-partner violence have been identified by the mental health field for more than 30 years now.1-3 It is understood that domestic violence is part of gender violence, and that many more women than men are the victims of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.4-6 Even when women strike back or engage in mutual violence, it is usually the woman who is most likely to be hurt—both physically and emotionally. Women who strike back in self-defense are often arrested along with the batterer.

It is further understood that gender violence is fostered by the socialization of men to be more powerful than women. In some men, this process creates the need to abuse power and to control women.5 While the term “victim” is not always considered politically correct, in fact, until battered women take back some control over their lives, they may not truly be considered survivors.7 Psychological symptoms, called battered woman syndrome (BWS), develop in some women and make it difficult for them to regain control. Mental health professionals have been able to assist these battered women with empowerment techniques and with accurate diagnosis and proper treatment, as described here.

BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME

BWS has been identified as a subcategory of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).8 Although not all battered women meet all the DSM-IV-TR criteria for PTSD,9 a sufficient number do; thus, a form of trauma treatment is most helpful.10

Table 1 lists 6 groups of criteria that recently have been found to be part of BWS.8

DIAGNOSIS

A number of steps will help you obtain accurate information when you are interviewing a woman whom you believe may be abused by her intimate partner (Table 2).

Safety

Begin by speaking with the woman without her partner present (if they are still together) and together form a safety plan. This can be difficult because batterers often want to be present during the entire examination so they can directly or even subtly remind the woman not to disclose their secret. It is not uncommon to feel as if the man were in the interview—even if he is waiting outside.

For a woman in a battering relationship, the most dangerous time is when she and her partner are discussing or thinking about separation.11,12 Even if the woman is no longer living with the batterer, she may not be safe. It is important to help her feel safer by making it clear that you will not take advantage of her. The clinician can set up boundaries between himself or herself and the woman by asking her permission to touch her, to write notes, and to discuss areas of confidentiality and privilege. Individual or group therapy rather than couples therapy is recommended, at least initially.

Validation

A battered woman needs to feel validated when she describes the abuse. This can be done by emphasizing the positive things she did to protect herself and her children if they were involved. Tell her that no matter what she may have done or said, no one deserves to be abused. Be careful not to ask or even intimate that she might have done something to provoke the batterer. Such questions will not create the rapport that facilitates empowerment—nor do they create a safe space for the woman.

Most battered women have been told of their faults over and over by the batterer. They also have experienced his jealousy, overpossessiveness, and attempts to isolate them from significant friends or family. They may need education about the impact of abuse on their physical as well as mental health.13

Therapy should emphasize the woman’s strengths so that she trusts herself and others again. Naming her a battered woman with BWS may help her accept that she is not “crazy” (as the batterer predicted her doctor would find).

Risk and assessment

It is important to do a risk assessment while also completing a mental status examination. Some battered women have other disorders in addition to PTSD and BWS.7,8,13

To assess the risk of further abuse, ask the woman to describe the first abusive incident that she can remember, the worst or one of the worst episodes, the last abuse before she came to see you, and typical incidents. Such questioning usually elicits sufficient information to determine the level of lethality and risk that she faces. The patterns of violence depicted in the Figure can also be used to help you assess the level of danger.

TREATMENT
A plan

Negotiate a treatment plan with the woman. The Survivor Therapy Empowerment Program (STEP) has been used effectively with individual women as well as with groups (Table 3).8

It is important to assess the woman’s resilience in addition to the degree to which she reexperiences the abuse, her hypervigilance and arousal level, and her avoidance behaviors.14

Although gathering information about the woman’s childhood history is useful, it is probably not the first area to explore. While almost half of the women in our research sample of more than 400 battered women had experienced child abuse (usually sexual abuse by a father or stepfather), many of these women were not ready to discuss these traumatic experiences initially and often were more likely to reveal them as treatment progressed.8

In an earlier research project conducted by this author, women were asked about factors that made it more difficult for them to leave the abusive relationship.8 Mental illness and previous trauma were not specified by the women interviewed, although learned helplessness and drug abuse were factors that stood out as deterrents to finding safety from violence.

Women who have experienced multiple traumas may have relatively little resilience to deal with current trauma. This is an important clue to the psychotherapist to move slowly in the treatment plan, regardless of whether earlier trauma is discussed. Medication may be discussed with the woman when appropriate, but it is important for her to contribute to any decision so that she feels more in control of her life.

Most battered women respond to cognitive rather than affective techniques initially—although both areas eventually need to be part of the treatment plan. As cognitive clarity is developed, attention, concentration, and memory will be enhanced. A battered woman may be so anxious during the initial interview that she cannot remember much of what has been said. It can be helpful to provide her with a card that lists resources, such as the local shelter for battered women. Repetition of the areas discussed may be important, especially until the woman has regained attention and concentration.

It often helps to recommend that the woman engage in more and different types of activities with other people. Such activities can help her overcome some of the isolation and the power and control that the batterer holds over her. She needs to understand that she may still be in danger, even if her partner has completed a treatment program.15

OPTIONS FOR THERAPY

Treatment of PTSD and BWS includes a combination of feminist and trauma therapy.8,16 The feminist therapy contribution acknowledges that psychotherapy is a relationship in which the formal power resides with both the therapist and the client.16 Acknowledgment of the situational factors that can be beyond a woman’s control (eg, the lack of equality in society between men and women) helps her accept that she still can attempt to change those factors that she can control.

Legal action may contribute to a woman’s sense of empowerment—especially if she is able to use domestic violence statutes in criminal or civil court to obtain a restraining or protective order, to cause the batterer to be arrested, and to get him into a batterer’s intervention program. Filing for divorce is also a stressful legal action in family court. When the batterer has financial resources, suing him for a personal injury tort might also be an empowering action, although it is difficult to spend the time and attention often necessary to win such a case.

Trauma therapy helps a woman understand that she is not “crazy” and that she is not the only one dealing with the psychological symptoms that come from exposure to trauma. Without the use of trauma-specific therapy techniques, a woman may be unable to move past psychodynamic barriers that make it more difficult for her to deal with her situation. Thus, focusing on the external “trauma triggers” rather than her own internal issues will help heal BWS symptoms.

Briere and Scott10 have outlined the various steps that need to be followed during trauma therapy with abuse victims. Changing her part in the family system, even if it is dysfunctional, may be dangerous.

Trauma triggers that cause PTSD and BWS symptoms need to be identified and behavioral techniques need to be used to reduce their potency. Behavioral techniques that are useful during this phase include relaxation training, guided imagery, and successive approximation with high arousal incidents. These behavioral and cognitive-behavioral techniques may also help the woman develop cognitive clarity over time.

Some women benefit from a description of the autonomic nervous system that regulates many of PTSD symptoms.

Typical trauma triggers include the memory of the way the batterer’s face or eyes look when he begins his abuse, the curse words he shouts, a particular phrase he uses to demean or humiliate, or even the aftershave he uses or other odors he emits during the abuse. Startle responses and hypervigilance to cues of violence are the last symptoms of BWS to be extinguished. In many women, these cues or trauma triggers never totally go away. This sensitivity can interfere with new relationships. It is often necessary to help a new intimate partner develop patience and understanding to save the new relationship, provided that it is nonabusive. Despite the myth that women often go from one abusive relationship to another, data suggest that fewer than 10% of all battered women do so.8

The STEP is a formal application of the combination of feminist and trauma therapy.16 This 12-unit program has been empirically validated with clinic and jail populations, and it is useful for women with substance abuse as well as for those with interpersonal violence issues.8 When STEP is used in institutions, such as jails or substance abuse treatment centers, a shorter, adapted version of the 12 topics listed in Table 3 is generally used. In clinics and in private practice, each STEP unit may be developed over several sessions. When asked about their satisfaction level after each session, all of the women who participated in this program gave positive comments that were highly correlated with the reduction in their scores on the Beck Anxiety Inventory.

DVDs of feminist therapy with a domestic violence victim17,18 and of a model 2-year treatment of a battered woman19 are available from www.psychotherapy.net.

LEGAL ISSUES

Many battered women are involved in legal issues and need the attention of the psychotherapist to help them get through the stress and help them understand what they need to do and to help them provide information their attorney needs. The Federal Violence Against Women Act (US Congress, 2005) provides numerous legal remedies, including declaring abuse as a violation of a woman’s human rights with subsequent opportunity for a federal lawsuit under the civil rights statutes.

Litigation frequently involves child custody and access to children. Each state has its own laws regarding parental responsibility, but they all usually presume that it is in the best interests of the child(ren) to have equal access to both parents. Unfortunately, batterers often use the children to continue their control over their ex-wives, so that it is difficult, dangerous, and usually impossible to share parental responsibility. Nevertheless, the parent whom the family court judge considers most likely to facilitate a friendly relationship with the other parent is often given greater access to the children. Mothers who try to protect their children from fathers who lack good parenting skills or who are actually abusing the children20,21 are frequently seen as engaging in “hostile and aggressive parenting,” “parental alienation syndrome,” “psychological Munchausen by proxy,” or other similar nonempirically based disorders. They often lose custody and sometimes even all access to their children. (See http://www.Leadershipcouncil.org for more information on the danger to children after separation and divorce.)

Mothers who have lost their children frequently become depressed in addition to their trauma symptoms and are unable to fight the legal system without money or psychological energy to do so.22 Their children may end up physically, sexually, and psychologically abused by the batterer—regardless of whether he has custody, and especially if the children do not follow his orders.20

In rare cases, battered women will kill their abusive partners rather than be killed themselves. As cited by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, fewer than 1200 battered women kill their batterers, while over 4000 women are killed by the men who batter them.1,23,24 The most deadly time for a woman is when the batterer believes their relationship is over. Batterers often threaten to kill rather than to let their partner go.

It may be safer for the woman to live with the batterer than try to terminate the relationship—especially if she has children she needs to protect. This is counterintuitive and seems to contradict the need for battered women to leave an abusive relationship. However, court mandates may take away most of her ability to protect herself and her children by forcing shared parental responsibility and residential custody on them. Sometimes the batterer becomes even more enraged or decompensates without the woman and children in the same home with him and ends up killing her, their children, and himself. Newspapers and television usually report these cases, sometimes without the details about the history of abuse.

An explanation of the symptoms of BMS can help juries understand when a battered woman kills in self-defense; it helps to meet the legal burden that the woman had a reasonable perception of imminent (not immediate, but about to happen) danger. It is important to explain how the woman’s fear and desperation are triggered when a new battering incident is perceived as about to occur. It is helpful for forensic mental health evaluators to have copies of previous therapy records in which the woman’s comments about abuse and fear of the batterer are recorded.

CONCLUSIONS

BWS, a subcategory of PTSD, may develop in women who are victims of intimate-partner violence. Like other forms of PTSD, symptoms of BWS may resolve after the woman is safe and out of the abusive situation. However, many women need psychotherapy to help them regain control over their lives. Some women also need psychotropic medication.

BWS symptoms may reoccur even after recovery if a new stressor or trauma is experienced. Some women may be empowered by receiving a restraining order or by taking actions that lead to the arrest of the batterer. For other women, litigation—particularly contentious child custody cases—may exacerbate stress. Mental health professionals can help abused woman get through these stressful times by making sure that the risk of further abuse is as low as possible.

Fortunately, most battered women with BWS heal, raise their children, and go on to live productive lives once they are safe from the batterers’ abuse of power and control.5,8,10,13,17

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected Findings. Violence Between Intimates (NCJ-149259). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice; November 1994.
2. Brown LS. Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy. New York: Basic Books; 1994.
3. Walker LE. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row; 1979.
4. American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family. Violence and the Family. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1996.
5. Goodman LA, Koss MP, Fitzgerald LF, et al. Male violence against women. Current research and future directions. Am Psychol. 1993;48:1054-1058.
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Costs of intimate partner violence against women in the US.Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2003. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pub-res/ipv_cost/ipv.htm. Accessed May 19, 2009.
7. American Psychological Association. Final Report of APA Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1996.
8. Walker LE. The Battered Woman Syndrome.3rd ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company; 2009.
9. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000.
10. Briere JN, Scott C. Principles of Trauma Therapy: A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc; 2007.
11.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behavioral risk factor surveillance system 2005 report; 2006.. Accessed May 19, 2009.
12.Campbell JC, Webster D, Koziol-McLain J, et al. Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: results from a multisite case control study. Am J Public Health. 2003;93:1089-1097.
13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse health conditions and health risk behaviors associated with intimate partner violence—United States, 2005 . MMWR. 2008;57:113-117.
14. Charney DS, Deutch AY, Krystal JH, et al. Psychobiologic mechanisms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993;50:295-305.
15. Babcock JC, Green CE, Robie C. Does batterers’ treatment work? A meta-analytic review of domestic violence treatment. Clin Psychol Rev.2004;23:1023-1053.
16. Walker LE. Abused Women and Survivor Therapy: A Practical Guide for the Psychotherapist. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1994.
17. Browne A. Violence against women by male partners. Prevalence, outcomes, and policy implications. Am Psychol. 1993;48:1077-1087.
18. Walker LE. Feminist Therapy: Psychotherapy With the Experts Series.Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon; 1998.
19. Walker LE. The Abused Woman: A Survivor Therapy Approach. Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders Video Series. http://www.psychotherapy.net/video/Abused_Woman. Accessed July 1, 2009.
20. Bancroft L, Silverman JG. The Batterer as a Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc; 2002.

21. Edleson JL. The overlap between child maltreatment and woman battering. Violence Against Women. 1999;5:134-154.
22. Clements CM, Sabourin CM, Spiby L. Dysphoria and hopelessness following battering: the role of perceived control, coping, and self-esteem. J Family Violence. 2004;19:25-36.
23. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Murder in Families (NCJ-143498). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice; 1994.
24. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Family Violence Statistics: Including Statistics on Strangers and Acquaintances. US Department of Justice. http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=828. Accessed May 19, 2009.For More Information
• American Psychological Association Ad Hoc Committee on Legal and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Interpersonal Violence. Potential Problems for Psychologists Working With the Area of Interpersonal Violence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1997.• US Department of Justice. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 2005. https://www.justice.gov/ovw. Battered Woman Syndrome: Key Elements of a Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Battered Woman Syndrome

Compiled by Michelle Strucke and Kate Hajjar

One in four women in the United States has experienced domestic violence during her lifetime, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, report Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence released in July 2000.

Such violence can be fatal. Every day in the United States, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners on average. In 2000, 1,247 women and 440 men were killed by an intimate partner. Thirty percent of all murders of women and 5% percent of all murders of men were intimate partner homicides. See Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001, February 2003; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. 1993-2004, 2006.

Battered Woman Syndrome, a theory developed in the 1970’s that is now associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is sometimes used in court cases as mitigation in homicide cases where a battered woman kills her abuser. Early on, the evidence was not admitted, but it is increasingly admissible despite questions about Battered Woman Syndrome’s validity as a psychological disorder. It is currently admissible in seventy-six percent of states (39 states as of 2000).

Case Study: Battered Woman Syndrome

Classic Cases
Ibn-Tamas v. United States 407 A. 2d 626 (D.C. 1979)

Dr. and Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ marriage was filled with recurrent violent episodes followed by periods of relative calm. Dr. and Mrs. Ibn-Tamas fought the morning on which Mrs. Ibn-Tamas shot her husband. During the course of their argument, Dr. Ibn-Tamas repeatedly hit his pregnant wife, dragged her up a stairs, and pointed a gun in her face shouting at her to leave the house. Ultimately, after a lull in beatings, Mrs. Ibn-Tamas fired the fatal shot after seeing her husband crouched in office doorway, holding what she believed to be a gun.

Argument:
The prosecution argued that Mrs. Ibn-Tamas, afraid of being thrown out of her home into a strange city, decided that she had had enough of her husband’s abuse and affairs with other women and ambushed him in his office. On appeal, the defense contended that the trial court erred in excluding Dr. Lenore Walker’s Battered Woman Syndrome testimony. The defense sought Dr. Walker’s testimony to explain the concept of “wife battering” and give an opinion as to whether Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ behavior corresponded with the behavior of other women in her studies. According to the defense, Dr. Walker’s testimony would help the jury assess the credibility of Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ assertion that she believed her life was in imminent danger, and thus had shot her husband in self-defense..

Legal Standard:
Before expert testimony about Battered Woman Syndrome becomes relevant; the party seeking to use expert testimony must establish that:

(1) the victim is a battered woman and; (2) the jury would be aided by expert testimony to explain her behavior.

Once determined to be relevant, Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must endure two levels of inquiry. The testimony must pass an admissibility test and the probative value must outweigh its prejudicial impact.

Dyas Standard:
To pass the admissibility hurtle, the Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must pass a three-prong test supplied by Dyas v. United States:

(1) The testimony’s subject matter “must be so distinctly related to some science, profession, business or occupation as to be beyond the ken of the average layman.”
(2) Second “the witness have sufficient skill, knowledge, or experience in that field or calling as to make it appear that his opinion or inference will probably aid the trier in his search for truth.”
(3) Finally, expert testimony is inadmissible if “the state of the pertinent art or scientific knowledge does not permit a reasonable opinion to be asserted even by an expert.”

The D.C Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in excluding Dr. Walker’s testimony. In fact, the appellate court refused to hold that, as a matter of law, Dr. Walker’s methodology fell short in any way. The D.C. Court of Appeals clarified that satisfaction of the third Dyas prong does not demand that there be acceptance of the results based on Dr. Walker’s methodology, only that methodology itself is generally accepted in the scientific community.

Having proved both relevant and admissible, the probative value of the Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must also outweigh its prejudicial impact. The trial court admitted evidence of Dr. Ibn-Tamas’ prior acts of violence against his wife. Thus, in light of the evidence already before the Court, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that admitting Dr. Walker’s testimony had only a minimal prejudicial impact. Dr. Walker’s testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome was “highly probative” and directly related to Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ perceptions at the time of the killing, which was central to her self-defense claim.

Holding:
The D.C Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court. On remand, the trial court concluded that “the defendant failed to establish a general acceptance by the expert’s colleagues of the methodology used in the expert’s study of ‘battered women.’” In an appeal from the order entered after remand, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the trial judge ultimately had discretion to exclude Dr. Walker’s testimony. Because there was no evidence of “manifest error” on the part of the trial court, the D.C Court of Appeals declined to reverse the trial court’s ruling.

State v. Yusuf 800 A.2d 590 (Conn. App. Ct. 2002)
In this case the state presented evidence proving that the victim was a battered woman suffering from battered woman syndrome. State v. Yusuf, 800 A.2d 590 (Conn. App. Ct. 2002) at 10-11. The court allowed the state’s expert to testify to the cyclical nature of abuse and the effects this violence has on battered women. Id. at 11. The state argued that expert testimony was necessary to help the jury understand why the victim did not end her relationship with the defendant, why she did not report prior assaults to the police, why she did not leave the scene after the assaults, and why she complied with defendant’s demands. Id. at 12.

Before expert testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome becomes relevant the state must establish that the victim is in fact a battered woman and that an expert’s testimony will help the jury understand her conduct. The court also determined that evidence of the defendant’s prior abuse of the victim was admissible: 1) the evidence was relevant and material to at least one exception to the rule against prior crimes evidence and 2) the probative value of the evidence outweighed its prejudicial impact. The state’s prior crimes evidence corroborated the expert’s testimony. Thus, the state presented sufficient evidence of an abusive relationship to make the expert’s Battered Woman Syndrome testimony relevant.

Legal Critiques of Battered Woman Syndrome

(1) Jury Misunderstanding
David L. Faigman, et al., Science in the Law: Social Science and Behavioral Science Issues, 2002: Faigman, et al. explain that the specific legal relevance of Battered Woman Syndrome, which is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, is unclear. Courts routinely disagree as to whether it relates to a claim of justification or excuse. They note that courts fear that juries will misconstrue Battered Woman Syndrome testimony as suggesting that the defendant possesses a diminished capacity or lack of responsibility for the act. Battered Woman Syndrome testimony is meant to educate the jury about the realities of domestic violence.

(2) Feminist Critique
Anne M. Coughlin, Excusing Women, 82 Cal. L. Rev. 5 (1994):
Coughlin writes that feminists assert that Battered Woman Syndrome testimony, when used as an element of a defense, paints women as irrational sufferers of a mental health disorder incapable of self-control. She explains that this suggests that women should not be held to the same rigorous legal standards as men. Coughlin suggests that the use of different legal standards supports a gender hierarchy within the marriage. Additionally, Coughlin explains that the inference that sufferers of Battered Woman Syndrome are incapable of choosing a lawful response to their husband’s abuse insinuates that men must control their “irresponsible” wives. Coughlin argues that the Battered Woman Syndrome defense fails not simply because it holds men and women to different standards, but also because it implies that women do not have the same capacity for self-governance as men.

Critique of Battered Woman Syndrome in Social Science

Dr. Lenore Walker – known as the “mother of Battered Woman Syndrome,” used original research to posit theories of victims’ psychological responses to violence, including learned helplessness and a three-stage theory of violence called the “cycle theory” of violence, whose stages consist of tension-building, acute battering, and, most important in answering the question of “why don’t battered women leave?”, reconciliation or “loving contrition.”

Walker describes a “battered woman” as any woman “18 years of age or older, who is or has been in an intimate relationship with a man who repeatedly subjects or subjected her to forceful physical and/or psychological abuse.”

Cycle Theory – This theory encompasses the time between the batterer (man’s) threat to kill or cause bodily harm to a woman and the defendant (woman’s) act. There are three stages:
(1) Tension building phase – build up of minor abusive incidents (emotional threats, verbal outbursts) in which the woman is hyper-vigilant to her spouse’s cues and changes her behavior accordingly
(2) Acute battering incident- severe or lethally violent battering incident
(3) Loving contrition- batterer is remorseful and charming and promises never to harm the woman again

Methodology – Walker developed this theory on the basis of research she conducted primarily in the form of interviews with victims of domestic violence, drawn from her clients and from self-referred battered women who volunteered for her study. Her major study was of 400 battered women and involved a team of researchers who conducted 6-8 hour interviews with the women, utilizing both open and closed-ended questions.

Learned Helplessness – a theory first developed through experiments by Martin Seligman in which dogs were trapped in cages and given inescapable random shocks. As the situation persisted, the dogs stopped attempting to leave the cage even though escape routes sometimes were provided, demonstrating to researchers that they had lost any motivation to change their situation. Walker analogized the situation of the women to the situation of the dogs, stating that over time, women’s motivation to respond to acts of violence would diminish.
Related research, much of it interviews with women who were victims of domestic abuse, investigated the claim that women who were victims of domestic abuse had sufficiently uniform experiences resulting in particular effects as to warrant the categorization of their experiences into “Battered Woman Syndrome.”

Cycle Theory of Violence Critique:
Much of that research found that the scientific basis for the claim was questionable. For instance, while Walker claims that her research finds evidence of ‘Battered Woman Syndrome’ in a ‘majority’ of cases, almost half of the cases she used did not adhere to the three-stage cycle theory pattern, rendering her conclusions questionable.

More recent research (by Angela Browne, Dobash and Dobash, and Mary Ann Dutton) finds much variance in the “cycle of violence” Walker posited, leading even Walker to note the variance in her later years and to conceptualize four common patterns that diverge from the “cycle of violence”:
(1) Stable, long-term battering
(2) Acute battering is less severe, and the contrition state is diminished or absent
(3) “Lethal” level of acute battering followed by contrition, but contrition disappears as time passes
(4) Once acute battering stage is reached, it remains at “lethal” levels. Id. at 213.

Learned Helplessness Critique:
Empirical studies strongly contradict claims of helplessness of battered women in situations of domestic abuse. Lee Bowker in Ending the violence: a guidebook based on the experience of 1,000 battered wives finds that women use up to seven coping strategies (including talking, extracting promises, nonviolent threatening, hiding, passive defense, avoidance, and counterviolence) and seek out “help sources,” both informal (such as family, in-laws and neighbors) and formal (such as police and social services institutions). Bowker’s conclusions include the assertion that battered women’s problems are “social, not psychological,” and had more to do with “the intransigence of their husbands’ penchant for domination and the lack of support from traditional institutions” than to their passivity or helplessness.

Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, Dobash and Dobash and Ellen Fisher in similar studies reach similar conclusions, with Fischer finding thirteen survival strategies. All find that over time, the women rather than becoming more helpless as Walker suggests, increasingly seek out help. Fisher in her work with Gondolf calls the increased pattern of help-seeking the “survivor hypothesis.”

New Developments

Battered Woman Syndrome increasingly came to be associated by its pioneer and others with PTSD. Although it is not listed in the diagnostic manual for psychological disorders, the DSM-IV, recent empirical research supports the correlation between characteristics of battered women and PTSD victims.

Recently, a new line of legal attack has been mounted, allowing prosecutors to use Battered Woman Syndrome in court cases against defendants. The use of syndrome testimony has also been expanded for use by men and in cases involving child abuse.

See also:
The Validity and Use of Evidence Concerning Battering and Its Effects in Criminal Trials; Report Responding to Section 40507 of the Violence Against Women Act

Battered Woman Syndrome

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected Findings. Violence Between Intimates (NCJ-149259). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice; November 1994.
2. Brown LS. Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy. New York: Basic Books; 1994.
3. Walker LE. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row; 1979.
4. American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family. Violence and the Family. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1996.
5. Goodman LA, Koss MP, Fitzgerald LF, et al. Male violence against women. Current research and future directions. Am Psychol. 1993;48:1054-1058.
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Costs of intimate partner violence against women in the US.Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2003. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pub-res/ipv_cost/ipv.htm. Accessed May 19, 2009.
7. American Psychological Association. Final Report of APA Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1996.
8. Walker LE. The Battered Woman Syndrome.3rd ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company; 2009.
9. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000.
10. Briere JN, Scott C. Principles of Trauma Therapy: A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc; 2007.
11.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behavioral risk factor surveillance system 2005 report; 2006. . Accessed May 19, 2009.
12.Campbell JC, Webster D, Koziol-McLain J, et al. Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: results from a multisite case control study. Am J Public Health. 2003;93:1089-1097.
13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse health conditions and health risk behaviors associated with intimate partner violence—United States, 2005 . MMWR. 2008;57:113-117.
14. Charney DS, Deutch AY, Krystal JH, et al. Psychobiologic mechanisms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1993;50:295-305.
15. Babcock JC, Green CE, Robie C. Does batterers’ treatment work? A meta-analytic review of domestic violence treatment. Clin Psychol Rev.2004;23:1023-1053.
16. Walker LE. Abused Women and Survivor Therapy: A Practical Guide for the Psychotherapist. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1994.
17. Browne A. Violence against women by male partners. Prevalence, outcomes, and policy implications. Am Psychol. 1993;48:1077-1087.
18. Walker LE. Feminist Therapy: Psychotherapy With the Experts Series.Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon; 1998.
19. Walker LE. The Abused Woman: A Survivor Therapy Approach. Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders Video Series. http://www.psychotherapy.net/video/Abused_Woman. Accessed July 1, 2009.
20. Bancroft L, Silverman JG. The Batterer as a Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc; 2002.
21. Edleson JL. The overlap between child maltreatment and woman battering. Violence Against Women. 1999;5:134-154.
22. Clements CM, Sabourin CM, Spiby L. Dysphoria and hopelessness following battering: the role of perceived control, coping, and self-esteem. J Family Violence. 2004;19:25-36.
23. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Murder in Families (NCJ-143498). Washington, DC: US Department of Justice; 1994.
24. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Family Violence Statistics: Including Statistics on Strangers and Acquaintances. US Department of Justice. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/fvs.htm. Accessed May 19, 2009.

For More Information

• American Psychological Association Ad Hoc Committee on Legal and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Interpersonal Violence. Potential Problems for Psychologists Working With the Area of Interpersonal Violence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1997.

• US Department of Justice. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 2005. http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/regulations.htm.

What is Battered Woman Syndrome?

The term “Battered Woman Syndrome” derives from the work of psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker. In the 1970’s, Walker theorized that women who experience a “cycle of violence,” consisting of at least two separate incidents of physical, sexual, or serious psychological abuse by an intimate partner, sometimes respond by developing a pattern of “learned helplessness.” Walker described the cycle of violence as consisting of three distinct stages:

  • A tension-building stage, during which incidents of verbal, psychological, and sometimes mild physical abuse begin to accumulate, while a victim responds with attempts to prevent escalation by placating the abuser;
  • An acute battering stage, during which abuse escalates into violent physical abuse; and
  • A calm, loving, and contrite stage, during which a batterer often apologizes profusely for his behavior.

The repetition of the cycle after seemingly heartfelt repentances and reassurances demoralizes a victim and instills a sense of futility and hopelessness. Episodes of violence sometimes increase in severity over time, until a victim is living with constant fear, isolation, and a belief that there is no escape. Victims who are emotionally and financially dependent on an abuser are especially likely to feel that they have no options. As the cycle repeats itself, Walker concluded, these feelings develop into “learned helplessness,” a type of psychological paralysis that prevents a victim from leaving the situation. Over time, they give up hope, and in some cases, eventually resort to violence as the only apparent option.

Subsequent research has shown that Walker’s theory does not adequately explain why some domestic violence victims eventually resort to violence themselves. Many victims do not initially respond to a cycle of violence with learned helplessness, but instead attempt first to reach out for help to family members or legal resources. Unfortunately, available resources do not always adequately address the enormous barriers faced by victims of domestic abuse. Learned helplessness may set in as a response to inadequate resources and poor social support.

Battered Woman Syndrome as a Form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Battered Woman Syndrome (now sometimes called “Battered Person Syndrome,” to acknowledge that men can also be victims) is currently conceptualized as a mental disorder that is a subtype of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A diagnosis of PTSD under the DSM-5 requires exposure to a threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation, followed by the appearance and persistence for at least one month of specific symptoms. These symptoms generally include intrusive recollection or re-experiencing of the traumatic event; avoidant behavior designed to reduce the likelihood of re-exposure to trauma; negative alterations in cognitions and mood, such as emotional numbing or persistent negative thoughts and feelings; and alterations in arousal and reactivity. Hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system can lead to panic attacks, an exaggerated startle response, and a feeling of constant danger. PTSD is often seen in combat veterans. A domestic battering victim may experience intrusive recollections of the battering in the same way a soldier might experience flashbacks of violence on the battlefield.

BWS as a Legal Defense to Spousal Homicide.

BWS has been accepted by some courts as an expansion of “self-defense,” particularly in cases of spousal homicide. Killing a person in self-defense is ordinarily justified only in the presence of a reasonable fear of imminent grievous bodily injury or death. A diagnosis of BWS in a perpetrator of domestic homicide may permit a defense even where the imminent threat is not objectively discernable, due to the tendency of the syndrome to result in overestimation of present danger. Battered Woman’s Syndrome was first recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178 (1984).

BWS as a Marital Tort in Divorce

A battered woman (or person) is by definition a victim of repeated physical or emotional domestic abuse. The existence of BWS can give rise to a cause of action for tort damages resulting from the domestic abuse. A “tort” is an accidental or intentional wrongful act that injures another person. Torts like assault and battery are also crimes, but a tort victim must bring a civil lawsuit to receive monetary compensation (also known as “damages”) for injuries. Damages can include compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress, medical expenses, and loss of earnings and earning capacity. For particularly outrageous tortious conduct, punitive damages may be available.

Torts are ordinarily subject to “statutes of limitation.” This means that claims for tortious injury must be brought within certain time limits, depending on the nature of the injury. For example, a victim of a physical assault ordinarily has two years following the assault to bring a civil claim. Under certain circumstances, however, a statute of limitations can be “tolled” (stopped from running) for varying periods of time. In New Jersey, the tort of “battered woman’s syndrome” allows victims caught up in a cycle of domestic violence to be compensated for abuse that occurs on a continuing basis, without each separate instance of abuse being subject to a statute of limitations. Proving battered women’s syndrome requires expert psychological testimony in court.

BWS is a “marital tort” if the perpetrator is a spouse. This can be important because it could mean that the tort is the basis for a “Tevis claim” which must be raised in conjunction with a divorce action to avoid the risk of losing the right to raise it later.

If You or Someone You Know is a Victim of Domestic Violence

Call one of the following numbers for confidential crisis intervention, information and/or referral to other services:

New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 572-7233 (SAFE).

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 (SAFE).

For more information about domestic violence, including information on obtaining restraining orders and making safety plans, visit our comprehensive domestic violence pages.

To talk to an attorney about your specific situation and obtain more information on Battered Woman’s Syndrome or any other domestic violence issue, call one of our experienced domestic violence attorneys for a free consultation.

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association (2013).

Introduction

The case of battered women who kill raises some interesting questions regarding the criminal justice system’s ability to respond to domestic violence. The Battered Woman Syndrome, like the Cycle Theory of Violence, helps to illuminate the situation of the battered woman, why she does not just leave the relationship, and why some domestic violence relationships end in the death of the batterer. However, it may also contribute to the violence of domestic violence.

In this paper I begin by delineating some of the circumstances of a domestic violence situation. I then discuss the particular moral issue of subjectivity or moral personhood involved in instances wherein a woman victimized by domestic violence responds by killing her batterer. Finally, I argue that the battered woman syndrome and similar alternatives to or qualifications of self-defense are problematic because they strip a woman of her moral subjectivity. I conclude with a brief articulation of a proposal for reform of the criminal justice system specifically aimed at cases wherein there has been a long history of abuse or violence.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is defined as violence among intimates. It raises problems for our moral and legal systems in that it is often characterized by a loving partnership wherein one or both of the partners commits a violent crime against the other partner. (1) The Cycle Theory of Violence, articulated by Lenore Walker, helps to clarify domestic violence and says that abuse tends to occur according to a particular pattern. There are three basic stages to this pattern. The first stage is characterized by tension between the pair. During this tension building stage, relatively minor incidents increase the tension in the relationship and culminate in the eruption of violence.

The next stage in the cycle of violence is the violent incident. The violence may be short lived or last for a few days. Often it is at this stage that police are notified or legal proceedings begun.

The third stage is referred to as the “honeymoon” or “loving contrition” stage. During this time, the abuser is often very loving and remorseful. Promises are made by the batterer that he will not violently abuse the woman again. This stage reinforces the woman’s hope that the relationship will get better or is at least salvageable. Since there is a sincere belief that the violence in the relationship has ended, civil and criminal legal proceedings may be dropped or otherwise aborted.

The cycle repeats itself and violence becomes more intense, the tension building stage lengthens, and the honeymoon stage decreases or disappears entirely. Walker theorizes that it is at the point when the loving contrition disappears that the woman is best able to leave the abusive relationship. The external reinforcement to maintain the relationship has ceased to exist.

Gradually the autonomy of the individual who is victimized by domestic violence erodes. She becomes fearful of making a decision on her own. The coercive control the batter has over his partner may cause the person victimized by domestic violence to no longer see herself as a decision-maker. Her self-esteem and capacity to make independent decisions are impacted and the violently coercive message may be reinforced by a culture that presents violence as a means to solve conflict. (2)

In unlearning violence as individuals and as a society, we discover that violence is not solely constituted by physical acts of aggression or harm. Violence may also entail the myriad ways in which we dehumanize one another. Denying another person’s moral subjectivity is an example of dehumanization and often occurs in legal cases wherein the battered woman syndrome is admitted as testimony. We have, then, a social responsibility to critically evaluate the legal and moral implications of how domestic violence is perceived. (3)

Battered Woman Syndrome

The Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) is a psychological term used to describe women who are stuck within or have recently left a violent relationship characterized by the cycle of violence. BWS is modeled after the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome suffered by Vietnam Veterans and later applied to people victimized by rape. Walker refers to the Battered Woman Syndrome as a sort of learned helplessness. The cycle of violence emphasizes physical violence but “physical abuse rarely occurs without psychological abuse.” (4) Psychological abuse takes the form of verbal put-downs as well as social and economic isolation. This psychological abuse degrades and humiliates the woman thereby facilitating the destruction of her self-esteem and by implication her moral personhood. She learns to be helpless as a survival mechanism so as to delay incurring the wrath of the batterer/decision maker/controller.

Nancy Rourke mistakenly construes BWS as “a reaction by the victim to the trauma of domestic violence which leads the victim to strike out and kill the abuser, as a substantive defense.” (5) While striking out and killing a batterer is certainly one among many forms of “substantive defense” against abuse, the Battered Woman Syndrome is a psychological description that only explains a woman’s possible psychological state after or during being traumatized by domestic violence. It does not necessarily lead her to kill nor does it justify such an action. Rather, expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome is merely used in “battered women who kill” cases on the supposition that such testimony helps the jury to understand why the woman’s actions might be considered self-defense.

There are, however, some serious problems with so using BWS in self-defense cases. The Battered Woman Syndrome ought not to be seen as a way to absolve a woman of responsibility for her actions. Yet juries often understand BWS as mental incapacity. As Charles Ewing points out, if the jury believes a woman suffers from a mental incapacity, then she cannot be considered as acting in a reasonable manner, which is what is required by the self-defense standard. If a woman who kills her batterer in self-defense is seen as not responsible for her actions because of a mental incapacity (BWS), then she continues to exist in an invisible moral realm wherein she is not perceived as exercising or capable of exercising full moral personhood. (6) This is further explicated in the distinction between being “victimized” and being a “victim.”

The Battered Woman Syndrome has been used to categorize a woman who is abused by an intimate as “victim.” To refer to the woman as a “victim” indicates a static state of being. Within this state one’s moral decision making capacities are limited and/or controlled by others, whether it be those who, like the batterer, have their own self-interest at heart, or those who have the “victim’s” interest at heart. The Battered Woman Syndrome functions in this way in that it tends to point to a sort of environmental determinism. That is, BWS attributes a woman’s behavior to the environmental conditions in which she lives. As an autonomous agent she is absolved of her responsibility because it is perceived that her environment determined her actions. This is the opposite of how domestic violence had been perceived historically. Social mores and the legal system used to treat the woman victimized by domestic violence as the guilty partner. She was viewed as having done something to deserve the beating or perhaps even as somehow enjoying the beating.

Thus, for society to label the woman as “victim” is to deprive her of her moral subjectivity and establish a separate standard of reasonableness legally. (7) However, for society to ignore the circumstances that surround her and limit her possible decisions is to legitimate an unjust situation of domestic violence. This is why our moral reasoning must make room for the notion of a moral agent being “victimized.” To recognized that a woman has been or is being victimized by domestic violence does not take away her moral decision making or absolve her of responsibility. It merely points out that decision making takes place within a particular situation that may limit the decisions themselves.

Rourke also argues that women victimized by domestic violence must struggle to “shift the locus of control” and change self-perceptions out of being victims. Reclaiming the locus of control means that the person victimized by domestic violence must assume responsibility for herself and her decisions. Doing so allows her to see herself as an autonomous agent and may also influence the perception her batterer has of her. The batterer sees her as a person, capable of making her own decisions, and Rourke adds that the court proceeding may “be the first time that the offender has to take his victim seriously.” (8)

In her discussion of the history of the treatment of battered women in the United States, Elizabeth Pleck describes how shelters learned that a woman seeking service must make her own decisions, even if she decides to return to the violent (or potentially violent) home situation. (9) Advocates were to support her choice while also communicating to her that she is free to choose and that she will not be denied services regardless of the choice or the consequences of that choice. To deprive the woman of her free choice contributed to the violence of her situation because it reinforced her lack of self-esteem and thereby further diminished her already damaged moral subjectivity.

Practical legal implications

For the particular cases in which a woman who has been victimized by domestic violence kills her batterer, the criminal justice system needs another category of defense. Self-defense, which is commonly used in these cases, only works infrequently. The majority of women tried serve at least some jail time even if they have expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome. (10)

“Self-defense is defined as the justifiable commission of a criminal act by using the least amount of force necessary to prevent imminent bodily harm which needs only to be reasonable perceived as about to happen.” (11) In self-defense, one actively chooses and participates in a response to the threat of harm by inflicting harm on the offender. However, because one is reasonably responding to the threat on one’s own life, one is not held morally blameworthy for his/her action. Though, of course, having chosen the response (albeit under coercive conditions) one is responsible for one’s actions. However, when the battered woman syndrome is admitted in a homicide case (i.e., the “battered woman defense” (12) ), then the jury may perceive the woman as in some way mentally incapacitated. If she is mentally incapacitated then she cannot be viewed as having reasonably responded to the threat of harm. On the other hand, if testimony on the battered woman syndrome is not admitted then the potential for acquittal is slim. (13)

The person victimized by domestic violence is in a double bind. If she stays in the victim-role she will most likely stay under the coercive and/or abusive control of her batterer or step into similar relationships in the future (including the control exercised by the legal system and/or social services). If, on the other hand, she asserts her autonomy, i.e., her personhood, she also risks being victimized by further violence as her batterer may assert more intense violence in an attempt to maintain the control he sees potentially slipping away. The logical extension of what I have argued above indicates that the latter option is the better moral option.

The argument that leads to this conclusion may be posed as a standard dilemma: Either the person victimized by domestic violence continues to be perceived in the victim role or she is seen as victimized by domestic violence but is nonetheless a responsible moral agent albeit constrained by her circumstances. If she stays in the victim-role, she loses moral autonomy/subjectivity or the capacity to participate in the decisions that affect her life, and remains in an abusive situation. If she leaves the victim-role and her autonomy is asserted, she gains some degree of moral personhood and begins to regain control over the decisions that affect her life projects, but may be further victimized by violence. The choice then is between remaining in the victim-role suffering further violence and demoralization, or regaining some degree of personhood and potentially being further stalked by violence.

The key to resolving this dilemma is both that moral autonomy is superior to moral invisibility, and that the potential for violence is present in both cases but the guarantee for violence is stronger in the former case. If she casts off the victim-role and there is no further violence then she has won. If she remains in the victim-role, there will certainly be further violence (physical or psychological). She has lost both in terms of the physical harm and in terms of the harm to her moral self.

Because of this dilemma with using the battered woman syndrome, and because it seems to posit a special standard of “reasonableness” for battered women, Ewing proposes an alternative form of legal defense which may be used not only for all cases wherein there has been a history of abuse/victimization. Ewing’s theory is called “psychological self-defense” and

would justify the use of deadly force only where such force appeared reasonably necessary to prevent the infliction of extremely serious psychological injury…defined as gross and enduring impairment of one’s psychological functioning which significantly limits the meaning and value of one’s physical existence. (14)

Ewing’s proposal, however, like the more traditional “battered woman defense” response, relies on a special standard of reasonableness. His proposal alters the “standard of reasonableness,” or what a reasonable person would do in a similar situation. Using a defense that relies on a specific standard of reasonableness requires a jury to both understand that standard and to see the accused as operating accordingly.

Instead, the reforms to the criminal justice system should not be centered on different standards of reasonableness but rather on different levels of responsibility. We could, for instance, set a category of “responsible homicide,” emphasizing “responsible but not blameworthy.” “Responsible homicide” would still be a serious crime for which a person would be held legally accountable; morally, the agent would maintain subjective responsibility for her actions. It would be less serious than involuntary manslaughter and would carry, at best, a modified form of punishment (e.g., a person might be sentenced to domestic violence education and morally relevant community service). One implication is that the battered woman who kills is found guilty of “responsible homicide.” A benefit is that the jury does not have to assess the reasonableness of the defendant and there is no alternative or separate standard of reasonableness for the battered woman, i.e., the standard of reasonableness in jurisprudence is not altered. Additionally, the law against homicide maintains its deterrent effect while also acknowledging the coercive context within which battered women perceive murder as their only option.

Ann Jones argues that among the reasons so many women who kill their batterers are convicted despite all the evidence of continued abuse and self-defense, is that society fails to see women as fully human. Instead, a male-oriented legal system looks for reasons to see the woman as “hysterical,” as getting some sort of “masochistic thrill” out of abuse, or as in some way “deserving” the abusive treatment. Jones argues that anti-woman propaganda contributes to the societal failure to see women as persons deserving of respect. (15) What I have argued here is that the Battered Woman Syndrome may also function to keep women from being seen as moral individuals deserving of respect.

What Is Battered Woman’s Syndrome?

Battered woman’s syndrome refers to a phenomenon recognized by sociologists and psychologist where a woman is subjected to a sustained pattern of physical and emotional abuse by a dominant male figure in her life. Note, that battered woman’s syndrome does not necessarily involve a marital relationship between victim and aggressor.

The cycle of abuse in battered woman’s syndrome cases is characterized by three stages. In the first stage involves the elevation of tension and conflict between the parties. The second stage results in physical abuse against the victim. In the third stage, the aggressor exhibits extreme regret and contrition. The aggressor may make promises to never hurt the victim again, to refrain from consuming alcohol or drugs, and similar claims.

Battered Woman’s Syndrome in Criminal Law

Battered woman’s syndrome is most famous for its use as a defense in criminal cases. Similar to self-defense, battered woman’s syndrome has been raised as a reason for excusing or minimizing criminal liability for crimes such as battery or homicide against the aggressor.

However, self-defense often requires proof that the defendant was in imminent danger. In early cases involving victims of battered woman’s syndrome claiming self-defense, prosecutors would argue that a sustained pattern of abuse suggests that the harm was not imminent because the defendant had “unreasonably” remained in an abusive relationship.

However, as the scientific community started recognizing battered woman’s syndrome as a legitimate psychological condition, courts started to recognize that women trapped in abusive relationships weren’t necessarily choosing to remain in danger. Thus, battered woman’s syndrome served to excuse someone from criminal liability for violently lashing out against their attacker.

Civil Liability for Battered Woman’s Syndrome

While battered woman’s syndrome was mostly recognized in the context of defending an abused woman against criminal charges, New Jersey courts also held that the condition also constituted a marital tort that entitled the victim to a civil remedy. In Cusseaux v. Pickett, 279 N.J.Super. 335 (Law Div. 1994), the Superior Court of New Jersey held that “‘battered woman’s syndrome’ is now a cognizable cause action under the laws of New Jersey.”

According to the court in Cusseaux, liability for battered woman’s syndrome requires proof of the following elements:

  • A marital or marital-like intimate relationship
  • An extended period of physical or psychological abuse by the dominant partner
  • A causal connection between the extended abuse and recurring physical or psychological injury
  • The plaintiff’s inability to take action to unilaterally improve or change their situation

Domestic Violence Prevention

In 1991, the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (NJPDVA) went into effect, providing victims of domestic violence with new legal protections. One of the forms of relief under the NJPDVA was allowing someone to request “emergency, ex parte relief in the nature of a temporary restraining order…when necessary to protect the life, health or well-being of a victim on whose behalf the relief is sought.”

An emergency temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent domestic violence is powerful protection that allows courts to issue orders without first fulfilling the conventional due process requirements of providing the defendant with notice and a hearing. This means that a court does not have to wait to hear the defendant’s side of the story before giving them a temporary restraining order to prevent impending abuse.

A TRO can be powerful protection for victims of battered woman’s syndrome as it lets third parties request a TRO. A TRO can restrain the aggressor from making any contact with the victim, oust the aggressor from their home, give the victim exclusive possession of the home, and bar the aggressor from possessing firearms.

Although the procedure for requesting a TRO for preventing domestic violence is considered a civil action, the violation of a TRO is punishable as a crime.

Battered Woman’s Syndrome in Divorce Proceedings

When courts make a determination about child custody, they are required to consider factors concerning the child’s best interest. New Jersey courts have an interest in protecting the safety and welfare of minor children. Thus, a court tasked with deciding on a custody arrangement must consider a parent’s history of domestic violence, whether directed toward the child or their parent. Courts may also factor the continued pattern of abuse in battered woman’s syndrome cases when determining issues such as spousal support and the equitable distribution of marital property upon divorce.

DeTommaso Law Group Will Advocate for Your Rights

If you are looking for a way to escape an abusive relationship, you should seek the professional counsel of an attorney experienced in handling domestic violence cases. At DeTommaso Law Group, you can benefit from the compassionate services of our legal team. We are dedicated to giving a powerful voice to those who have been oppressed by the abusive conduct of someone they thought they could trust.

For a free consultation about your legal rights and options, call us at (908) 274-3028 or contact our office online today.

Emotional Abuse – Are You Being Abused?

“No person is worth dying for.
Especially when they are the one killing you.”

I will never forget those words!

Please forward this article to any person (discreetly) who you suspect is suffering relationship abuse. Also forward this document to any female you know who is near the age of dating. It may save her self-esteem and even her life.

Please know there are solutions for relationship abuse.
These begin with FACING THE TRUTH and then working hard at regaining yourself.

THE CIRCLE OF VIOLENCE

  • The abuse behaviour
  • The apologies
  • The build up (walking on broken glass)
  • The abusive behaviour

And the circle continues…

WHEN THE ABUSE IS OVER … ITS NOT OVER
The effects of the abuse linger for a very long time
even when the abuse is finalised.

Healing from a narcissistic relationship – What you can do

Recovery from the psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual abuse of narcissism is imperative for an individual to put themselves and their life back together. Specific healing and procedures do produce the results necessary for an individual to create an empowered life where they will not be susceptible to narcissistic abuse again. In many cases the recovery from narcissism has been necessary for an individual to outgrow co-dependent childhood scripts of poor boundary function and victimisation.

Love, happiness and success are possible after suffering the effects of narcissism.

If you’re feeling extremely broken, powerless and like you can’t take it anymore, you can access powerful help and relief.
Read about the relief and healing others have achieved “
and
See the Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program “START YOUR RECOVERY TODAY Join the community of over 100,000 members and receive my free Abuse Recovery Starter Package

2 ebooks that provide the vital first steps to get your recovery started.

An invitation to experience my healing method in a 2 hour Webinar.

A video that explains the 4 things that changed everything I knew about abuse recovery.

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