Battered Spouse Syndrome – Why Victims Don’t Leave

When it comes to the issue of domestic abuse, there seems to be a certain popular opinion that I will often hear, whether it be online or overhearing someone in a conversation while going about my daily business. It usually goes something like,

Yeah that guy is awful for beating on her, but if she’s dumb enough to stay with him, it’s partially her fault.

It’s either that or something to the effect of, “If she was really being abused, she would leave. She hasn’t left, so what does that tell you?”  They try to rationalize why someone in an abusive relationship would not press charges or why they would continue to stay with their abuser, so they will often assume that they are not really being abused, or if they are, they are just being stupid for staying.

What these people don’t understand is the psychological difference between outsiders and victims. To an outsider, it’s a no brainer: If you are being abused, you leave. No excuses. To victims, it’s not that easy. Why? When someone becomes abused in a relationship, they often don’t have the ability to see the reality of the situation. They are often blinded by their emotional attachments to their lover. They often don’t realize that they are being abused until later on, after it has been going on for some time.

Additionally, people who are being abused undergo psychological changes from having their self esteem and confidence damaged. This alters their perception of themselves and the world around them, making them less likely to leave.

Battered spouse syndrome is a constellation of medical and psychological conditions of a person, as a result of repeated violence such as beatings, choking, sexual assault, verbal abuse, or a combination of different acts amounting to violence, at the hands of the spouse or partner. – USLegal.com 

The term is also commonly referred to as Battered Woman’s Syndrome, or Battered Person’s Syndrome, depending on the circumstances. I prefer the gender neutral term since men can be and are victims as well.

BWS has been identified as a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although not all battered women meet all the DSM-IV-TR criteria for PTSD, a sufficient number do; thus, a form of trauma treatment is most helpful.  - Psychiatrictimes.com  

As the cycle of abuse continues, the victim falls deeper into a learned mentality of helplessness and hopelessness. They eventually become brainwashed into thinking a combination of things:  They deserve the abuse, that no one else will have them, they have no other place to go, or that things will get better if they can just work it out. Many victims stay simply in fear of being retaliated against if they decided to leave.

Often times, abusers will have manipulated all of the power and resources away from their victim, adding to the feeling helplessness. They start to think that they need to be with their abuser because they have no way of living and supporting themselves otherwise.

It is very important for a victim of abuse to have a strong support system through trusted family and close friends. This circle of supporters will need to actively encourage the victim to seek a better life and offer ideas about what options they have as far as therapy and safe places to go. This is often the victim’s best bet in successfully separating from the abusive partner since they themselves often won’t have the confidence or willpower to leave on their own.

It is essential for a victim’s support circle to remain non-judgmental, patient, and persistent in helping them find a way out of the relationship and back to emotional and physical strength.

For more information, pick up a copy of The Battered Woman Syndrome by Lenore E. A. Walker.

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8 thoughts on “Battered Spouse Syndrome – Why Victims Don’t Leave

  1. Well said.

    I’m amazed that people still don’t understand this. I was in a borderline abusive relationship in high school (it was mostly mental and I got out before it turned physical). I came into the relationship with low self-esteem, so I was already set for disaster. I didn’t like him much, but I thought I could learn to like him (because obviously no one else would ever want me). Those thoughts quickly escalated into fear. You fear what the person will do to you, to your friends or to him/herself. That fear alone is enough to keep a person locked in an abusive relationship.

    • “because obviously no one else would ever want me”

      I know how you felt – I put up with far too many bad relationships when I was younger because every time a guy would look my way I was convinced it was the last time it would EVER happen so I better jump on this opportunity.

      I know it’s easy for adults to look at kids / teens who are having trouble socially and tell them “Oh you have your whole life ahead of you; it won’t be like this for long.” But the way people treat you during your formative years impacts your development and sticks with you.

      • that and women ages 15 to 24 are the most at risk to domestic violence. That decade is when they are most likely to get involved in a dangerous relationship and most likely to be severely injured or die. As it is, something like 40% of high school girls say they have experienced at least one violent event at the hands of a boyfriend or date.

  2. This is so, so important. So many people just don’t understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship (and I’m happy for them), but unfortunately that translates into a lack of sympathy and victim-blaming.

  3. In this situation, you feel a need to stay, you can’t leave. And, sometimes you shame yourself for not leaving. It makes you think even less of yourself. It doesn’t help that others shame you as well. But as awful as it is, you just keep thinking that if you did something differently or acted a different way toward the abuser or changed yourself somehow to become a better partner, that they would stop treating you the way they do and things would get better.

    • And a proficient abuser will feed that – “If you did X like a good wife I would be happy.” (shudder)

      So you swallow your pride and do something demeaning – because hey, marriage is sacred, right? And if you don’t try everything you possibly can to save your marriage, then the divorce is your fault.

  4. My boyfriend used to say “you’re so awful, no one else would love you but me”. He then proceeded to alienate all my friends and belittle my family. Things escalated slowly. First he isolated me. Then he tried dictating what I should wear and what opinions I should have. When I protested or refused to comply, he sulked and pouted. We had raging arguments. Eventually he kicked his dog and blamed me for provoking him to do it. Then, finally, he hit me in the face and started choking me, threatening to kill me. I still didn’t leave, because I had no one else and nothing around me, and most of all, the person who did this to me was the “only one who could love me”, and sometimes did show it. When I finally left, I felt like there was a limb missing. I felt a throbbing pain in my heart for a year. I thought of him every day, because he had become every person in my life – all the others were gone.

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