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Battered Women: Why Do They Stay?

What police officers can do to help stop the cycle of violence.

October 01, 2000  |  by Stephen J. Ziegler, J.D.

She walks into the police station, pregnant, and with two children in tow.  Her face is swollen, her hair matted with blood.  In an enraged voice she tells the police that she is tired of being beaten, wants her boyfriend arrested, and promises to prosecute this time.  Although they have heard all of this five times before, the police nevertheless take pictures and her statement, suspecting all along that the case will never see the inside of a courtroom.

Sound familiar?  Unfortunately, the above scenario is all too common.  As a former police officer and assistant prosecutor I always had trouble understanding why battered women remain in abusive relationships.  For instance, while working as a uniformed officer, it was quite common for the female victim to demand that I arrest her assailant. But during the process of effecting that arrest, she would often turn on me as if I were the bad guy.  Moreover, after working as an assailant prosecutor, I became even more surprised when the victim not only demanded that the charges against her abuser be dropped, she would even go so far as testifying on his behalf.

After several of these episodes, it came as no surprise that police, prosecutors, and judges would often wonder why they even bothered.  Besides, if she is really being abused, why does she stay?

The Battered Woman Syndrome

There is one particular theory that helps to explain the behavior of battered women and why they act in ways which are contrary to their own interests.  That theory is known as the "Battered Woman Syndrome" and it remains one of the most popular theories in criminal cases today.  First introduced by Dr. Lenore Walker in 1979, the syndrome consist of two separate parts:

I. Cycle of Violence

The cycle of violence has three distinct phases: The first phase, tension building, is characterized by the abuser subjecting the woman to verbal abuse and possibly some minor battering.  The victim responds to his behavior by pacifying him in an attempt to prevent escalation.

The relationship then progresses to the second phase, the acute battering incident, and this is where the woman is "subjected to brutal violence" to the point of either causing death or severe injuries.  Following this violent outburst, the cycle of violence moves into the third phase.  It is during this phase that the abuser becomes apologetic and will often promise never to do it again.  Unfortunately, the battered woman believes his promise and soon discovers that this third phase is really the beginning of the first all over again.

II. Learned Helplessness

After being subjected to recurring cycles of violence in her home, the battered woman becomes psychologically unable to leave.  In effect, she has become a hostage in her own home and sees her chances at escape as hopeless.

Learned helplessness was originally discovered by Dr. Martin Seligman, an experimental psychologist.  Several years ago, Seligman placed dogs in cages and subjected them to a continuing series of electrical shocks.  The dogs, unable to avoid the shocks and unable to escape, "became passive and stopped trying to resist."

Walker subsequently incorporated this discovery and theory into the battered woman syndrome and, taken with the cycle of violence, it helps to explain why a battered woman does not leave.

However, according to Lisa Estrella, a licensed social worker at the Tarrant County Women's Shelter, in Arlington, Texas, even if a woman could leave, that does not mean that the violence from her abuser would end.  This cautionary note is echoed by Staci Bobrofsky of the Council Against Domestic Assault (CADA).  "The question: 'Why don't battered women just leave? ' is based on the incorrect assumption that leaving will end the violence.  It also assumes that the family home is not hers, but his, and he has the right to drive her out of it."  She added, "There are many reasons why a woman who is battered may stay in an abusive relationship."  Reasons cited by Bobrofsky include lack of resources and social support, false hope that her partner will change, shame, the batterer's destruction of ties with family and friends, and lack of child care and support from courts or other criminal justice personnel.  She also noted, "More battered women are murdered while attempting to flee from their abusers than at any other time."  Consequently, instead of asking why she stays, we should, as Bobrofsky put it, "begin asking the question 'why doesn't he stop hitting her?'"

But even if she does leave, officers may discover that she has returned to her abuser.  Estrella said that battered women often "leave and return several times before they are finally able to leave for good."

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