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The Battered Woman Syndrome

Walker, Lenore E., Duros, Rachel I., & Tome, Allison

History of Domestic Violence and the Law

Reports of domestic violence have been found to have been present as long as there are

records. Domestic violence is defined as the physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse by one

person (mostly men) against another person (mostly women) with whom there is an intimate

relationship in order to get that person to do what he wants without regard for her rights.

(Brownmiller (1975) and Jones (1980) suggested that the origin of the family and monogamous

relationships began as a way for women and children to be protected from physically and

sexually aggressive nomadic men. Unfortunately, the family has not been a safe haven for some

women and children. Laws condoning the practice of wife-beating were common in the United

States and other countries until very recently (Jones, 1980). Since men were given the legal

responsibility of protecting their wives and children, they also had the right to discipline them.

During the renewed women’s movement that began in the early 1970s in the U.S., as women

demanded their own legal and social rights, they also began to demand that the laws better

protect them from men’s physical and sexual violence (Walker, 1979).

Criminal Justice System

The first area that got attention was the need for law enforcement to better protect women

who were being abused by intimate partners. Typical reports were that the man would batter the

woman and leave the scene if the police were called. Even if he was still present, police were

hesitant to intervene and make an arrest in what was said to be a family matter and instead would

typically take the man for a walk around the block in an attempt to calm him down. Women told

of how this rarely worked and they would be beaten even worse after law enforcement officers

left. Police complained that the prosecutors didn’t take these cases seriously; but, prosecutors

claimed that women dropped the charges and refused to cooperate and judges didn’t know how

to handle these domestic matters. Two areas for reform became clear. First, domestic assaults

should be prosecuted just like any other assault, without placing the burden on the woman to file

or drop charges and second, women needed protection from further abuse from all legal, social,

medical and legal institutions and agencies. Barriers that women faced in all society’s institutions

became more visible as cases began to be heard in courts around the world. It became clear that

it would take cooperation from all levels of society to better protect women and children.

The criminal justice system began to introduce several different reforms including

vertical prosecution of domestic violence cases, developing pro-prosecution strategies including

special problem solving domestic violence courts where perpetrators could be diverted into

treatment, making it easier to obtain a restraining order and then, strengthening its enforcement

with penalties, and removing the ability of those arrested to bond out without first being in front

of a judge. Research suggested that spending the night in jail and getting a stern message from

the judge was a sufficient deterrent for most known batterers (Berk, 1993) and pro-arrest policies

began to be adopted in many cities across the U.S. Later research showed that some batterers,

particularly those who had few community ties such as a job or social network, might actually

become more violent after an arrest (Harrell, 1991) and as batterers began to enter treatment

programs, it became clear that they were as demographically diverse a population as were the

women they abused.


Dependency and Family Courts

It also became clear that both men and women involved in domestic violence had

psychological and substance abuse problems, and although the origin of the problems were

argued by the developing battered woman advocates in shelters and support groups (Schechter,

1982), most agreed that availability of appropriately trained mental health providers was

important. In the beginning, few psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or psychiatric nurses

were trained in working with domestic violence victims or perpetrators. Protocols developed for

those in medicine and psychology fields and large scale government funding went into training

victim advocates, shelter workers, legal and mental health professionals (Walker, 1979). The

battered woman shelter became the organizing point for policies and services in the U.S. and

other countries. In the U.S., the legal system and in particular, the criminal justice system

remained the gatekeeper for services for both perpetrators and victims while in other countries,

where the public health system had more impact, services were provided through that system

(Walker, 1984/2000).

Although the concentration had been on protection of women from abusers, it was also

necessary to focus on protection of children from abuse. Studies found an overlap of anywhere

from 40 to 60% of cases of child abuse occurred in families with known domestic violence

(Walker, 1984/2000). Child protection workers who had been trained to blame the mother for the

actual abuse or failure to protect the child had to relearn how to work with moms who were also

being battered and thus, tried to protect the children with little help from agencies in the

community. The issue of protection of children is still unsolved today with cases going between

criminal, dependency and neglect, and family courts, and children are often inadequately served

by any of them (Walker, 2003). Batterers often use the family courts to continue their contact

and control over the woman long after the marriage is dissolved by insisting on shared parental

responsibility. Rarely does the court use its power to empower the battered woman and assist her

in the protection of the child and therefore, the batterer is not stopped from his continued

psychological abuse of both the woman and the child. It is not unusual for these men to file

numerous court motions that become a major psychological and financial drain on women who

earn less money than do men. Constructs without any scientific validity such as Parental

Alienation Syndrome and Psychological Munchausen by Proxy are used by mental health

professionals hired by lawyers on both sides of highly contested divorce and custody cases and

while Frye and Daubert hearings in criminal cases have refused to admit these pseudo-mental

illnesses into those courts, family court has not stopped it (Walker, 2003).

Women Who Kill in Self Defense

A small number of women, somewhere around 1000, in the U.S. are known to have killed

their abusive partners in what they claim is self defense. In contrast, over 4000 women are

reportedly killed by their partners each year (Browne & Williams, 1993). The self defense laws

needed reform in order for these women to obtain the ability to plead not guilty using a

justification defense in criminal court. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, states began the

admissibility process through case law and legislation, so that women’s perception of danger and

in particular, the battered woman’s perception of danger would be accepted at trial (Browne,

1987; Walker, 1989). Until these cases began to be heard, self defense was thought to be similar

to two men having a fight in a bar like in the movies. In order to help the triers of fact, the judges

and juries who heard these cases, better understand the battered woman’s perception of danger,

especially when the woman killed the man when he was asleep or was just starting his

dangerously escalating abuse, the dynamics of domestic violence and psychological theories

such as learned helplessness and battered woman syndrome were introduced into court


Psychological Theories

Dynamics of Domestic Violence

In the last thirty years, the assessment of behavior that is or it is not considered to be

domestic violence, has been a major challenge for advocates and professionals. This difficulty

may in large part be due to battered women having to maintain secrecy in order to protect

themselves from their abuser, which leads them to minimize or cover up their pain, both

emotional and physical. However, as the women began to receive legal protection and services,

they have been able to describe the dynamics that occur in their homes and as batterers began to

talk in the offender-specific intervention programs into which they were sent by the courts, they

confirmed much of the women’s descriptions. Walker (1979) first found that battering did not

occur all the time in homes where domestic violence existed but that it was not random, either.

Rather, the women described a cycle of violence that followed a courtship period that was mostly

made up of loving behavior.

This cycle included three phases; (1) the tension-building period, (2) the acute battering

incident, and (3) a period of loving-contrition or absence of battering. Each time a new battering

event occurred, the memory of fragments of the previous battering incidents added heightened

fear, which guided the woman’s response, usually to try to calm down the batterer and prevent

further escalation of the violence. However, at times, when the woman saw signs that the

batterer’s violence was escalating no matter what she did, she engaged in actions to protect

herself. Occasionally, this resulted in her intentionally or unintentionally killing the abuser.

Learned Helplessness

When evaluating battered women who killed their abusers it became necessary to

understand why a woman would use a gun or knife against a man who was sleeping or at the

beginning of a violent event. Why wouldn’t she simply leave? The answer to this question is

most important, both case-by-case and in general for battered women. The social-learning

psychology theory of learned helplessness helps people understand how someone can learn to

believe that their actions will not have a predictable effect so they no longer believe that leaving

will stop the violence and protect them. According to the statistics, they are correct as more

women are seriously injured or killed at the point of separation. They have learned this lesson

from the batterer who tells them that he will follow and harm them where ever they go and his

power and control with enforced isolation, intrusiveness, overpossessiveness and increased

violence of them, reinforces their belief in his omnipotence. The fact that no one stops them and

there are few social or legal consequences for the batterer continues their belief in his dominance

over them.

The women begin to substitute protective skills as they lose their belief in their ability

to escape which causes them to develop learned helplessness, or the loss of contingency between

their behavior and the outcome. Although sometimes misunderstood as helplessness rather than a

loss in their belief that they can escape to protect themselves, this theory has been helpful

together with the cycle theory of violence and the battered woman syndrome for juries to

understand why women don’t just walk out of their homes and leave the batterer. In some of the

legal opinions, the battered woman syndrome is actually described as including the dynamics of

abuse together with learned helplessness rather than the collection of psychological signs and

symptoms that typically make up a syndrome according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR)(APA, 2000). However, this is part of the tension between the

advocates who wish to eliminate any discussion of mental disorders as part of battered woman

syndrome and the psychologists who understand that exposure to repeated trauma may well

cause emotional difficulties including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, of which BWS is

considered a subcategory.

Battered Woman Syndrome

The complexity of symptomatology and clinical presentation of battered women has

made it challenging for both legal and clinical disciplines. Over the years, these complexities

have been widely studied and a trend across culture has been identified in the way a woman

experiences various forms of violence against women including sexual assault and rape,

domestic violence and sexual exploitation and harassment (Koss, Goodman, Browne, Fitzgerald,

Keita & Russo, 1994; Russo, Koss, & Goodman, 1995; Walker, 1999). These abuses are

perceived by most women as traumatic events and therefore a combination of feminist theory

that attempts to account for the power and control issues and trauma theory that deals with the

abuse constitutes BWS.

What makes up Battered Woman Syndrome?

Battered Woman Syndrome can best be conceptualized as a combination of

posttraumatic stress symptomatology, including re-experiencing a traumatic event (i.e., battering

episode), numbing of responsiveness, and hyperarousal, in addition to a variable combination of

several other factors. These additional factors include, but are not limited to, disrupted

interpersonal relationships, difficulties with body image, somatic concerns, as well as sexual and

intimacy problems. Over the past few years, an attempt has been made to clearly define the

hypothesized constituents of Battered Woman Syndrome for research purposes. As such, some

variables were isolated and include Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, power and

control issues, body image distortion, and sexual dysfunction, using data collected with the use

of the Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire (Walker, 1984/2000).

In the literature, over the past thirty years, one of the most contemplated components of

Battered Woman Syndrome is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When the original

research was designed, PTSD has not yet been tested and entered into the DSM diagnostic

system. In general, criticisms suggest that the trauma model does not include sufficient context

of the woman’s life so that it makes it appear that she has a mental illness rather than her

symptoms being a logical response to being abused. While that is true for some women, our

studies indicate that there are numerous women who come to a therapist because the symptoms

do not go away despite the fact that they are no longer being battered. PTSD, with its criteria for

re-experiencing the trauma from stimuli that are both physically and not physically present can

account for this phenomenon.

Ongoing Validation Research

Research Samples

To gain insight into Battered Woman Syndrome and its effect on women across cultures,

Dr. Lenore Walker, and colleagues, are continuing the validation process for the Revised

Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire 2003 (BWSQ-3). Viewing violence against women as

a universal phenomenon, it is integral to interview women from various cultures. Consequently,

interviews have been gathered from Russia, Spain, Greece, Columbia, and South Florida.

Further, the study has recently begun to take into account incarcerated women who report a

history of battering relationships.


Women who volunteer to participate must meet the following eligibility criteria: 1) they

must be 18 years of age or older, 2) they must have been involved in at least one intimate

relationship that involved at least one battering incident (i.e., emotional, physical, and/or sexual

battering all constitute battering incidents), and 3) they must not be incompetent to make

decisions (i.e., they cannot have a legal guardian).

Revised Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire 2003 (BWSQ-3)

The BWSQ-3 was originally developed over 25 years ago by Dr. Lenore Walker and

serves as a comprehensive tool to gather valuable information regarding the field of domestic

violence research and treatment (Walker, 1984/2000). The purpose of the current study is to

establish validity and reliability for the BWSQ-3. In doing so, future clinicians will have the

opportunity to utilize a semi-structured clinical interview to assess women who report a battering

relationship. The assessment also has the potential to help guide clinicians treating battered

women, as the interview allows for an individualized overview of the woman’s history and

battering relationship. In addition, researchers have begun to investigate the dynamics of

battering relationships as experienced by women who become involved in the criminal justice

system, for the purpose of identifying the unique needs of this population.

As the interview assesses a myriad of areas that make up a battering relationship,

researchers are given a plethora of variables to isolate when establishing validity and reliability.

For instance, the presentation of battered women have been shown to be similar cross-culturally

when taking into account body image distortion, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

symptoms, power and control, and sexuality. Further, there appears to be a high endorsement of

PTSD symptomology, regardless of reported culture of origin. These mentioned areas of


significance account for only a small percentage of possibility when analyzing the dynamics of a

battering relationship.

In administering the assessment, participants are asked to complete a number of self-

report assessments, as well as the semi-structured BWSQ-3 interview protocol. The interview is

both a quantitative and qualitative semi-structured interview, in which participants are asked

questions regarding their history of abuse in childhood and adulthood, current functioning,

trauma symptoms, and body image. Included in the qualitative analysis are the women’s

narrative experiences of battering in general and descriptions of four specific incidents (i.e., first,

worst, most recent, and typical). The narratives are examined for themes of power and control,

cycle of violence, and learned helplessness.

Assessment procedures, in order of administration, include the following: 1) BWSQ-3, 2)

Adult Attachment Scale, 3) Derogatis Interview for Sexual Functioning, 4) Objectified Body

Consciousness Scale, 5) Detailed Assessment of Posttraumatic Stress, and 6) Trauma Symptom

Inventory. These assessment procedures, on average, take approximately three hours to

accurately complete.


Figure 1 was generated from some of our recent analyses. It represents the self-reported

presence, in participants from an international sample (i.e., United States, Russia, Spain, and

Greece), of several criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) modeled after the

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (APA 2000). The data

support the existence of a cross-culturally high endorsement of PTSD symptomatology.

Figure 1: PTSD Symptoms

4. 5

3. 5

Re-exper i enci ng (5)
Sc o r e 2. 5
A voi dance (7)
A r ousal (5)
1. 5

0. 5


Figure 2 was also generated from recent analyses. It represents the isolated criteria

hypothesized to have significant implications in Battered Woman Syndrome. The data support a

similar cross-cultural presentation of the syndrome, although some variations can be observed.

For instance, in this sample, body image distortion was most prominent in US culture, and least

prominent in Spanish culture. In addition, the data indicate that battering men, on average, are

reported to be twice as controlling as the battered women, both in frequency and method used.

Figure 2: Cross-National Comparison of Isolated Criteria

Application to Battered Woman Syndrome in Legal Issues

As was described above, in a legal context, the term Battered Woman Syndrome is most

frequently used as an explanation of a woman’s perception of threat leading her to commit a

criminal offense in self-defense. Criminal offenses may also include spousal assault (i.e., in

cases she fought back without killing her partner) or any other crime she may have co-committed

with her battering partner (Kaser-Boyd, 2004). In fact, the use of Battered Woman Syndrome

extends beyond the criminal justice system, to include family court (e.g., child custody cases), or

even civil court (e.g., in rare cases when the woman is suing the batterer for physical and

emotional damages).

Legally, Battered Woman Syndrome is generally applied in the form of evidence being

presented during a criminal trial where the battered woman killed her abusive partner in self-

defense. The goal for introducing Battered Woman Syndrome is to obtain either an acquittal or a

downward departure from a first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder, or

manslaughter. The burden carried by the defense, includes presenting evidence that the woman

was- or perceived herself to be- in imminent danger. This proof is usually carried with the help

of an expert witness who will testify about the dynamics of an abusive relationship as well as

how the woman’s perception can be influenced by a history of abuse and PTSD symptomatology

(Walker, in press). In addition, because the expert conducts a comprehensive assessment of the

defendant, he/she is likely able to discuss possible co-morbid mental health disorders.

Because of Battered Woman Syndrome’s broad range of applications within the legal

system, and the need for psychological evaluation and/or expert testimony across legal settings,

the term Battered Woman Syndrome has traditionally been used in both a legal and a clinical

context, with an understanding that the wide-ranging effects of battering are physiological,

behavioral, cognitive, and emotional (Kaser-Boyd, 2004).

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, the Battered Woman Syndrome first proposed in the 1970s after research

demonstrated the psychological impact from domestic violence on the victim, has undergone

further clarification after recent research with an international sample of battered women found

that the three groups of symptoms for a diagnosis of PTSD and three additional factors constitute

the syndrome. This includes (1) reexperiencing the traumatic abuse in a variety of ways

including intrusive memories, nightmares, and conditioned responses to situations evoking

similar fear; (2) high levels of physiological and psychological arousal symptoms including

anxiety; (3) high levels of avoidance symptoms and numbing of emotions; (4) disrupted

interpersonal relationships from power, control, and isolation by the batterer; (5) difficulties with

body image; and (6) dysfunctional sexuality and intimacy issues. Battered Woman Syndrome

continues to be an important psychological construct to help courts make sense out of many

counter-intuitive behaviors seen in victims of domestic violence.



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