Serving Clients in Knox, Blount, Anderson, Loudon, Sevier & Roane Counties

Domestic Violence Series: What Is Battered Woman Syndrome, and How Can You Help?

Worried woman

Battered Woman Syndrome is recognized in the psychological community as a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder. Women experiencing this syndrome often show shame, guilt, or a false sense of responsibility for the abuse they have endured, in addition to typical PTSD symptoms; so, it is typically treated as a more complex form of PTSD.

Women who experience Battered Woman Syndrome often move through a few stages as they process their abuse:

  • Denial (Justification or minimizing the abuse; “It’s not that serious.”)
  • Guilt (“If I were more supportive, this wouldn’t happen.”)
  • Enlightenment (Realization that she does not deserve to be abused.)
  • Assigning Responsibility (Recognition that the other person is responsible for the abuse; this is often when a woman tries to leave the relationship.)

To make matters even more complicated, Battered Woman Syndrome often presents as a cycle. Women may take months or years to move beyond the second or third stage – if they ever do at all.

Emily Heird, a Licensed Professional Counselor and founder of Knoxville Counseling Services, says that on average a woman will attempt to leave her abuser 7 times before she is successful. In many cases, the abuser has kept her so isolated that she faces a lack of access to resources. Logistically speaking, she really can’t easily leave. To top it off, an abusive partner may threaten harm or death toward her or her children as a means of instilling fear of leaving.

Heird says there are many signs of possible abuse, and each comes with an increased risk of Battered Woman Syndrome:

  • Limited access to money, transportation, or credit cards
  • A partner who constantly contacts them through texting, phone calls, etc. (a victim may have an anxious response to these communications)
  • A partner who is constantly putting them down, being critical of them in front of others, and/or dominating conversations
  • Constant self-disparaging statements; taking the blame for things that aren’t their fault; appear to have no self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Unexplained injuries, sometimes covered by seasonally inappropriate clothing

Therapy is an important resource because therapists are trained to objectively assess the dynamics of a relationship and look for signs of domestic violence. Heird recalls a client who was having marital problems, and who reported that her husband had told her she was crazy. The client assigned their problems to her own laziness, but Heird knew she had a full-time job and also took care of the housework, so that seemed illogical. Heird asked if she was concerned about possible psychological abuse, and the client admitted that she was. Heird says, “I was relieved I asked the question because she (due to the abuse) was questioning her own reality of the situation and was not certain I would believe her if she brought it up herself.”

From this story, we can see that victims of abuse sometimes act in ways that seem irrational to outsiders. They may recant their story, change details of the story in order to hide or minimize the abuse, or wait a very long time to report it.

So what can you do if we think someone you care about is being subjected to abuse or is experiencing Battered Woman Syndrome?

  • Heird advises that you listen and be supportive. Acknowledge they are in a very difficult and scary situation and reassure them that they are not alone. Let them know the abuse is not their fault. Believe them and validate their experience. 
  • Respect their decisions regarding staying or leaving and don’t be judgmental about it. Don’t tell them what they “should do” or what you would do, because it is far easier to say that from the outside.  
  • Find ways to help empower them to make their own decisions. Build up their confidence and self-esteem.
  • Understand that if they end the relationship, they will still be mourning the end of it and may still feel sad and lonely. Be supportive and understanding.
  • Help them create a safety plan and identify resources in the community to help. Offer to go to places with them as a support system.
  • Remember that you cannot “rescue” them. As difficult as it is to see someone you love and care about in an abusive relationship, ultimately the decision for what they are going to do is up to them. We are more likely to be invested in decisions if we make them ourselves. Continue to support them and offer resources and help.

Held Law Firm tries to remain conscious of the fact that some of our clients may be leaving an abusive relationship or dealing with Battered Woman Syndrome. We work with an extensive network of counselors while striving to be a strong, effective, and sensitive advocate for anyone experiencing abuse at the hands of a partner or family member.

If you want to know what to expect when trying to escape an abusive situation, here is some basic information about what to do and the resources you have available. The Knoxville area’s confidential 24-hour Family Violence Helpline is 865-521-6336. The Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee is also a confidential 24-hour number and can be reached at 865-521-6336. The sexual assault crisis line is 865-521-6336.

Blog by Faith Held. Information on Emily Heird's practice can be found at