A Relationship Bound By Fear

Controversial Syndrome Theory Tries To Explain Why The Abused Stay

January 27, 1991|By Jackie Powder

Battered spouse syndrome attempts to answer the question, "Why didn't she leave?"

The theory describes a relationship defined by fear,intimidation and control, one in which the woman may believe she is trapped by the abuser.

Such a relationship has a distinct pattern, experts say.

Typically, the man and the woman both have low self-esteem. In the beginning, the man may smother the woman with attention and become extremelyjealous.

"The abused initially looks at the controlling, possessive, jealous behavior as a sign of his intense love of her," said Ellen McDaniel, a psychiatrist in Towson.

"The abuser never feels adequate enough about himself, escalates the possessiveness, and eventually physical abuse enters the relationship."

The abuse is generallycyclical, beginning with a tension-building phase that involves mainly verbal abuse.

The physical abuse follows in what experts call an acute "battering" phase.

In the final phase, the abuser typically apologizes and expresses remorse and guilt.

Often, the woman blames the abuse on her deficiencies and attempts to appease the abuser,McDaniel said.

Over time, she becomes isolated from friends and family, out of embarrassment and fear of antagonizing the abuser.

"The abused individual begins to lose her sense of self as an independent, autonomous person," McDaniel said.

"She gears her life toward'how do I escape the next episode of abuse and how can I please the abuser so I'll be loved.' "

Frequently, the woman stays in the relationship because the abuser always apologizes and promises never to do it again. He also may threaten to retaliate if the woman tries to leave the relationship.

Other factors, besides the psychological scars of repeated abuse, often contribute to a woman's feeling of entrapment, experts say.

Attempts at legal or police intervention may fail, and she may be financially dependent on the abuser with no place to go.

Lenore Walker, a national expert on the syndrome, says many abused women develop a condition called "learned helplessness."

After years of abuse, the woman stops believing that her natural responses to danger will protect her.

"For a woman who believes she is about to be killed, she will not choose to walk out the door, whichshe can't predict will be safe," Walker explains in "A Plea for Justice," a documentary produced by Baltimore's Public Justice Center.

"But if there is a weapon, they will choose to use that weapon if they think that will stop the man. They don't want to kill him. They want to stop him from hurting them."

In cases where a woman kills her abuser, the man often has taken the violence a step further, such as killing a family pet or threatening to hurt a child, said Leslie Boyd Ford, a spokeswoman for the House of Ruth, a Baltimore battered women's shelter.

Although experts say that battered woman's syndromeis widely recognized within the medical community, it has not yet been included as an official diagnosis in the diagnostic manual used bymental health professionals, McDaniel said.

The syndrome may be included in the 1992 edition.

"Once it's officially a diagnosis, then it could be brought into the court system to help the court understand a particular individual's behavior," McDaniel said.

NOTE: SEE ALSO MAIN STORY (AN ABUSED WOMAN ON TRIAL: MURDERER OR VICTIM?)

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