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The Cycle of Abuse:

Why Awareness of Battered Woman Syndrome is Important

By Terran Smith

For 18 years, Mary Metz lost her identity to the control of an abuser. She was beaten, humiliated and isolated. Like many battered women, she thought she’d never escape the cycle of abuse

But she did. She escaped victimization and became a survivor.

Now 60-years old, and 15 years removed from her tormentor, Mary helps others battle through Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) as both a survivor and an advocate for The Willow Domestic Violence Center in Lawrence.

Awareness of Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) helps people to better recognize, understand and even overcome the cycle of abuse.

“Recognition is one thing and acknowledgement is another, but you can’t acknowledge a problem if you can’t recognize it,” Mary said.

The cycle of abuse follows a pattern of abusive behavior.

Power and Control Wheel
Click here for other informative wheels provided by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“It starts out with controlling, second is tension building, third is the violence stage, and fourth is the honeymoon stage.” Mary said. “It follows an addictive cycle. The same elements in an abusive relationship are present in addictive behaviors.”

A common misconception about domestic violence is women choose to stay in abusive relationships.

There’s a belief system in society that women look for these types of relationships,” Becca Burns, director of volunteer services with The Willow, said. “With battered woman syndrome, it is not something that is inherent in the woman, but is caused by continuous abuse.”

BWS is defined as “a pattern of signs and symptoms, such as fear and a perceived inability to escape, appearing in women who are physically and mentally abused over an extended period by a husband or other dominant individual,” according to the Farlex Medical Dictionary.

Symptoms of the syndrome also include:

  • denial
  • detachment
  • guilt
  • isolation
  • depression/anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • general inability to cope with life’s demands

Along with denial, Mary said she displayed other characteristics of the disorder.

“I had all of the symptoms of BWS even though I didn’t recognize them as such,” Mary said. “I didn’t know who to ask if our relationship was normal because many women are lumped together, rather than understanding that it’s an actual illness.”

She was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the parent category of BWS.

“What my diagnosis says to me is that an outside force caused mental and emotional scars along with the physical ones,” Mary said. “It’s appropriate to have a label that explicates you were terrorized, that the mental health community acknowledges it and that it is not your fault.”

“These Hands Don’t Hurt,” artwork by children of The Willow

While many survivors aren’t diagnosed with BWS, being informed of the syndrome helps to understand and overcome experience of abuse. It is more difficult to justify behavior of an abuser when looking at symptoms of a disorder instead of the actions of the abuser.

“It’s easier to identify your feelings rather than trying to identify abuse,” Burns said.

Volunteers at The Willow are often frustrated when survivors return to abusers.

“By understanding these symptoms, it would help volunteers be more patient and helpful to survivors,” Rachel, a volunteer advocate for the shelter, said.

Along with survivors and volunteers, it is equally important for the community to understand BWS. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Organization, “One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.”

If community awareness of BWS spreads, people would be more likely and able to distinguish between abusive and normal behavior.

“Many people haven’t heard of the cycle of abuse or BWS,” Rachel said. “Understanding the disorder would better inform the public – especially for people in unhealthy relationships and unaware of it.”

Understanding of BWS in the community is also important to provide support for survivors of domestic abuse.

“Ultimately, what a survivor needs, whether experiencing BWS or not, is understanding and validation that their experience is real,” Burns said. “It’s critical that anyone, whether community members or someone at The Willow, be a supportive person for them no matter what.”

Click here to visit The Willow Domestic Violence Center’s Website.

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