Essay, Research Paper: Battered Women

Psychology

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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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