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Battered Women in Society

In 1991, Governor William Weld modified parole regulations and permitted
women to seek commutation if they could present evidence indicating they
suffered from battered women’s syndrome. A short while later, the Governor,
citing spousal abuse as his impetus, released seven women convicted of
killing their husbands, and the Great and General Court of Massachusetts
enacted Mass. Gen. L. ch. 233 23E (1993), which permits the introduction of
evidence of abuse in criminal trials. These decisive acts brought the issue of
domestic abuse to the public’s attention and left many Massachusetts
residents, lawyers and judges struggling to define battered women’s
syndrome. In order to help these individuals define battered women’s
syndrome, the origins and development of the three primary theories of the
syndrome and recommended treatments are outlined below. I. The Classical
Theory of Battered Women’s Syndrome and its Origins The Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), known in the mental health
field as the clinician’s bible, does not recognize battered women’s syndrome
as a distinct mental disorder. In fact, Dr. Lenore Walker, the architect of the
classical battered women’s syndrome theory, notes the syndrome is not an
illness, but a theory that draws upon the principles of learned helplessness to
explain why some women are unable to leave their abusers. Therefore, the
classical battered women’s syndrome theory is best regarded as an offshoot
of the theory of learned helplessness and not a mental illness that afflicts
abused women. The theory of learned helplessness sought to account for the
passive behavior subjects exhibited when placed in an uncontrollable
environment. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Martin Seligman, a famous
researcher in the field of psychology, conducted a series of experiments in
which dogs were placed in one of two types of cages. In the former cage,
henceforth referred to as the shock cage, a bell would sound and the
experimenters would electrify the entire floor seconds later, shocking the
dog regardless of location. The latter cage, however, although similar in
every other respect to the shock cage, contained a small area where the
experimenters could administer no shock. Seligman observed that while the
dogs in the latter cage learned to run to the nonelectrified area after a series
of shocks, the dogs in the shock cage gave up trying to escape, even when
placed in the latter cage and shown that escape was possible. Seligman
theorized that the dogs’ initial experience in the uncontrollable shock cage
led them to believe that they could not control future events and was
responsible for the observed disruptions in behavior and learning. Thus,
according to the theory of learned helplessness, a subject placed in an
uncontrollable environment will become passive and accept painful stimuli,
even though escape is possible and apparent. In the late 1970’s, Dr. Walker
drew upon Seligman’s research and incorporated it into her own theory, the
battered women’s syndrome, in an attempt to explain why battered women
remain with their abusers. According to Dr. Walker, battered women’s
syndrome contains two distinct elements: a cycle of violence and symptoms
of learned helplessness. The cycle of violence is composed of three phases:
the tension building phase, active battering phase and calm loving respite
phase. During the tension building phase, the victim is subjected to verbal
abuse and minor battering incidents, such as slaps, pinches and
psychological abuse. In this phase, the woman tries to pacify her batterer by
using techniques that have worked previously. Typically, the woman showers
her abuser with kindness or attempts to avoid him. However, the victim’s
attempts to pacify her batter are often fruitless and only work to delay the
inevitable acute battering incident. The tension building phase ends and the
active battering phase begins when the verbal abuse and minor battering
evolve into an acute battering incident. A release of the tensions built during
phase one characterizes the active battering phase, which usually last for a
period of two to twenty-four hours. The violence during this phase is
unpredictable and inevitable, and statistics indicate that the risk of the
batterer murdering his victim is at its greatest. The batterer places his victim
in a constant state of fear, and she is unable to control her batterer’s
violence by utilizing techniques that worked in the tension building phase.

The victim, realizing her lack of control, attempts to mitigate the violence by
becoming passive. After the active battering phase comes to a close, the
cycle of violence enters the calm loving respite phase or “honeymoon phase.”
During this phase, the batterer apologizes for his abusive behavior and
promises that it will never happen again. The behavior exhibited by the batter
in the calm loving respite phase closely resembles the behavior he exhibited
when the couple first met and fell in love. The calm loving respite phase is
the most psychologically victimizing phase because the batterer fools the
victim, who is relieved that the abuse has ended, into believing that he has
changed. However, inevitably, the batterer begins to verbally abuse his
victim and the cycle of abuse begins anew. According to Dr. Walker,
Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness explains why women stay with
their abusers and occurs in a victim after the cycle of violence repeats
numerous times. As noted earlier, dogs who were placed in an environment
where pain was unavoidable responded by becoming passive. Dr. Walker
asserts that, in the domestic abuse ambit, sporadic brutality, perceptions of
powerlessness, lack of financial resources and the superior strength of the
batterer all combine to instill a feeling of helplessness in the victim. In other
words, batterers condition women into believing that they are powerless to
escape by subjecting them to a continuing pattern of uncontrollable violence
and abuse. Dr. Walker, in applying the learned helplessness theory to
battered women, changed society’s perception of battered women by
dispelling the myth that battered women like abuse and offering a logical and
rationale explanation for why most stay with their abuser. As the classical
theory of battered women’s syndrome is based upon the psychological
principles of conditioning, experts believe that behavior modification
strategies are best suited for treating women suffering from the syndrome. A
simple, yet effective, behavioral strategy consists of two stages. In the initial
stage, the battered woman removes herself from the uncontrollable or “shock
cage” environment and isolates herself from her abuser. Generally,
professionals help the victim escape by using assertiveness training,
modeling and recommending use of the court system. After the woman
terminates the abusive relationship, professionals give the victim relapse
prevention training to ensure that subsequent exposure to abusive behavior
will not cause maladaptive behavior. Although this strategy is effective, the
model offered by Dr. Walker suggests that battered women usually do not
actively seek out help. Therefore, concerned agencies and individuals must
be proactive and extremely sensitive to the needs and fears of victims. In
sum, the classical battered women’s syndrome is a theory that has its origins
in the research of Martin Seligman. Women in a domestic abuse situation
experience a cycle of violence with their abuser. The cycle is composed of
three phases: the tension building phase, active battering phase and calm
loving respite phase. A gradual increase in verbal abuse marks the tension
building phase. When this abuse culminates into an acute battering episode,
the relationship enters the active battering phase. Once the acute battering
phase ends, usually within two to twenty-four hours, the parties enter the
calm loving respite phase, in which the batterer expresses remorse and
promises to change. After the cycle has played out several times, the victim
begins to manifest symptoms of learned helplessness. Behavioral
modification strategies offer an effective treatment for battered women’s
syndrome. However, Dr. Walker’s model indicates that battered women may
not seek the help that they need because of feelings of helplessness. II. An
Alternate Battered Women’s Syndrome Theory: Battered Women as Survivors.

Over the years, empirical data has emerged that casts doubt on Dr. Walker’s
explanation of why women stay with their batterers or, in extreme cases,
why they kill their abusers. Two researchers, Edward W. Gondolf and Ellen R.

Fisher, make reference to voluminous statistics that refute the classical
battered women’s syndrome theory, and suggest Dr. Walker erroneously
attributes a victim’s refusal to leave her batterer to learned helplessness. For
instance, the two, in discounting Dr. Walker’s theory, cite a study conducted
by Lee H. Bowker that indicates victims of abuse often contact other family
members for help as the violence escalates over time. The two also note that
Bowker observed a steady increase in formal help-seeking behavior as the
violence increased. In addition to citing empirical data, Gondolf and Fisher
point out that using Dr. Walker’s theory to explain the battered woman’s
actions in extreme cases creates the ultimate oxymoron: a woman so
helpless she kills her batterer. In an effort to account for the shortcomings of
the classical battered women’s theory, Gondolf and Fisher offered the
markedly different survivor theory of battered women’s syndrome, which
consists of four important elements. The first element of the survivor theory
surmises that a pattern of abuse prompts battered women to employ
innovative coping strategies and to seek help, such as flattering the batterer
and turning to their families for assistance. When these sources of help prove
ineffective, the battered woman seeks out other sources and employs
different strategies to lessen the abuse. For example, the battered women
may avoid her abuser all together and seek help from the court system. Thus,
according to the survivor theory, battered women actively seek help and
employ coping skills throughout the abusive relationship. In contrast, the
classical theory of battered women’s syndrome views women as becoming
passive and helpless in the face of repeated abuse. The second element of
Gondolf and Fisher’s theory posits that a lack of options, know-how and
finances, not learned helplessness, instills a feeling of anxiety in the victim
that prevents her from escaping the abuser. When a battered woman seeks
outside help, she is typically confronted with an ineffective bureaucracy,
insufficient help sources and societal indifference. This lack of practical
options, combined with the victim’s lack of financial resources, make it likely
that a battered women will stay and try to change her batterer, rather than
leave and face the unknown. The classical battered women’s syndrome
theory differs in that it focuses on the victim’s perception that escape is
impossible, not on the obstacles the victim must overcome to escape. The
third element expands on the first and describes how the victim actively
seeks help from a variety of formal and informal help sources. For instance,
an example of an informal help source would be a close friend and a formal
help source would be a shelter. Gondolf and Fisher maintain that the help
obtained from these sources is inadequate and piecemeal in nature. Given
these inadequacies, the researchers conclude that the leaving a batterer is a
difficult path for a victim to embark upon. The fourth element of the survivor
theory hypothesizes that the failure of the aforementioned help sources to
intervene in a comprehensive and decisive manner permits the cycle of abuse
to continue unchecked. Interestingly, Gondolf and Fisher blame the lack of
effective help on a variation of the learned helplessness theory, explaining
help organizations are too overwhelmed and limited in their resources to be
effective and therefore do not try as hard as they should to help victims.

Whatever the case may be, the researchers argue that we can better
understand the plight of the battered woman by asking did she seek help and
what happened when she did, rather than why didn’t she leave. Because the
survivor theory of learned helplessness attributes the battered woman’s
plight to ineffective help sources and societal indifference, a logical solution
would entail increased funding for programs in place and educating the public
about the symptoms and consequences of domestic violence. There are
battered women’s advocacy programs in place in courts located throughout
the country. However, inadequate funding limits their effectiveness. By
increasing funding, citizens can assure that all battered women will receive
the assistance that will permit them to escape their batterer. Additionally, if
we educate citizens about the harmful effects of domestic abuse, the public
will no longer treat victims with indifference. To recap, Edward W. Gondolf
and Ellen R. Fisher developed the survivor theory of battered women’s
syndrome to explain why statistics indicate that battered women increase
their help seeking behavior as the violence escalates. The theory is
composed of four important elements. The first recognizes that battered
women actively seek help throughout their relationship with the abuser. The
second element posits that a lack of options, know-how and finances creates
anxiety in the victim over leaving her batterer. The third element describes
the inadequate and piecemeal help the victim receives. Finally, the fourth
element concludes that the failure of help sources, not learned helplessness,
accounts for why many battered women remain with their abusers. Under the
survivor theory, the best method for helping battered women is to increase
funding for battered women’s assistance programs and agencies and educate
the public about the harmful effects of domestic abuse. III. Battered Women’s
Syndrome Equals Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Although the DSM-IV does
not recognize battered women’s syndrome as a distinct mental illness or
disorder, some experts maintain that battered women’s syndrome is just
another name for post traumatic stress disorder, which the DSM-IV
recognizes. The post traumatic stress disorder theory is also applied to
individuals who were never exposed to domestic abuse, and, in the domestic
abuse ambit, does not exclusively focus on the battered woman’s perception
of helplessness or ineffective help sources to explain why she stayed with
her batterer. Instead, the theory focuses on the psychological disturbance an
individual suffers after exposure to a traumatic event. In 1980, the American
Psychiatric Association added the post traumatic stress disorder
classification to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III,
a manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental illness.

Although the diagnosis was controversial at the time, post traumatic stress
disorder has gained wide acceptance in the mental health community and
revolutionized the way professionals regard human reactions to trauma. Prior
to the disorder’s inception, experts attributed the cause of emotional trauma
to individual weakness. However, with the advent of the theory of post
traumatic stress disorder, experts now attribute the etiology of emotional
trauma to an external stressor, not a weakness in the psyche of the
individual. Since 1980, the American Psychiatric Association has revised the
criteria for diagnosing post traumatic stress disorder several times.

Currently, the diagnostic criteria for post traumatic stress disorder include a
history of exposure to a traumatic event and symptoms from each of three
symptom clusters: intrusive recollections, avoidant/numbing symptoms and
hyper arousal symptoms. Recent data indicate that many individuals qualify
for a post traumatic stress disorder under the current diagnostic criteria,
with prevalence rates running between 5 to 10% in our society. As noted
earlier, in order for a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder to apply, the
individual must have been exposed to a traumatic event involving actual or
threatened death or injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of the person
or others. The authors of the early theory of post traumatic stress disorder
considered a traumatic event to be outside the range of human experience,
such events included rape, torture, war, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanos, airplane
crashes and automobile accidents, and did not contemplate applying the
diagnosis to battered women. The American Psychiatric Association
loosened the traumatic event criteria in the DSM-IV, which replaced the
DSM-III and DSM-IIIR. Presently, the traumatic event need only be markedly
distressing to almost anyone. Therefore, battered women have little trouble
meeting the DSM-IV traumatic event diagnostic requirement because most
people would find the abuse battered women are subjected to markedly
distressing. In addition to meeting the traumatic event diagnostic criteria, an
individual must have symptoms from the intrusive recollection,
avoidant/numbing and hyper arousal categories for a post traumatic stress
disorder diagnosis to apply. The intrusive recollection category consists of
symptoms that are distinct and easily identifiable. In individuals suffering
from post traumatic stress disorder, the traumatic event is a dominant
psychological experience that evokes panic, terror, dread, grief or despair.

Often, these feelings are manifested in daytime fantasies, traumatic
nightmares and flashbacks. Additionally, stimuli that the individual
associates with the traumatic event can evoke mental images, emotional
responses and psychological reactions associated with the trauma. Examples
of intrusive recollection symptoms a battered woman may suffer are
fantasies of killing her batterer and flashbacks of battering incidents. The
avoidant/numbing cluster consists of the emotional strategies individuals
with post traumatic stress disorder use to reduce the likelihood that they will
either expose themselves to traumatic stimuli, or if exposed, will minimize
their psychological response. The DSM-IV divides the strategies into three
categories: behavioral, cognitive and emotional. Behavioral strategies
include avoiding situations where the stimuli are likely to be encountered.

Dissociation and psychogenic amnesia are cognitive strategies by which
individuals with post traumatic stress disorder cut off the conscious
experience of trauma-based memories and feelings. Lastly, the individual may
separate the cognitive aspects from the emotional aspects of psychological
experience and perceive only the former. This type of psychic numbing
serves as an emotional anesthesia that makes it extremely difficult for
people with post traumatic stress disorder to participate in meaningful
interpersonal relationships. Thus, a battered woman suffering from post
traumatic stress disorder may avoid her batterer and repress trauma-based
feelings and emotions. The hyper arousal category symptoms closely
resemble those seen in panic and generalized anxiety disorders. Although
symptoms such as insomnia and irritability are generic anxiety symptoms,
hyper vigilance and startle are unique to post traumatic stress disorder. The
hyper vigilance symptom may become so intense in individuals suffering from
post traumatic stress disorder that it appears as if they are paranoid. A
careful reading of post traumatic stress disorder symptoms and diagnostic
criteria indicates that Dr. Walker’s classical theory of battered women’s
syndrome is contained within. For instance, both theories require that the
victim be exposed to a traumatic event. In Dr. Walker’s theory, she describes
the traumatic event as a cycle of violence. The post traumatic stress
disorder theory, on the other hand, only requires that the event be markedly
distressing to almost everyone. Thus, the cycle of violence described by Dr.

Walker is considered a traumatic stressor for the purposes of diagnosing post
traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, like the classical theory of battered
women’s syndrome, the theory of post traumatic stress disorder recognizes
that an individual may become helpless after exposure to a traumatic event.

Although the post traumatic stress disorder theory seems to incorporate Dr.

Walker’s theory, it is more inclusive in that it recognizes that different
individuals may have different reactions to traumatic events and does not
rely heavily on the theory of learned helplessness to explain why battered
women stay with their abusers. There are several methods a professional can
utilize to treat individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The
most successful treatments are those that they administer immediately after
the traumatic event. Experts commonly call this type of treatment critical
incident stress debriefing. Although this type of treatment is effective in
halting the development of post traumatic stress disorder, the cyclical nature
and gradual escalation of violence in domestic abuse situations make critical
incident stress debriefing an unlikely therapy for battered women. The
second type of treatment is administered after post traumatic stress disorder
has developed and is less effective than critical incident stress debriefing.

This type of treatment may consist of psychodynamic psychotherapy,
behavioral therapy, pharmacotherapy and group therapy. The most effective
post-manifestation treatment for battered women is group therapy. In a group
therapy session, battered women can discuss traumatic memories, post
traumatic stress disorder symptoms and functional deficits with others who
have had similar experiences. By discussing their experiences and
symptoms, the women form a common bond and release repressed memories,
feelings and emotions. To summarize, many experts regard battered women’s
syndrome as a subcategory of post traumatic stress disorder. The diagnostic
criteria for post traumatic stress disorder include a history of exposure to a
traumatic event and symptoms from each of three symptom clusters:
intrusive recollections, avoidant/numbing symptoms and hyper arousal
symptoms. After exposure to a traumatic event, defined by the DSM-IV as one
that is markedly distressing to almost everyone, an individual suffering from
post traumatic stress disorder may suffer intrusive recollections, which
consist of daytime fantasies, traumatic nightmares and flashbacks. The
individual may also try to avoid stimuli that remind him/her of the traumatic
event and/or develop symptoms associated with generic anxiety disorders.

Critical incident stress debriefing, psychodynamic psychotherapy, behavioral
therapy, pharmacotherapy and group therapy are all recognized as effective
treatments for post traumatic stress disorder. IV. Conclusion Although there
are many different theories of battered women’s syndrome, most are all
variations or hybrids of the three main theories outlined above. A sound
understanding of Dr. Walker’s classical battered women’s syndrome theory,
Gondolf and Fisher’s survivor theory of battered women’s syndrome and the
post traumatic stress disorder theory, will permit the reader to identify the
origins and essential elements of these various hybrids and provide them
with a better understanding of the plight of the battered woman. Given the
prevalence of domestic abuse in our society, it is important to realize that the
battered woman does not like abuse or is responsible for her victimization.

The three theories discussed above all offer rationale explanations for why a
battered women often stays with her abuser and explore the psychological
harm caused by abuse while discounting the popular perception that battered
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