Dear Carolyn:

I am most concerned about my best girlfriend from college. We both got married, but we have kept in touch with each other. When she started dating the guy she later married, I was concerned about his character. Something just was not right but I could not put my finger on it. Today, I learned what I feared. She is a long-term victim of domestic violence, some incidents serious. One was a broken bone. I’ve even found she has a medical diagnosis of adult abuse and the doctor’s note suggests battered wife syndrome. What is this battered wife syndrome? What should I expect? How can I help my friend?


Carolyn Answers:

Domestic abuse is a serious matter, and one not to be taken lightly. Sometimes, it is almost unimaginable. Mystery abounds. Why does one person hurt someone they love? And, moreover, why does someone who is hurt stay with the abuser? There are four types of abuses: physical, sexual, emotional/psychological and neglect. The cycle of violence is a repetition of the following: 1) tension building, 2) acute violence, 3) reconciliation/honeymoon, 4) calm. And then, it starts over. In Guilford County, North Carolina, one can start with Family Service of the Piedmont or the Justice Center, both in downtown Greensboro.

This column will focus on repetitive physical abuse that has led to battered woman syndrome. The medical diagnosis is adult physical abuse, ICD 9 code 995.81. Battered woman syndrome may be considered a subcategory of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although all women do not necessarily meet the DSM criteria for PTSD. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in four women and one in nine men become victims of domestic violence in the United States. Fifteen percent of all violent crime involves a romantic partner. According to the CDC, from 2003 to 2014, more than half of all homicides of adult women in the United States involved intimate partner violence.

However, please note that physical abuse is frequently accompanied by emotional abuse, so knowing a bit about emotional abuse is critical. Emotional abuse may have one or more of the following effects: 1) core feeling of worthlessness, 2) difficulty regulating emotions, 3)difficulty establishing trust, 4) regression, 5) sleep disorders; and/or 6) trouble developing relationships with others. Now to the battered or physically abused person.

Sexual abuse (unwanted sexual abuse) is also a form of physical abuse, although physical abuse also involves shoving, burning, slapping or the use of a weapon.

Battered woman syndrome is the signs and injuries of mistreatment seen in a woman who has been repeatedly abused by a spouse, partner or relative. Notice, the abuser is someone who is in a position of trust with the victim. The abused partner has the irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient. And the abused partner feels at fault and that it is not the fault of the abuser.

What is incredible to me is that the victim has great difficulty in leaving, even though the victim may feel unsafe and unhappy. The reasons the victim fails to leave are complex, but in part must rest on believing the victim is the problem.

Psychotherapist Lenore Walker “created” the idea of the battered woman syndrome in the late 1970s.

The solution: Get help. Unfortunately, the victim in the middle of the domestic violence home does not likely realize that real help is available. Exiting an abusive relationship can be daunting. The victim must be helped. And if possible, the victim must plan.

Save some money, if possible. Lack of financial resources is frequently a problem.

Be calm when you explain your situation to an advocate and a lawyer. Victims of long-term domestic violence are often excitable and this can be misread by mental health professionals as some other kind of problem. To that end, the victim needs specifics of events and actions he/she has taken to keep the family safe. A notebook (or computer file) of organized information will be helpful to those you encounter that can provide help.

Get treatment. It can take quite a while for a victim to process the impact of the abuse.

The Federal Violence Against Women Act, implemented in 2005, made abuse a violation of a woman’s human rights.




Send your questions on family law and divorce matters to “Ask Carolyn” at, or P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro, NC 27427. Please do not put identifying information in your questions. Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your individual case. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn”. “Ask Carolyn” is a regular column, but not necessarily weekly.