Psychological Factors in the Longitudinal Course of Battering: When Do the Couples Split Up? When Does the Abuse Decrease?

Article excerpt

The longitudinal course of battering was investigated over a 2-year time span. Forty-five batterers and their spouses were assessed with self-report, psychophysiological, and marital interaction measures. Both the stability of the relationship and of the battering were assessed. At the two-year follow-up, 62% of the couples were still married and living together, while 38% had separated or divorced. A combination of six variables, reflecting severity of husband emotional abuse, wife dissatisfaction, husband physiological arousal, and wife defending herself assertively, was 90.2% accurate in predicting separation or divorce 2 years later. Of the couples still living together at follow-up, 46% of the batterers did not reduce their levels of severe violence, while 54% did significantly decrease levels of violence. Husbands who continued to be severely violent at 2-year follow-up were more domineering, globally negative and emotionally abusive toward their wives at Time 1 than husbands who reduced their levels of violence. Even though 54% of the batterers decreased the frequency of violent acts over the 2-year period, only 7% achieved complete desistance. Moreover, husband emotional abuse did not decrease over the 2-year period, even when physical abuse did.

Although married women have been battered by their husbands throughout the history of civilization, social and behavioral scientists have only been conducting research in this area for the past 20-25 years. National surveys reveal the magnitude of the problem: an estimated 2 million wives are severely beaten by their partners each year (Straus & Gelles, 1990). Data on homicides indicate that women are more likely to be killed by their male partners than any other category of perpetrator (Browne & Williams, 1993). Although much progress has been made over the past two decades in gathering facts about domestic violence, there remain many unanswered questions. One area that has received very little attention is how violent relationships change over time. In the marital interaction literature, we can predict, with startling accuracy, which couples will eventually divorce. (Gottman 1995)

To the extent that we can understand the processes by which battering relationships end, or the factors that determine decreases in violence, policy makers, law enforcement officials, and psychotherapists would have empirical guidance for decisions about how to prosecute, punish, and treat batterers. Cross-sectional research provides some clues into the future of an abusive relationship, but only longitudinal studies can provide an empirical basis allowing for the prediction of outcomes for batterers and battered women.

The stability of violent relationships has undergone investigation, with recent studies finding that violent relationships may not be as stable as previously thought. For example, of 187 abused women in a shelter interviewed by Okun (1986), over 43% ended their relationships within 2 years. As another example, Schwartz (1988) interviewed 639 women who reported experiencing spousal assault at some point in their lives. A substantial number of these victims were either divorced (31.8%) or separated (46.9%) at the time of the interview. The apparent instability of these relationships leads to curiosity about how the process of separation or divorce unfolds. Speculation about the termination of abusive relationships has traditionally been fueled by investigations in which battered women are the sole focus of analysis, such as asking women in retrospect why they left, or what contributed to their decision to leave (see reviews by Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, & Sandin, in press; Strube, 1988). Such factors as financial influence or status have been considered, with studies finding that women who are employed are more likely to leave an abusive relationship (Strube & Barbour, 1983, 1984). Studies investigating the severity and frequency of violence have had mixed results, with some studies finding less severe and less frequent violence more highly correlated with a woman staying with her partner (Gelles, 1976), and other studies finding that the more severe the physical injuries, the longer women remained with their spouses (Hilbert & Hilbert, 1984; Pagelow, 1981). …