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How Battered Woman Syndrome Could Backfire in Courts

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is recognized as a legitimate mental disorder and a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is often used as a defense in court for women in abusive relationships who killed their husbands. However, it can backfire if there was no immediate episode of abuse that immediately preceded the murder.

How Do People Get Involved in Abusive Relationships

People often wonder how victims of domestic abuse can get into these situations in the first place. The fact is that many abusers are very charming. They come on strong, with heavy doses of romance to progress the relationship along as quickly as possible before their true nature reveals itself. Learn more about factors that contribute to domestic violence and how victims find themselves in these difficult to escape situations.

Stages of Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome is a serious condition that affects women in abusive relationships. There are four main stages of BWS.


In the first stage, a woman denies the abuse or tries to minimize its importance. She convinces herself that it was a "one-time thing" or that he "didn't mean to do it" or that he "just had too much to drink." She tries to convince herself that she is not actually in an abusive relationship and everything is fine.


In this stage, the victim takes responsibility for the abuse. She is convinced that she brought the abuse down upon herself. A common theme is that the victim feels she should know better than to bother her abuser when they are in that kind of mood. This is all just another way to defend abusive behavior.

There are multiple reasons for wanting to excuse that behavior. A woman may still love her abuser and not want to believe they are a bad person. A woman may feel she is obligated to stay in the relationship because they have children. She wants to believe if she changes her behavior, then things will change.

A woman may prefer to think of herself as the one at fault because she would rather take responsibility for the abuse than admit that her partner had tricked her into believing they were a good person and made a fool of her.


In this stage, the victim finally comes to terms with reality. She accepts that her partner is not a good person and that she was not deserving of abuse. She admits her partner is the one with a problem.


At this point, the victim accepts that all of the responsibility for the abuse lies with her partner. She comes to terms with the fact that she needs to get out of the abusive relationship by any means necessary.

Battered Woman Syndrome as a Defense

Battered woman syndrome has been used as a defense in court for women who have killed their husbands, with varying degrees of success. BWS falls under the broader scope of self-defense, and it is used in situations where a woman feels there is no way out of the abusive situation that could cost her her life. It has been argued quite successfully in many cases where a woman was confronted by her abusive partner and feared for her life.

However, this strategy of defense can backfire when the woman who killed her partner is not deemed to be in immediate danger at the time of the killing. Courts will often view this more as premeditated murder than self-defense and charge the woman accordingly.

A lawyer may argue that the victim of abuse felt no other way out of the situation that threatened her life. They will argue that she didn't feel there was anywhere she could go where her abuser wouldn't find her. She may also not feel confident that the system would put her partner away for long enough to provide her with any real chance of escape.

A lawyer may claim that the psychological damage done by the abuser goes beyond a single instance. They may bring in a psychiatrist or psychologist to attest to the fact that the abuse had caused the psychosis that led to the killing. Even with expert testimony, it can be difficult to convince a jury that someone who kills when not being immediately threatened is doing so out of self-defense.

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