She lay wrapped in a sheet on a narrow cot at the shelter, a middle-aged woman with a fractured shoulder and two cracked ribs, her eyes dulled by painkillers and emotional hurt. Two days before, her husband of 21 years--6 feet, 4 inches tall, weighing 370 pounds--had beaten her with a bar of soap in a sock, the gray-haired, 165-pound woman said.

Down the hall, in another bedroom of the rambling old house that is called My Sister's Place, a District shelter for battered women, a 52-year-old mother of 12-year-old twin daughters was recuperating from a black eye and swollen jaw she said was inflicted by her common-law husband.

He began beating her when she was pregnant with the girls, who later also became victims of their father's violence, she said. One twin was whipped with a broad leather belt that left the imprint of its double-pronged metal buckle on her thigh and the other girl walks crookedly because of a dislocated pelvis, an injury she received when her father kicked her with his combat boot, the mother said.

Despite the brutality, his drinking and his refusal to work, the woman said she did not leave her man until she heard her daughters cry out: " 'Mom, daddy's in our bedroom. Daddy's touching us in the wrong place.' "

These two victims are among the more than 1 million women in this country, by conservative estimates, who are physically abused by their husbands or male companions each year, according to a report last January by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The report called wife-beating "a civil rights problem of overwhelming magnitude" that is under-reported and receives inadequate attention.

Washington is expected soon to have expanded legal remedies--similar to laws already in effect in most states--for the victims of such abuse. Legislation to better protect battered victims, which was passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Marion Barry last month, is pending in Congress.

But the legal response is only one facet of an age-old problem that is difficult to define and even harder to measure, one that is complicated and perpetuated by economic and social circumstances as well as psychological and emotional factors, experts on the subject say.

The extent of spouse abuse in the District, as elsewhere, is unknown. My Sister's Place is an 18-resident facility that keeps its address secret so that battered women who seek refuge there--most of them are referred from social service agencies and the police--cannot be found by their abusers. It is usually filled to capacity, according to executive director Janice Moore. She agrees with estimates that one in four women experience some kind of abuse in the course of a marriage or domestic arrangement. For each woman a shelter takes in, seven are turned away, according to statistics cited by the Center for Women's Policy Studies.

About 6,500 of the 10,000 complaints filed annually at the Citizens Complaint Center of D.C. Superior Court involve domestic violence, according to director Noel Brennan. Many are referred to the corporation counsel, the city's attorneys, for court orders to stop the abuse. Others are sent to mediation or to counseling. Of the 600 cases involving serious injury that are forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution, "a lot of them will be repeaters," said Jim Owen, chief of the misdemeanor trial section.

Although spouse abuse is not a new issue, "We are still essentially trying to get the same message out, that it is a serious issue, that it is a social problem, not just one of individual pathology," said Mary Morrison, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The battered woman can be any woman. Abused women interviewed recently included whites and blacks, married and common-law spouses, college graduates and the barely educated, mothers and childless women. Poor or minority victims often are more visible because they must rely on public institutions for help and because they tend to live in more crowded housing where their abuse is more public. But abuse isn't limited to the poor.

The hotline at My Sister's Place is often used by "women whose husbands own businesses or are colonels in the military," Moore said. One woman married to a clergyman for 23 years had no part of her body "that hadn't been broken or lacerated," she said.

Lydia Egan, a social worker and clinical administrator of Family Stress Services in Georgetown, said she sees "an incredible amount of violence among high-income families of lawyers, doctors, and professionals of all different ethnic and religious backgrounds."

Yet a reluctance to leave their situations is common to almost all those who are abused. "I believe if a lot of women in D.C. knew they don't have to stay in homes where they are abused , they wouldn't," said Meshall Thomas, coordinator of domestic relations policy for the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

The abused woman may feel shame, guilt and responsibility for the one who hurts her and for his behavior. "Most women who call here are on a guilt trip: 'It must have been something I said that made him hit me,' " Thomas said.

The women interviewed lamented their bruises and broken bones, scars and dashed expectations, then paradoxically gave understanding and sympathetic accounts of the men who caused them.

At My Sister's Place, one battered woman who left her fiance said she felt guilty about abandoning him because he was depending on her to help him buy a house and start a business.

"As much degradation as he put me through, I don't want to put him through any degradation," she said. "As stupid as that sounds, that's just how I feel."

Repeated violence, whether it is verbal, physical or emotional, lowers a person's self-esteem, Egan explained, "and what happens is that the victim ends up very guilty, and starts feeling sorry for the person who has assaulted her. . . . She may feel she actually deserves it."

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that many women are trapped in situations "that pose a tangible threat to life and well being," because they fear the husband will pursue and punish them or that they have no safe place to go. Many are concerned for their children's welfare or do not trust legal remedies. "She feels she has no choice but to make the best of a situation that usually worsens," the study said. And many of the women who do leave their mates eventually return to them.

Owen said about 85 percent of the cases referred to the U.S. Attorney's office are dropped by the victim before trial "no matter how egregious the violence."

Egan attributes that pattern to battered women's "great need for having things be all right . . . when he is not beating her up he is very kind and loving, a good father."

"I know my son wonders why he is so good to him, like a Santa Claus, and so mean to me," said the mother of a 9-year-old. Pregnant with his second child, she calls her husband "a deadly snake," and "a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but she will not leave him.

"I don't like to give up," she said. She said her mother "finally lost her mind" after years of beatings by her father. The younger woman, who has been hospitalized twice because of her husband's kicks and blows, said he once beat her with a broom handle that "popped the skin," leaving her arm in slices.

"I'm sacrificing something for my child," she said. "I worry about the second child. . . . I avoid all the things I know will make him mad."

Many of the women who show up at My Sister's Place to escape abuse are pregnant. "That's a time of high stress in families," explained Moore. They are also frequently the daughters of abused women, she said.

For "social, legal, financial and emotional reasons , the women, as well as men, who are also sometimes victims of family abuse, want to believe things will get better," so the battered women return, said Nan Huhn, chief of the juvenile division of the corporation counsel's office. "Sometimes the situations do get better, most of the time they do not."

Economic conditions also make it hard for women to leave. The $225 a month in Aid to Families With Dependent Children allotted a woman with one child is inadequate, explained Moore, of My Sister's Place. "So they say, 'For my kids I'll take the risk and I hope he's not going to kill me.' "

"The ultimate effect" of a shortage of affordable housing in the District, Morrison said, "is to drive women back to their abusers."

"The worst thing a woman can ever experience is to . . . hear your kids screaming or your daughter in hysterics" during an assault, said the mother of a boy, 12, and a girl, 9. "I'd rather die than to have to relive that." During five years of abuse, she said she was pushed down a flight of stairs and "taken out in the woods and whipped with a tree limb . . . but when you're trying to keep your family together this is one of the main reasons you stay."

Under current District law, only the corporation counsel's office can seek a civil protective order, a judicial remedy that may require the abuser to stay away from the victim, seek psychiatric help or take other steps. The amended law, now pending in Congress, would allow victims to seek protective court orders on their own or with a private attorney. It extends these safeguards to women who are abused by men other than their husbands, including blood relatives, current or recent lovers and roommates.

Councilman David A. Clarke, a sponsor of the bill now before Congress, said the civil protection order that was intended as an alternative to criminal procedures against family members has not worked because of "the lethargy of the government. The corporation counsel finds himself spread too thin and this is the area that is sacrificed."

The amended law, expected to take effect in September, also would allow the court to order the abuser to move out of the home, to designate temporary custody of children, set visitation rights and order the police to help enforce civil protection orders, now the responsibility of U.S. marshals.

"This legislation will give the woman the sign that somebody is going to do more than give lip service, that police will do more than tell the man to walk around the block a few minutes and everything will be all right," said the Rev. Imagene Stewart, founder of the House of Imagene, a temporary shelter for battered men and women.

Stewart, who said she was once driven from her home by an abusive husband, believes "there is a difference in the hard-core inner city than in the white community, when you are dealing with domestic violence. A lot of white women will go the legal route, but most of the black women that I have come in contact with, they go right back to their men."

Spouse abuse also has a distinctive nature among Hispanic immigrants, according to Maria Elena Orrego, head of the domestic violence program at Andromeda, the Hispanic mental health center in Adams-Morgan. She estimated that half of the 50,000 to 70,000 Hispanic population in Washington has some domestic violence problem.

Orrego said one significant cause of marital turmoil among immigrants is that the women usually find jobs more readily than men, while in their home countries women traditionally remained at home, "and the men do not know how to react to that."

The victims of abuse are not always women, experts are careful to point out. One of Thomas' clients is a man "6-2 and weighs 300 pounds--his wife is 145 pounds soaking wet"--who once came to her with a gash in his head where he was struck with an ashtray. Although he has "developed a case of ulcers, he "has never retaliated because he was taught not to hit a woman," she said. The man does not want to leave because "he wants to see his child grow up," Thomas said.

"It's a classic case," Thomas said, with the usual roles reversed.