Sanctuary for the Abused

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What is "Abused Woman's Syndrome?"

By Lori S. Rubenstein, Attorney - Mediator

(BATTERING can be Verbal, Emotional, Sexual, Psychological and/or Financial - not just physical!)

To understand battered woman's syndrome, one must first understand how someone becomes a "battered woman". According to Dr. Lenore E. Walker, the nation's most prominent expert on battered women, a woman must experience at least two complete battering cycles before she can be labeled a "battered woman". The cycle has three distinct phases. First is the tension-building phase, followed by the explosion or acute battering incident, culminating in a calm, loving respite - often referred to as the honeymoon phase. Walker, L., The Battered Woman (1979).

It is also important to understand why battered women stay in abusive relationships. The Court in People v. Aris, 215 Cal App 3d 1194, 264 Cal Rptr 167, 178 (1989) stated that "battered women tend to stay in abusive relationships for a number of reasons." Among those reasons:

women are still positively reinforced during the honeymoon phase;

women tend to be the peacekeepers in relationships - the ones responsible for making the marriage work;

adverse economic consequences;

it is more dangerous to leave than to stay;

prior threats by batterer to kill self, or children; or to abscond with children;

lost self-esteem;

and no psychological energy to leave - resulting in a learned helplessness or psychological paralysis.

"Battered woman syndrome describes a pattern of psychological and behavioral symptoms found in women living in battering relationships." People v. Romero, 13 Cal Rptr 2d 332, 336 (Cal App 2d Dist. 1992); See Walker, L., The Battered Woman Syndrome (1984) p. 95-97.

There are four general characteristics of the syndrome:

1. The woman believes that the violence was her fault.
2. The woman has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
3. The woman fears for her life and/or her children's lives.
4. The woman has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

"Battered woman's syndrome is best understood as a subgroup of what the American Psychological Association defines as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, rather than as a form of mental illness." IX New York Law School Journal of Human Rights "You've Come a Long Way, Baby: The Battered Woman's Syndrome Revisited" at 117-118; Walker, L., Terrifying Love: Why Battered Women Kill and How Society Responds (1989) at 48.


Battered woman's syndrome has been used in criminal cases since the late 1970s. Experts must qualify to testify on this syndrome as they must in any other case. In the only reported Oregon case on battered woman (spouse) syndrome, State v. Moore, 72 Or App 454, 695 P2d 985 (1985), the expert was not qualified to discuss the syndrome because she had no college degree. ORE 702 states:

If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

"The court did not reject defendant's defense based on the battered spouse syndrome but ruled that the evidence offered through the counselor's testimony was too remote in relationship to the shooting to be probative of the defense." Id. at 987. Judge Newman, concurring with the majority, gives a lengthy discussion of the importance of battered spouse syndrome and its relevance to a claim of self-defense, stating that "numerous psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers now consider the battered spouse syndrome an accepted basis for identification, counseling and treatment....If a witness qualifies as an expert and a sufficient foundation is laid, evidence of the battered spouse syndrome should be admissible." Id. at 990. In determining relevancy, the court must first decide whether it has enough evidence to decide whether the person was in fact a battered woman. Fennell v. Goolsby, 630 F Supp 45 (E.D. Pa. 1985)

It should be noted that the Moore case supra was decided in 1985. In the years since, numerous studies, articles, court cases and legislation concerning domestic violence and battered woman's syndrome have been introduced to our system of jurisprudence. To date 31 states and the District of Columbia have allowed use of expert testimony on the syndrome and five have acknowledged its validity, but held it inadmissible based on the facts of the particular case. Bechtel v. State, 840 P2d 1 (Okl Cr 1992). In Bechtel, two experts acknowledged that battered woman's syndrome is considered a sub-category of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder which is generally accepted and listed in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 3-R; "but it is not a mental disease in the context of insanity". Bechtel, 840 P2d at 7.

Although a few cases concerning battered woman's syndrome were heard in the late 1970's, the true watershed case was State v. Kelly, 478 A2d 364 (1985). Kelly stated that the battered woman syndrome, hereinafter referred to as "BWS", is admissible to aid juries in assessing a defendant's perception of danger posed by the abuser. "Evidence of BWS not only explains how a battered woman might think, react or behave, it also places the behavior in an understandable light." Romero supra p.1, 13 Cal Rptr 2d at 341.

The Court in Arcoren v. U.S., supra p.1, 929 F2d at 1241 rejected Arcoren's argument that the expert's testimony re BWS should be limited to cases where it was offered to support a claim of self-defense. Battered woman's syndrome has recently been used in juvenile, divorce and custody actions. In the Matter of Glen G. and Josephline G., 587 NYS 2d 464, 469 (1992) the expert described BWS as "a breaking down of a woman's self confidence and self respect to a point where she no longer knows if she is crazy or not." BWS was used to show that the mother did not have actual ability to intervene to protect her child from the father's sexual abuse. This year, in a Connecticut custody action, Knock v. Knock, 224 Conn. 776, 621 A2d 267 (1993) BWS was found to be relevant to a determination of custody. The court held that the presence of battery in the household has, at a minimum, some effect on the parenting skill of both spouses and the child's response to the parent even after their separation. "It is clear that the trial court considered battered woman's a factor in its custody addition to other corroborating evidence, determine whether defendant was a battered woman. [The Court] allowed [the expert] to testify as to battered woman's syndrome and the effects of battering upon the victim and any children involved, and to give his opinion that the defendant manifested battered woman's syndrome." Id. at 274.

Expert testimony concerning battered woman's syndrome, permitted in 31 states, is still a rather new area of the law. Although the trend in criminal cases clearly permits and even encourages such testimony, only a few civil cases have been reported. In these civil-law cases, BWS has been used by the court in determining a mother's state of mind and why her actions or non-actions were consistent with the syndrome. See closing memorandum for arguments con-cerning the use of BWS in the case at bar. In examining the victim's fitness for custody, the "task for judges is to determine which parent is most likely to provide the child with a healthy, caring nonviolent home". The Judges Journal, "What Therapists See That Judges May Miss", Crites, L., and Coker, D. (Spring 1988) p.43. Discussing the battered woman's emotional state, The Judges Journal article asserts that "[u]nlike her abusive partner, most abused women do not repeat the abuse experience in a second relationship." [Only about 10% do experience violence in future relationships.]  

"While experiencing the abuse, the woman's emotional state is sometimes marked by depression, somatic concerns, anxiety and passivity. These symptoms, however, are most often linked to the relationship and lessen once she removes herself from the abuse.... 

An abused woman also has to overcome feeling inadequate, crazy, or stupid - something akin to brainwashing - as a result of having been repeatedly told she was these things while in the relationship." Id. at 13.

(Remember BATTERING can include verbal, emotional & psychological abuse)


The woman refuses to admit--even to herself--that there she has been beaten or that there is a "problem" in her marriage. She may call each incident an "accident". She offers excuses for her husband's violence and each time firmly believes it will never happen again.

She now acknowledges there is a problem, but considers herself responsible for it. She "deserves" to be beaten, she feels, because she has defects in her character and is not living up to her husband's expectations.

The woman no longer assumes responsibility for her husband's abusive treatment, recognizing that no one "deserves" to be beaten. She is still committed to her marriage, though, and stays with her husband, hoping they can work things out.

Accepting the fact that her husband will not, or can not, stop his violent behavior, the battered woman decides she will no longer submit to it and starts a new life.

(REMINDER your abuser may be FEMALE!)

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shared by Barbara at 12:39 AM



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