Battered woman syndrome is a term often used with women who have faced repeated patterns of physical or mental abuse. While it is not an established psychiatric diagnosis, it has been used as a legal defense, particularly as part of self-defense in murder cases. The term battered woman syndrome was first used in the 1970s by researcher Lenore Walker for the repeated domestic violence that she observed in data that was collected on 400 women. Often, the pattern is explained as a cycle of three distinct stages: tension or conflict escalation, physical or emotional abuse, and then a loving phase that is sometimes called the honeymoon phase.
Battered woman syndrome symptoms often present in four distinct stages: denial, guilt, enlightenment, and responsibility. In the denial stage of battered woman syndrome, the woman will often say that her injuries are from an accident, such as falling down stairs or running into a door. Denial is used to disassociate from a painful event.
In the guilt stage of battered woman syndrome, the victim finally admits that a problem exists, but often insists that she is responsible. For example, she may say she deserved to be hit because she did not have dinner ready or allowed the kids to be too noisy. During the enlightenment stage, the woman finally gives up on the idea that she is responsible; however, she still maintains false or unrealistic hope. She may say that as a couple they need more time to work out problems. Finally, in the responsibility stage of battered women syndrome, the woman accepts that the violence will not stop and then leaves the cycle of abuse.
Women who do not make it to the responsibility stage sometimes feel so isolated, ashamed, and powerless that they commit suicide. Others fearing for their life, they have killed their husband. A Philadelphia homicide study found that 60 percent of husbands killed by wives had precipitating violence incidents. Battered woman syndrome has been used in a variety of court cases since at least the 1980s.
One confusing aspect of battered woman syndrome is why women continue to stay in violent, harmful situations. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some women are economically dependent and feel they lack needed job skills while others fear that if they try to leave, their partner will find them and escalate the violence. Battered women often have low self-esteem and while in the guilt stage, they feel responsible for abuse. Some have fear of the unknown, while others hope, particularly in the honeymoon stage, that things will improve or change.