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Battered Woman Syndrome

Case Study One:

Irene, 31 years old and 11 months sober, moved in with her new boyfriend when she was just under three months sober. Since then, she’s shared about her “pink cloud” having disappeared, sobriety being really difficult, her memory and concentration failing her, and having become extremely clumsy…hence the multiple bruises she has.

She finally broke down crying at her 12-Step meeting, sharing that her boyfriend is beating her, how she “probably deserves it,” and that she’s filled with shame. This revelation was immediately met with belief, validation, sympathy, an insistence that it was not her fault, and a willingness to help.

People at the meeting offered support, convinced her to report the abuse to local police, helped her move out of her boyfriend’s apartment, and provided a place for her to stay temporarily.

Case Study Two:

Lindsey, 32 years old and 21 months sober, also moved in with her boyfriend at about three months sober. He too was sober (nine years) and attended the same 12-Step group as Lindsey.

Over time, Lindsey became more withdrawn and silent, more nervous, appeared exhausted and sad, spoke very negatively about herself and others, would not look people in the eye, and usually responded “fine” when asked how she was.

She finally confided in a small group of women, including her sponsor, that her relationship was terrible. She said her boyfriend didn’t trust her, constantly visited suspicion, accusation, and blame on her, told her she was selfish, lazy, fat, man-hating, self-pitying, and disrespectful. He threatened her, forced her to do sexual things she did not like – and would withhold sex if she didn’t do them enthusiastically – controlled their money, and accused her of not really being sober.

Her breakdown was met with disbelief and overwhelming support for her boyfriend, whom the women had known, in the rooms, for many years. They asked what her part was, joked about wishing their boyfriends were as sexually voracious as Lindsey’s, and reminded her about the dangers of resentment and the idea of “setting aside the wrongs others had done, … resolutely looking for our part.” A couple were somewhat sympathetic, and suggested couples’ therapy. One questioned whether or not she was truly clean and sober.


When substance abuse is involved, there is a higher rate of battering than where there is no substance abuse.  And not surprisingly, there are also lower rates of reporting among substance abusers. Active substance abusers usually tend to avoid law enforcement, for obvious reasons.

People who are battered on an ongoing basis often find very different responses, based on the type of battering they experience, when they finally reveal being battered to others. The two case studies above reflect those differences.

When the battering is – or includes – physical battering, the victim is usually believed and met with empathy, encouragement, and support. When the battering is purely emotional and/or sexual, the victim is less often believed, elicits less sympathy and support, may be blamed by others for the experience, and may be a target of ridicule.  Therefore, it is not surprising that those who endure long-term and extremely painful and destructive emotional and/or sexual battering, usually do not tell others, and do not report it to authorities.

Statistics Among Men and Women

In the United States, 50-80% of women who are victims of physical assault report their domestic partner to be the perpetrator. And, it is estimated between 1-2 million women per year experience a physical assault by their husbands.

Because of the reluctance of men to reveal that they are victims of spousal battering, the avoidance of substance abusers to report spousal battering to the authorities, and the fear, shame, and sense of “deserving it” that limit many women’s reporting ongoing battering, it is thought that the number of people living with Battered Person Syndrome is much higher than the current estimates.

Classic Patterns

There is a classic three-step pattern that defines Battered Woman Syndrome:

  • Step #1  It commences with the batterer internally experiencing an increasing sense of stress and tension over somehow being wronged – disrespected, dismissed, denied, unappreciated, ignored, belittled, lied to, cheated on, taken advantage of, etc. – by their partner.  It makes little difference whether this is real or imagined, for it is real to the batterer.
  • Step #2  In the second step, the batterer releases their anger and relieves their stress by battering the victim – physically, emotionally, and/or sexually – while communicating to the victim that the battering is their fault.  The message is, “You made me do this to you; you deserved it; it’s your fault.”
  • Step #3  In the third step, the batterer expresses some form of remorse, states an intention to not repeat the behavior, but reiterates the underlying premise that the victim was at fault for driving them to the battering behavior.

Because the first two steps in the process are completely internally driven, it makes no difference what the victim does to try to be a “better partner.” The perpetrator’s perceptions, escalation, and battering are not dependent on the victim’s words or behavior.

Victims typically find themselves in a lose-lose situation. Regardless of what the victim says or doesn’t say, or does or doesn’t do, the batterer finds a way to interpret the victim’s words or actions as evidence that they, the batterer, are again being wronged, hence the cycle and escalation are reactivated.

Finally, because of the helplessness and hopelessness cultivated over time by the victim, it is not uncommon for the victim to lose their intactness as a unique person, to commence to view themselves solely as an extension of the batterer, and to agree with the batterer, i.e., to believe that the battering is their own fault, and that it is deserved.


Not surprisingly, some victims turn to alcohol or drugs to help them cope with the physical pain and/or emotional pain and losses associated with being battered.  Interestingly, substance abuse can be both a consequence of battering as well as a behavior that leads to it.

Substance abuse alters judgment, attracts people who are sick, creates irritability, lowers inhibitions, fosters low self-esteem, and cultivates dependency, all of which make battering more likely.

  • Physical consequences of battering can include death, injury, bruising, pain, internal injury, and physical pain unrelated to injury.
  • Emotional consequences include a loss of dignity and self-respect, depression and low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, inability to trust, hyper-vigilance, shame and guilt, fear and anxiety, self-blame, and feeling hopeless, helpless, trapped, and powerless.
  • Behavioral consequences may include suicide attempts, defensive aggression, substance abuse, withdrawal and isolation and abandoning one’s support system, sleep disturbances, reduced sexual intimacy, and self-mutilation.

Finally, children who bear witness to battering, be it physical, emotional, and/or sexual, have normalized for them the idea that battering is an acceptable, even preferred, form of expressing love, and they are far more likely to grow up modeling those behaviors, i.e., acting as batterer or victim.

I remember, years ago, being at lunch with my wife and a lovely young female friend.  The friend had a puzzled look on her face, and she said to my wife, “But Nancy, I don’t understand.  How do you know Jay loves you if he doesn’t hit you?”  It was heartbreaking to hear, and bears witness to the veracity of the previous paragraph.


If you or someone you know is being battered, physically, emotionally, and/or sexually, on an ongoing basis, understand that Battered Woman Syndrome/ Battered Person Syndrome is almost certainly present.

It is so important to know that battering is not an expression of love.  There may be depth, layers, complexity, and a range of expressions to love, but at the heart of it, love is just a sweet, simple, generous, honorable, and passionate two-way kindness.

The battering is not your fault, and it is unlikely to stop.  Its causes are internal to the batterer, and therefore, you behaving differently or “better” will not change the pattern.

Understand that your perception has been altered by the trauma of battering.  Only with distancing and time is there a possibility to gain the gift of accurate perception, and only with that clarity, and willingness, is healing possible – and yes, healing is possible.

I hope this article increased your understanding of a sad and serious subject.  I’d love to see your feedback in the Comments section below.

Related Resources

Image Courtesy of iStock


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