Why do women stay in abusive relationships? Battered woman syndrome

What is BWS?

Battered woman syndrome (‘BWS’) is a well-known psychological condition that was first introduced in the 1970s to describe the altered mental state of victims of family violence.

BWS ordinarily develops in women who have been victims of long-term psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse by their partners in a relationship. BWS makes it incredibly difficult for women to regain control of their lives.

Why do women stay in their abusive relationships?

Women who suffer BWS develop what is known as ‘learned helplessness’. That is, the women become so defeated, depressed and fearful that they believe the abuse is their own fault, they deserve the abuse and as a result, they believe they are unable to and cannot leave the relationship. The women are trapped in an abusive cycle of violence, incapable of leaving.

It is common for women suffering BWS to feel all or some of the following:

  • Ashamed;
  • responsible for the abuse;
  • fearful of speaking out to friends, family or the police;
  • hopeful that the abuse will stop; or
  • believe that if they were to leave, their partner will find them and take revenge on them, their children or their family.

Those who suffer from BWS often think that it is safer for themselves and their children to remain in the relationship.

The three phases of abuse

Abuse generally cycles through three phases until the conflict has stopped, either by the person leaving the relationship or some form of intervention.

  1. Tension – tension that begins to build between the abuser and the victim. The abuser may start to feel stressed, threatened, wronged or even annoyed at the victim or by factors in their daily life.
  2. Battering – an attack occurs on the victim which could be physical, psychological, verbal or sexual abuse. This releases the abuser’s tension.
  3. Reconciliation/honeymoon – this stage is often characterised with apologies, promises the behaviour will never happen again, increased show of love and affection or manipulation through threats of self-harm. Generally, the victim will feel fear, humiliation, confusion and even responsibility.

The cycle of abuse will begin again. The stages of abuse over time may occur so frequently that the third stage may disappear altogether.

How to tell if you or someone else may be suffering from BWS

It can be difficult to know when someone is suffering from BWS as they may not speak out or they may deny any abuse. They may also behave in ways that will be difficult for you to understand, such as remaining in the relationship, making excuses for the abuse, believing they deserve the abuse, are financially dependent on the abuser, believing the abuser has complete control and power, or even stating they are happy in the relationship when at the reconciliation/honeymoon phase.

It is important to look out for withdrawal from their friends and family, increased anxiety particularly in the presence of their partner, unexplained bruises or cuts, lowered self-esteem, insomnia, having limited access to transport or money, change in personality and having a partner who appears to be hot tempered, jealous or very possessive.

Women who suffer from BWS often suffer many of the same psychological symptoms of PTSD. They can develop depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks of the abuse, dissociate or violent outbursts against the abuser and many other health issues.

What does it mean for family law in Australia?

In the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia, consideration will be given to a party who has been the victim of family violence in finalizing both property and parenting matters.

Property Settlements

Fogarty and Lindenmayer JJ noted in the precedent case, Kennon & Kennon (1997) 22 Fam Lr 1, the principle is “where there is a course of violence conduct by one party towards the other during the marriage which is demonstrated to have had a significant adverse impact upon that party’s contribution to the marriage, this is a factor which a trial judge is entitled to take into account in assessing the party’s respective contributions under section 79.”

Parenting Orders

When assessing parenting orders, the Court considers a child’s best interests as paramount. Whilst this includes the need for the child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, the Court will also consider the need to protect the child from harm or being exposed to family violence, amongst other additional factors.

If you need assistance with a property or parenting matter involving family violence, please contact us at Rowan Skinner & Associates Lawyers.

Rowan Skinner

About Rowan Skinner

Rowan Skinner is a highly skilled family lawyer with over 35 years of experience across various legal roles and jurisdictions. Rowan specialises in resolving family law disputes such as divorce, financial settlements, child custody and domestic violence cases. Through his diverse and extensive experience, Rowan has a deep understanding of the complexities and nuances involved in family law. Rowan is a skilled negotiator and litigator who follows a compassionate and client-focused approach which prioritises helping you navigate what can be an emotional and challenging time.

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