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

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD July 17, 2019

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. 
Thanks for liking and following Straight, No Chaser! This public service provides a sample of what  844-SMA-TALK and (SMA) offer. Please share our page with your friends on WordPress, Facebook @ and Twitter at @asksterlingmd.
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: Battered Woman Syndrome and Why Victims Stay In Abusive Relationships

  1. Reblogged this on betternotbroken and commented:
    When you are woman with battered woman’s syndrome, you do not know you have it. You are fighting to save your marriage because this will somehow justify it all and in many cases learn to follow the leader of the family, who shifts blame.I did it, my former spouse was also a victim and I blamed his oppressors, except there weren’t any. Is that what Jayna Palmer is doing now as she shifts the blame from her husband to the NFL and the media? I wish her the best and a healthy and SAFE future.

  2. I linked your post to my blog, and my full response is posted there.
    The worse case scenario is death, and those women at risk sense it when there’s no visible evidence of her danger to others. Other women fear the ongoing vindictive behaviors that are relentless in trying to destroy her in other ways (finances, parenting, family, her workplace). Dependency is a huge issue when it’s happened over time, and removed avenues for the victim to re-establish independence. The victim typically has impaired health as her body processes the pain of her soul, and the breaking down of her spirit. The body doesn’t lie. Investment? Absolutely true. There is often no way to pretty the details, and there’s not a second chance for many.
    Complicated and simple. Yes. Abuse is always about power and control, no matter which face it wears, or how it’s expressed. Physical violence uses overt bullying to produce fear. Emotional violence can be spoken softly, even with a kind of charming sweetness or humor, but still leave someone diminished. It’s always about shifting the balance of power in favor of the abusive partner that needs to feel in control of the other.
    If you wish to understand why an abused woman stays, then you have to be willing to see beyond what you wish to see in that great guy who’s abusing her.

  3. //If you wish to understand why an abused woman stays, then you have to be willing to see beyond what you wish to see in that great guy who’s abusing her./// Very true!

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