Battered Women's Syndrome: A Survey of Contemporary Theories



Domestic Violence

November 16, 1996



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