What is Battered Woman Syndrome?
The term “Battered Woman Syndrome” derives from the work of psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker. In the 1970’s, Walker theorized that women who experience a “cycle of violence,” consisting of at least two separate incidents of physical, sexual, or serious psychological abuse by an intimate partner, sometimes respond by developing a pattern of “learned helplessness.” Walker described the cycle of violence as consisting of three distinct stages:
- A tension-building stage, during which incidents of verbal, psychological, and sometimes mild physical abuse begin to accumulate, while a victim responds with attempts to prevent escalation by placating the abuser;
- An acute battering stage, during which abuse escalates into violent physical abuse; and
- A calm, loving, and contrite stage, during which a batterer often apologizes profusely for his behavior.
The repetition of the cycle after seemingly heartfelt repentances and reassurances demoralizes a victim and instills a sense of futility and hopelessness. Episodes of violence sometimes increase in severity over time, until a victim is living with constant fear, isolation, and a belief that there is no escape. Victims who are emotionally and financially dependent on an abuser are especially likely to feel that they have no options. As the cycle repeats itself, Walker concluded, these feelings develop into “learned helplessness,” a type of psychological paralysis that prevents a victim from leaving the situation. Over time, they give up hope, and in some cases, eventually resort to violence as the only apparent option.
Subsequent research has shown that Walker’s theory does not adequately explain why some domestic violence victims eventually resort to violence themselves. Many victims do not initially respond to a cycle of violence with learned helplessness, but instead attempt first to reach out for help to family members or legal resources. Unfortunately, available resources do not always adequately address the enormous barriers faced by victims of domestic abuse. Learned helplessness may set in as a response to inadequate resources and poor social support.
Battered Woman Syndrome as a Form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Battered Woman Syndrome (now sometimes called “Battered Person Syndrome,” to acknowledge that men can also be victims) is currently conceptualized as a mental disorder that is a subtype of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A diagnosis of PTSD under the DSM-5 requires exposure to a threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation, followed by the appearance and persistence for at least one month of specific symptoms. These symptoms generally include intrusive recollection or re-experiencing of the traumatic event; avoidant behavior designed to reduce the likelihood of re-exposure to trauma; negative alterations in cognitions and mood, such as emotional numbing or persistent negative thoughts and feelings; and alterations in arousal and reactivity. Hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system can lead to panic attacks, an exaggerated startle response, and a feeling of constant danger. PTSD is often seen in combat veterans. A domestic battering victim may experience intrusive recollections of the battering in the same way a soldier might experience flashbacks of violence on the battlefield.
BWS as a Legal Defense to Spousal Homicide.
BWS has been accepted by some courts as an expansion of “self-defense,” particularly in cases of spousal homicide. Killing a person in self-defense is ordinarily justified only in the presence of a reasonable fear of imminent grievous bodily injury or death. A diagnosis of BWS in a perpetrator of domestic homicide may permit a defense even where the imminent threat is not objectively discernable, due to the tendency of the syndrome to result in overestimation of present danger. Battered Woman’s Syndrome was first recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178 (1984).
BWS as a Marital Tort in Divorce
A battered woman (or person) is by definition a victim of repeated physical or emotional domestic abuse. The existence of BWS can give rise to a cause of action for tort damages resulting from the domestic abuse. A “tort” is an accidental or intentional wrongful act that injures another person. Torts like assault and battery are also crimes, but a tort victim must bring a civil lawsuit to receive monetary compensation (also known as “damages”) for injuries. Damages can include compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress, medical expenses, and loss of earnings and earning capacity. For particularly outrageous tortious conduct, punitive damages may be available.
Torts are ordinarily subject to “statutes of limitation.” This means that claims for tortious injury must be brought within certain time limits, depending on the nature of the injury. For example, a victim of a physical assault ordinarily has two years following the assault to bring a civil claim. Under certain circumstances, however, a statute of limitations can be “tolled” (stopped from running) for varying periods of time. In New Jersey, the tort of “battered woman’s syndrome” allows victims caught up in a cycle of domestic violence to be compensated for abuse that occurs on a continuing basis, without each separate instance of abuse being subject to a statute of limitations. Proving battered women’s syndrome requires expert psychological testimony in court.
BWS is a “marital tort” if the perpetrator is a spouse. This can be important because it could mean that the tort is the basis for a “Tevis claim” which must be raised in conjunction with a divorce action to avoid the risk of losing the right to raise it later.
If You or Someone You Know is a Victim of Domestic Violence
Call one of the following numbers for confidential crisis intervention, information and/or referral to other services:
New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 572-7233 (SAFE).
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 (SAFE).
To talk to an attorney about your specific situation and obtain more information on Battered Woman’s Syndrome or any other domestic violence issue, call one of our experienced domestic violence attorneys for a free consultation.
 Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association (2013).