Straight, No Chaser: Battered Woman Syndrome and Why Victims Stay In Abusive Relationships

battered wife syndrome

Domestic violence has been in the news quite a bit lately, and among the many questions asked, perhaps the most frequent is beguiling to many: “Why do the victims stay in the abusive relationship?” Today’s Straight, No Chaser discusses the Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS). In recent Straight, No Chaser posts, we have looked at several aspects of domestic violence, including the following (click the links to access the posts):

As suggested by the name, many more women are victims of domestic violence and battered woman syndrome than men, although men are also victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. As viewed by the psychiatric community, BWS is a subcategory of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To be clear, this is about power, control and violence. Both the symptoms produced and the treatment offered revolves around 1) identifying and breaking the perpetrator’s control and 2) identifying and changing the environment fostering the victim’s previous inability to escape that control. In some men, the need to exert power and to control women simply exists (whether learned as a child or innate), and abuse is how it is expressed. Until battered women take back some control over their lives, some will continue to suffer from the consequences of this disorder.

Let’s answer a few commonly asked questions about battered domestic partners.

battered wife syndrome cycle

What are the symptoms of battered woman syndrome?

  • Avoidance behavior and emotional numbing (usually expressed as depression, dissociation, minimization, repression and denial)
  • Body image distortion and/or physical complaints resulting from psychological stress
  • Disrupted interpersonal relationships resulting from the abuser’s power and control measures
  • Hyperarousal (jitteriness) and a high level anxiety
  • Unwanted, intrusive recollections of associated traumatic event(s)
  • Sexual intimacy issues

battered woman coping responses

What is the treatment approach and plan for victims of BWS?
The survivor therapy empowerment program (STEP) is the central approach to helping BWS patients recover.

  • Labeling and validation of abuse and safety planning (i.e. identify it, name it, and develop a plan for ongoing safety)
  • Cognitive restructuring (i.e. mentally free the victim from the willingness to accept the abuse and conditions producing the abuse)
  • Recognizing danger and building strengths
  • Reducing stress and PTSD symptoms
  • Learning about the existing cycle of violence (between behaviors and abusive actions)
  • Identifying and treating additional components of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Calculating and adjusting for the impact on children
  • Grieving relationships and letting go
  • Emotional re-regulation (i.e. reprioritizing your emotional investments)
  • Rebuilding new relationships
  • Learning to appropriately allocating your pleasing behaviors and compliance issues
  • Termination (i.e. ending association with negative behavioral and individuals)

battered woman investment_model_abusive_relationships

Why do women stay?
It really is both a complicated and easily understood answer. There are many components to why victims stay and what’s necessary for them to escape, including any or all the following.

  • Domestic violence involves violence. Death is an option. This option becomes most viable when victims are escaping or have left, as the perpetrator no longer has control of the situation and fears the impending consequences. Clearly the victims understand this as well.
  • The dependency on the abusive environment often precludes leaving. Not having an escape plan, a safe haven or sufficient support are prohibitive to removing yourself from an abusive environment.
  • Battered women syndrome includes a certain mentality of invested love, hope and fears of loss that victims often do not care to easily relinquish.
  • In many cases BWS involves children, which further enhances the emotional investments and sense of impending loss, by both perpetrator and victim.

If you find yourself in such an environment and manage to escape, speak early, often, loudly and broadly about your prior situation. It will generate the various levels of support needed to prevent a relapse or recapture. Given that between a quarter to a third of women are or have been in an abusive relationship, someone you know is at risk. This is so prevalent that most emergency rooms now screen every woman for domestic abuse. Take the time today to ask your friends and loved ones if they need help. If you are that person, get help while you can.


The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You should definitely memorize it, but I hope you never have to use it. Unfortunately, the odds reveal that many of you will. I have attached a related TED talk on this same topic by a survivor.
Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.
Order your copy of Dr. Sterling’s new book Behind The Curtain: A Peek at Life from within the ER at, iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.
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