Winter Will Be Here Soon -- Study hard as finals approach...


 
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Battered Women's Syndrome

 

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 women must enjoy the 
abuse.

 




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