Battered Person Syndrome

Cycle of Abuse

learned helplessness

Battered person syndrome is a physical and psychological condition of a person who has suffered (usually persistent) emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from another person. The condition is the basis for the battered spouse defense that has been used in cases of spouses who have killed their abusers. The condition was first researched extensively by American psychologist Lenore E. Walker, founder of the Domestic Violence Institute, who used psychologist Martin Seligman’s ‘learned helplessness’ theory to explain why abused spouses stayed in destructive relationships.

The syndrome develops in response to a three-stage cycle found in domestic violence situations. First, tension builds in the relationship. Second, the abusive partner releases tension via misconduct while blaming the victim for having caused the event. Third, the abusive partner makes gestures of contrition, but does not find solutions to avoid another phase of tension building and release so the cycle repeats. The repetition of the cycle despite the abuser’s attempts to ‘make nice’ results in the abused partner feeling at fault for not preventing recurrences. However, since the victim is not at fault and the violence is internally driven by the abuser’s need to control, this self-blame results in feelings of helplessness rather than empowerment.

The feeling of being both responsible for and helpless to stop the attacks leads in turn to depression and passivity. This learned depression and passivity makes it difficult for the abused partner to marshal the resources and support system needed to leave. Feelings of depression and passivity may also be created by lack of social support outside of the abusive situation. Research in the 1980s found that women in abusive situations increase help-seeking behavior as violence intensifies. However, their attempts at seeking help are often frustrated by unresponsive extended family and social services. A 2002 study found that more than half of women had negative views of shelters and programs for battered women because of negative experiences with those programs.

The battered person syndrome first rose to prominence in the 1970s, when it was used as a legal defense for abused women who murdered their husbands in a premeditated fashion. Defense lawyers used the syndrome to explain premeditation as follows: the woman could not leave the relationship due to learned helplessness. Nor could they fight back when actually being attacked. In the face of increasing violence, the woman’s belief was that the only way she could protect herself and her children was to eliminate the partner when he was more vulnerable, for example, while sleeping.

In recent years BPS has been questioned as a legal defense on several grounds. First, legal changes in many states now make it possible to admit a history of past abuse into evidence. Second, not all battered persons act the same. Third, it pleads pathology when there may in fact be completely rational reasons for the victim’s assessment that their life or that of their children was in danger. For example, if life-threatening attacks were preceded by a certain look in the eyes in the past, the victim may have had probable cause for believing that another life-threatening attack was likely to occur. Fourth, it does not provide for the possibility that a person may be abused but have chosen to kill for reasons other than on-going abuse – for example, jealousy or greed. Fifth, it paints survivors of domestic violence exclusively as passive victims rather than resourceful survivors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.